Returning from long travels and a week’s vacation abroad, I waded in to catch up on the Washington-Post-fires-Dave-Weigel tempest and was quickly swamped by the sheer volume of thoughtful commentary.
I’ll conclude this post with a roundup. But for now let me just dig a bit into this bizarre Post ombudsman column on the affair.
It shouldn’t have been that hard to explain why the paper fired Weigel, a talented young journalist-blogger: he’d made some rude comments about some of the people he covered on an ostensibly private email list. Somebody leaked them, and now Weigel is out of a job, and the mailing list — Ezra Klein’s Journolist — is shuttered too.
It seems self-evident to me that Weigel had been hired to placate the right, even though he was plainly not a movement conservative himself. Now he’d gone and shot his mouth off in a way that enraged the right; he no longer served the Post’s needs. And he gave an opening for the faction at the Post that thinks, even at this late date, that this newfangled blogging stuff ought to be curtailed. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg quotes (anonymous) members of this faction and suggests that, in its rush to embrace blogs, the Post “now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training.”
I’m going to resist pointing out how effective the Post’s adult supervision and excretory skills were during the Iraq war buildup, because I want to move on to ombudsman Andrew Alexander’s explanation of the Post’s move, which takes us into strange new territory in the whole bloggers-vs.-journalists realm.
The Weigel affair, Alexander writes, “raises questions about whether The Post has adequately defined the role of bloggers like Weigel. Are they neutral reporters or ideologues?”
Ahh. Those are the two options in the Post newsroom? No wonder the paper is having such trouble!
Alexander goes on to quote Post managing editor Raju Narisetti, whose explanation of the firing offers one headscratcher after another.
“I don’t think you need to be a conservative to cover the conservative movement,” Narisetti told me late today. “But you do need to be impartial… in your views.”
Hold on: If Narisetti wants someone “impartial” covering the conservative movement, that would disqualify any actual conservative from the job, right?
More from Narisetti:
“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.'”
I had to read that one twice, but yes, Narisetti does indeed seem to be proposing that the Post screen hires by making sure that they have never expressed any potentially upsetting opinions in private! If you’re going to work for the Post, anything you’ve ever said in private might be held against you. Aspiring Supreme Court nominees have to make sure they leave no paper trails; aspiring Post employees, it seems, would have to leave no signs of mental life, period.
Now, the Post has a long tradition of telling reporters to limit their own political expression outside the paper, and this makes sense up to a point. But this is a paper whose former managing editor, Leonard Downie, once claimed, “I stopped having even private opinions about politicians or issues so that I would have a completely open mind in supervising our coverage.” (I’ve always wondered how, exactly, Downie achieved this advanced level of self-abnegation without benefit of either Zen enlightenment or frontal lobotomy.)
Of course, good journalism is not produced by ciphers. The best journalism emerges from the volatile engagement between the minds of smart, curious reporters and the realities they encounter as they witness events and interview participants. Neither “neutral” nor “ideologue,” such a journalist is simply a human being.
Rather than vainly struggle to decide whether its bloggers ought to be “neutral reporters” or “ideologues,” I’d suggest that the Post simply lets them be bloggers — writers with a point of view that emerges, post by post. Since they are bloggers employed by the Washington Post, they will also be bloggers who do journalism, and that means they have a responsibility to aim for accuracy and fairness and to grapple with whatever the world throws at them that challenges their point of view. (Yes, they should also be savvy enough about the online medium to understand that comments to private mailing lists are unlikely to remain private forever.)
Ironically, my only occasional reading of Weigel’s blog left me with the sense that this is precisely the sort of journalist he is — a hard-working beat reporter in blogger’s clothes whose own perspective was never easy to pin down because he actually seemed to be trying to work it out. That the Post felt compelled to cut him loose suggests that the paper continues to sail into the future without a rudder.
For an example of how an august institution of journalism can embrace blogging without losing its bearings, just look at the Atlantic, which now has a vibrant corps of bloggers, nearly all of whom weighed in on the Weigel controversy. You could spend all day reading their posts, and many others, on this brouhaha. (I did.)
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf dissects the same incoherent ombudsman column I did, and argues that Weigel be judged on his body of work, not his email indiscretions.
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates sees “something much deeper at work here, something about the decline of privilege. This isn’t about the future of journalism. This is about people who don’t want to have to compete, or be held accountable for the falsehoods they write.”
Also at the Atlantic, Julian Sanchez finds “the lesson for young writers from all this: Be Tracy Flick. Don’t say anything remotely interesting, certainly not over e-mail. If you lack the mental discipline to completely suppress critical thought about people and institutions you spend your life covering, get good at pretending.”
Other Atlantic posts on Weigel: James Fallows, Marc Ambinder, Andrew Sullivan (“There is a war going on within American journalism”).
Matthew Yglesias addresses “the odd notion that the ideal reporter would be someone who actually doesn’t have opinions, as if ‘the facts’ were purely transparent and could be merely observed, processed, and then regurgitated into inverted pyramid form without passing through the muck of ‘judgment’ or ‘thoughts about the world.’ ”
Jim Henley sees this controversy as a run-in between the differing mindsets of newspaper and magazine journalists.
More takes from John McQuaid and Mayhill Fowler. Many of these links were culled from Jay Rosen’s extraordinarily valuable Twitter feed.
UPDATE: Technically, it seems, Weigel “resigned” rather than was “fired.” Meaning he submitted his resignation in the wake of controversy and his editors accepted it. They didn’t have to, of course, so I think the spirit of this thing is very much a firing.
- June 28, 2010 @ 06:55:01 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- June 27, 2010 @ 22:23:05 by Scott Rosenberg
Well said, sir. I read that Ombudsman column, and I think “bizarre” is just the right word. It seems I say it all too often: “Another day, another reason I canceled my Post subscription.”
You (the author) seem to have a larger issue with reporters getting caught expressing their actual views than in the BIAS currently underwriting what passes for journalism today. What’s the difference between a journalist and blogger? Well, the journalist is supposed to be UNIBIASED while bloggers present opinion. However, I can certainly present a great deal of credible evidence that so-called journalists exhibit such a great degree of bias in their ‘reporting’ that there does not seem to be any actual difference between them and bloggers. Especially when they get caught. By your theory Nixon’s mistake was in getting caught. How come no one is asking why Weigel would write for conservatives when he clearly holds his audience in contempt? Is that what liberals consider journalistic integrity?
Perhaps reporters should follow the advice of Polonius, “To thine own self be true”.
Really love what you’re creating here!