Dave Weigel and the culture of exposure
The Friday buzz was all about the resignation of Washington Post reporter/blogger, Dave Weigel, after comments he made on the now-defunct liberal listserv, Journolist, which were disparaging to some conservative figures.
It appears the Post either didn’t realize Weigel was not a conservative (but rather a left-leaning libertarian) or that they were not aware that he was an opinion writer. Certainly off-color comments made in a listserv are not generally considered offenses worth firing someone over, especially someone well regarded as a fair and interesting reporter. This is not the sort of decision that a newspaper would normally make during times when newspapers are in need of all the interesting, engaging writers they can find.
As Ross Douthat notes, “if hitting ‘send’ on pungent e-mails that you assume will be kept private is a breach of journalistic ethics, then there isn’t an ethical journalist in the English-speaking world.” Or, in other words, he who has not sinned throw the first stone.
I couldn’t agree more, which is why I’m heartened by the enormous out-pouring of support from conservative writers over this whole affair. We all say stupid or rude or inelegant things when we’re angry or exasperated. We say them about those with whom we disagree politically, and about our friends, and even about those with whom we are closest.
It’s human nature to vent. It’s just not the best idea to do so even in a semi-private listserv like Journolist. Nonetheless, paying for this slip in judgment with one’s job hardly seems like a proportionate response.
Certainly, as Douthat and others have noted, having had these comments brought to light might have made Weigel’s job harder in the future. Knowing that he was saying these things about conservatives once the mic was off likely would have made conservative activists and pundits alike more reluctant to divulge important details. Then again, plenty of rotten things are said every day in politics. So people move on and forget and the whole game continues without much of a bump.
There is a certain irony to this whole story taken in light of the latest New York Times column by David Brooks. He wrote:
The reticent ethos had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important.
Another scalp is on the wall. Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain.
The culture of exposure has triumphed, with results for all to see.
This, of course, was about the recent sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, but it applies to the JournoList scandal just as well. The culture of exposure has claimed a man who, by all accounts, was an interesting and thought-provoking writer who added value to the Washington Post brand, regardless of whatever off-color emails he may have shot out, or whatever lapses in judgment he may have made. (Certainly I have made my own off-color comments and had my own lapses in judgment when frustrated by politics!)
That doesn’t make his comments any less crass or unfortunate. In the end, I nevertheless agree with Marc Ambinder: the Washington Post made a mistake in losing Weigel, whether they forced his resignation or not.