Monday, June 28, 2010

David Weigel, Journolist, and the Washington Post

There's so much to say, but let's start with this little dare from Weigel in his self-congratulatory, "I shall return" essay for Big Government:
No serious journalist has defended the leak of my private e-mails; no one who works in politics or journalism would accept a situation where the things they said off the record could immediately become public. (Side note: On a conservative listserv, there is, apparently, an internal debate going on about leaks, after I learned of its existence and content. These conservatives have not opted to publish their private e-mails, and they shouldn’t.) But no serious journalist — as I want to be, as I am — should be so rude about the people he covers.
I'll take that action. Not only is the leak of Weigel's rantings defensible, it was nearly a professional duty for any serious reporters who witnessed them on Journolist. Not doing so is like having been at the infamous Strom Thurmond birthday party and deciding not to mention what Trent Lott said. Weigel was revealing himself on a (semi?) frequent basis to be something opposite what he was advertising to readers and the public. He was making himself a story. Hiding behind some sort of Journolist Omerta policy wouldn't fly for a person of note who was overheard making bigoted remarks at a private club. It shouldn't shield Weigel. Whoever leaked his writings was a whistleblower performing a public service.

(Also, "private emails" is a deceptive term of art. What Weigel was doing was more akin to posting on a bulletin board that he believed could never be seen by outsiders. Writing something that is read by a circle of 400 people, at least some of whom you have never had any formal contact with, is not sending a "private email.)

The Weigel incident creates so many unhappy questions--about why 20-somethings are encouraged to pontificate instead of report; about why the Post never even bothered to call someone at Reason and ask about their prospective hire; about why any media employer would tolerate reporters being participants in a project like Journolist. One of the niggling questions that bothers me is why, in the wake of scandal, people feel the need to air-brush fallen bright young things. Remember all the chin-tugging about Jayson Blair? Oh sure, he was a plagiarist (fabulist?), but it was a double tragedy because he was such an immense talent! Ditto Stephen Glass. There's a lot of this going around with Weigel: Oh, sure, he was privately a jerk making terribly uncouth generalizations about people he was supposed to be covering fairly, but the real tragedy is that he was such a great reporter!

Really? Maybe by the standards of blogging. I can't claim intimacy with his entire oeuvre, but I can't think of a single, blockbuster piece of Weigel's. David Grann? Great reporter. Matt Labash? Great reporter. Mark Bowden? Great reporter. On the next level down you have guys like Ryan Lizza and Tom Edsall. Below that, guys like the Politico crew and the platoon that does NYT and WSJ work. (Go read Brooks Barnes some time to see what great, every-day reporting looks like.) Below that I'd put a class of writers who deal with numbers and theory, as opposed to personalities and palace intrigue--people like Michael Barone and Jay Cost. They don't pound the shoe leather, but they spend a lot of time researching what they write.

It seems safe to say that Weigel would be so far down the list that it's not even worth doing the math. What people mean, I suppose, is that compared to other 20-something bloggers, Weigel makes more than the average number of phone calls and goes on more than the average number of field trips. And hey, that's great. We'd rather have more of that in the blog world. But let's not re-touch this in post to make him into Bob Woodward. Or Jeff Toobin. Or even Adam Nagourney, for that matter.

Finally, there's Ezra Klein's explanation that he needed to keep Journolist a liberals-only group in order to make it a safe-space, trust-tree, etc. This seems exactly wrong.

Being free from the consequences of your writing is rarely a good thing. Take a look at message boards that allow anonymous comments. It allows discourse to devolve into, well, ratfucking and back-biting. The best way to have kept a group like Journolist civil and productive would have been to put people together who had reason to mistrust one another. It would have encouraged self-policing and, if the circle was well-chosen, might have gotten participants to engage with the best of each other's arguments, rather than the worst. By larding up with fellow-travelers and pretending that the dialogue would always-and-forever be off-the-record, Klein was creating a rant box, doomed to implode exactly as it now has.

For whatever it's worth, the idea of having smart people openly engaging one another on topics of great import and in good faith is worth pursuing. And there is a fantastic conservative version of it, too.

It's called the Claremont Review of Books.

Update: Say what you will about Ross Douthat, but he'll never be a traitor to his class. After defending Weigel initially, Douthat now calls Weigel's "I shall return" essay "a model mea culpa: Forthright and self-critical rather than defensive and self-justifying." Sure.
"I’m a reporter. I’ve been a reporter since high school."
"It was the hubris of someone who rose — objectively speaking — a bit too fast . . ."
"Anyone who wanted to force me out of this business will have to settle for the consolation prize of me having to tediously inform sources of a new e-mail address."
And that leaves aside Weigel's coloring of his firing from Reason to make himself a martyr--which does not square with Matt Welch's version of events.

Douthat then defends Weigel by saying that lots of other Journolist participants surely said worse and didn't lose their jobs, so Weigel shouldn't have lost his. Okay. Of course, there are people walking around today who committed murder and were never caught. Should the justice system not prosecute someone who is discovered committing robbery? 

Finally, Douthat can't help referring to Weigel as a "talented reporter." QED, this says more about Douthat's work, than it does about Weigel's.


denbeste said...

The Rules:

1. Treat every gun as if it is loaded.
2. Treat every microphone as if it is live.
3. Treat every camera as if it is running.
4. There is no such thing as "off the record".

tom said...

Denbeste's comment misses the point. Weigel got his job at the Post because of Klein et al. He probably got his job before that for the same reason. And he probably will get his next job for the same reason. And it may have been exactly his over-eager willingness to make fun of conservatives that made people like and notice him and want him to be in positions to report on them. Journolist has been very useful as a networking opportunity for people like Douthat (even if not a member, he was pre-vetted for the Times), Weigel, and more.

Maybe Weigel could have toned down some of his posts on the listserv. But if the mocking tone was what his liberal friends with power responded to, then how to know?

Also, Jonathan Last sounds like he thinks there could be a good conserva-liberta-liberal listserv. But it would still have the huge problem of working under a club's view of insiders and outsiders who can't be allowed to know.

Why are so many people so attracted to the idea of a privileged group of thinkers who hash things out together before deciding what to say to the public?

James said...

And here I thought "ratfucking" was exclusively a military phrase. Sample usage: "I got stuck at work during chow, but I ratfucked Col Dorko's desk for some potato chips."