campaign desk

Look at Us!

Lessons from the response to the David Weigel flap
June 28, 2010

It’s been three days since David Weigel, the reporter and blogger best known for his coverage of the conservative movement, resigned from The Washington Post after intemperate remarks he’d made on a private e-mail list about some of his subjects were made public. In that time many smart things have been written and said about a reporter’s responsibilities—and the relationship between reporting, opinion, and analysis—in the modern media environment.

Some not-very-smart things have also been said. Unfortunately, several of the
latter have emanated from the precincts of Weigel’s erstwhile employer, which seems to understand it has to find a way to incorporate into its pages the intelligence and energy that is flourishing in some quarters of online political journalism—witness the hiring of Weigel, Ezra Klein, and Greg Sargent—but also to be determined to protect the sacraments of newspaper reporting as they are traditionally understood, for better and, unfortunately, for worse. Consider these thoughts from several anonymous Post staffers which were relayed Friday in a blog post by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg:

“This is not just sour grapes about the sudden rise of these untrained kids, though I have to think that some people in the building resent them for bypassing the usual way people rise here. This is really about the serial stupidity of allowing these bloggers to trade on the name of the Washington Post.”

“It makes me crazy when I see these guys referred to as reporters. They’re anything but. And they hurt the newspaper when they claim to be reporters.”

“Ezra Klein is a talented guy, but he’s just an absolute partisan. If this is where journalism has to go, so be it, but I don’t want to go there.”

“The lack of toilet-training is right. Everyone makes mistakes, but you can mitigate the number of mistakes through seasoning. Some people here are still put through seasoning, but others aren’t. It shows, and it’s embarrassing.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

(The commenters had apparently been moved to speak after reading an earlier, spectacularly misguided post by Goldberg, from which he later backtracked, twice.)

It is pretty clear those comments reflect not just a response to the current controversy, but a generalized dislike of the new crop of online journalists, one that’s not necessarily informed by a close reading of their output. (Other than founding the e-mail list from which Weigel’s remarks were leaked, and recommending Weigel to the Post, Klein had nothing to do with the recent episode. Meanwhile, though his stint at the Post may not represent his best work, Weigel is
clearly a talented reporter. He grabbed the story of a resurgent conservative movement sooner than almost anyone else, followed it to places many reporters didn’t know existed, and in both his straight reporting and analysis he brought fair-mindedness and a commitment to accuracy to the job.)

So what are the revanchists at the Post objecting to? A lot of things, probably, not least the professional threat posed by the relentlessly prolific Web-native crew. But I think the fault being found with folks like Weigel and Klein here is not only that they blur the lines between opinion, analysis, and reporting, or that they are too obvious about
what’s presumed to be the latent liberalism of the national press (a charge that’s incoherent as applied to Weigel, whose own politics are hardly those of a standard-issue liberal). It’s that they have cultivated a journalistic persona—an individual voice, a body of experience shared with readers, and a lens through which they view the world—that colors everything they do, from writing for the Post to writing on personal blogs to sending messages over Twitter, and that is not thoroughly subordinated to the institutional imperatives of the Post.

In other words, they’ve built their own brands, which put their selves at
the center of their work—as Maureen Tkacik writes in the cover story of the May/June issue of CJR, “one’s humanity is inescapable when one commits to blogging all day for a living.” It’s easy to see the economic advantages to them in doing so, and to see the advantages to the Post in acquiring those brands. It’s also easy to see why some Post staffers would object for reasons beyond self-interest: when one’s humanity is always on display, there are going to be some embarrassing moments, no matter how much “toilet-training” has been
provided, and those moments will reflect poorly on the institution.

But what the complaints don’t recognize is that this approach isn’t only about self-aggrandizement or a license for punditry (which, actually, didn’t appear often on Weigel’s “official” blog). It’s a response to the straitjacket of “traditional” journalism, which presumes that there is only one way to tell a given story, and that all professional journalists will converge on it. It’s a tool to get past false equivalence and he-said/she-said reporting and blandly written, conventional-wisdom-spewing “news analysis” stories, and of saying, “Here is what I, an intelligent, critical observer who has earned your trust (or not) by virtue of my prior work, find to be interesting, newsworthy, and true—and, as important, what I find to be not true.” It is one response to the very real editorial failures of political journalism, which too often result in mummified, sterile accounts that fail to inform readers of what is actually at stake. Here’s Tkacik again:

From a commercial perspective, “branding” has consistently bestowed its greatest rewards on those capable of projecting a kind of elusive authority that turns consumers’ fears, insecurities, aspirations, unarticulated dreams, etc. into healthy profit margins. But a sense of humanity is also a kind of authority. And maybe the best policy for our beaten-down population of journalists just naturally involves letting down the old guard of objectivity and letting go of illusions of unimpeachability. Rather than train journalists to dismiss their own experiences, what if we trained them to use those experiences to help them explain the news to their audience? Allow their humanity to shape their journalism? This isn’t some radically profound notion—it only seems that way in the context of the ridiculous zero-sum debate over the relative merits of “straight” news versus the self-absorbed nature of blogs. Maybe there is a way to combine the best of both.

Of course, the existence of this model does not mean that there are no rules (Weigel was right to apologize for some of his comments, and he’s now offered futher reflections on what he calls his “hubris”), and it does not mean that the journalist is allowed to be complacent and incurious (here,
Amy Sullivan, a frequent critic of media coverage of conservatives, presents an argument against Weigel on these grounds). Nor does it mean that we all must become persona-cultivating, brand-building bloggers in order to live up to our mission as truth-tellers—there are plenty of political journalists, including some at the Post, who pack insight and discernment into the standard forms.

But it does mean that institutions like the Post have both an opportunity and an obligation to take advantage of what this new model offers—to find a way to, as Tkacik writes, “combine the best of both.” Instead, at the first sign of trouble, they cut Weigel loose. And rather than thinking about how it might have made this experiment work—for example, by making clear to readers this was an experiment in a new form, or by providing support from an editor who could help Weigel navigate the shifting terrain—the Post seems determined to draw the wrong conclusions. A point-missing blog post by the paper’s ombudsman, Andy Alexander, contained this passage:

“I don’t think you need to be a conservative to cover the conservative movement,” [managing editor Raju] Narisetti told me late today. “But you do need to be impartial… in your views.”

He said that when Weigel was hired, he was vetted in the same way that other prospective Post journalists are screened. He interviewed with a variety of top editors, his writings were reviewed and his references were checked, Narisetti said.

“But we’re living in an era when maybe we need to add a level” of inquiry, he said. “It may be in our interests to ask potential reporters: ‘In private… have you expressed any opinions that would make it difficult for you to do your job.”

Who knows what that remark about being “impartial… in your views” is supposed to mean, or whether it would make any more sense without the ellipses; focus instead on that last line. If there is any reporter anywhere who has not expressed views in private, or on a bar stool, that might make it difficult for him to do his job were they made public—and I doubt that there is—he is barely a sentient human being, let alone a good journalist.

In the course of encountering the world people draw conclusions and form views, and a good journalist encounters more of the world than most folks. What’s happening now is that the fiction that those convictions don’t, or shouldn’t, shape the tasks of journalism is disappearing. That doesn’t mean that anything goes; it means we have an opportunity to establish a new set of journalistic values—one that valorizes fair-mindedness, intellectual honesty, and proving your point with serious reporting, and that accepts a variety of ways to achieve these goals. Weigel is not blameless here, but as a colleague said to me over the weekend, “If you’re the Post, you have to find a way for somebody like Dave to work.” The rest of journalism already is.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.