David Weigel is a talented young wordsmith who’s now the best-known discarded employee of The Washington Post since Janet Cooke, who was run off in 1981 for fabricating a Pulitzer Prize-winning story.
Weigel did nothing that bad. Actually, it’s not clear he did anything wrong. What is clear is that for three months he hosted a blog for The Post that chronicled conservative politics, and he was forced out two weeks ago amid complaints from the political right that he was ill-disposed toward the movement he covered.
Now, it’s troubling to think that the storied Washington Post doesn’t know how to deal with disgruntled sources without muzzling its staff, and opinion about the Weigel affair taps a whole vein of unresolved questions concerning journalism rights and wrongs in the New Media age:
– Did Weigel really foul his own nest by posting harsh words about conservative notables on JournoList, an invitation-only forum of the Beltway commentariat , and must journalists stop talking privately about what they cover?
– Should a news organization reassign reporters on the basis of their acceptability to the people they cover, or would that be relinquishing editorial control of its own coverage?
– Could Weigel write about people fairly if he had misgivings about their capacities or moral quality, or, alternatively, didn’t the public deserve the benefit of his doubts?
The end of Weigel’s Post gig seemed to come quickly, after a Fishbowl DC blogger named Betsy Rothstein on June 24 posted mildly disparaging comments he had made on JournoList about supporters of politician Ron Paul, uber-blogger Matt Drudge and the right-leaning Washington Examiner newspaper.
The next day Jonathan Strong on The Daily Caller disclosed harsher e-mails Weigel had written—most of them dating from before the Post hired him—touching on Tory eminences Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich. The Post accepted Weigel’s resignation later that day.
What seemed sudden wasn’t. Pressure had been building against Weigel. Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center told Politico he’d been urging a boycott since May. “We encouraged conservatives not to deal with him,” Gainor said. “We contacted other conservative organizations and said, ‘This guy is no friend of the conservative movement. We recommend that you deny him access.’ Some did.”
What was their beef? Was Weigel some closeted liberal posing as a man of the right and unleashed to do hatchet jobs on GOP bigshots? His friends say not. The self-description he sent to the Newsbusters site is of a political polymorph with libertarian roots, an ex-campus conservative, 2008 Ron Paul supporter, someone who relishes exposing splinter factions that are “clear threats to a sensible GOP and a strong conservative movement …”
And for all the wailing, nobody has said Weigel was unfair or inaccurate. The worst they say about his published work—not his private e-mails—is what critics always say about journalists: That they dwell excessively on the colorful and the outlandish (like the “birthers” who claim Obama is a foreign-born Muslim.) “He looked at the conservative movement as if he was visiting a zoo,” Gainor told Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander. “We’re more than that.”
So boil it down: One of the country’s most influential news organizations creates a blog covering, tweaking and commenting on the country’s most influential political movement. It hires a journalist with flair and extensive familiarity with the movement, who proceeds to rile up some of the faithful by not saying what they want said about them.
So they start fussing, and soon thereafter, thanks to the convenient leak of some intemperate but not inaccurate comments he made previously (and privately), he’s out.
Now, I think some element of muted antagonism is a boon to journalistic independence, since reporters constantly struggle against powerful, built-in incentives to soothe, fawn over, and otherwise suck up to the sources they routinely depend on. Satisfied sources make me uneasy.
What makes me even more uneasy is to see a once-great news organization musing, as Post managing editor Raju Narisetti suggested to ombudsman Alexander: “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?’ ”
Imagine a Post editor sacking Carl Bernstein in 1974 for muttering to Bob Woodward that President Nixon was a liar and a national disgrace.
Missing the point almost entirely, ombudsman Alexander wrote that while Weigel lost his job, “the bigger loss is The Post’s standing among conservatives.”
I wish I knew whether the Post is standing at all and, if it is, precisely what it is standing for.