Bring me the head of David Weigel
At first, I couldn’t quite understand why David Weigel, the Washington Post politics blogger who just resigned, would merit his own feeding frenzy. He’s not Helen Thomas: he hasn’t been around for 60-plus years, nor does he have a front-row seat in the White House briefing room, nor has he uttered on-camera statements that many people consider offensive or outside the bounds of political discourse.
Seriously, Weigel is a talented journalist who added a fresh perspective to the Washington Post. He should not have been booted out for what he did. Why was he? The Weigel Incident does illustrate some of the biggest fault lines and flaws of Washington journalism. Here are a few:
1. Fake decorum dominates our political discourse.
This exists solely so that people can score political points by taking offense. Often, though not exclusively, those taking offense these days tend to be Republicans and conservatives who have discovered the advantages of the left’s equally lame 1990s-era political correctness.
The stuff Weigel posted on the private Journolist email list was mostly snark – some of it funny, some nasty. He was injudicious to post it – nothing is truly secret on the Internet, and it’s in his own interest to be, if not neutral, credible. But it should be possible to mock Matt Drudge, apologize, and still write on the conservative movement. No doubt there are some conservatives who do not consider Drudge an unalloyed force for good for America or politics on the right. Because he isn’t.
Once you violate decorum your enemies, and the enemies of whatever power center you represent, will come for your scalp. And the media will pile on and abet this, because nothing generates more traffic than fake umbrage (except, sometimes, genuine umbrage). But maybe it will all blow over, especially if your patrons take the long view, and have your back. Unless, of course, everyone just agrees to go with the whole fake decorum thing.
2. The “print guys won” at the Washington Post.
The exact mechanics of Weigel’s departure are unclear, but it does seem clear that if Post editors wanted to keep him, they could have torn up his resignation letter. Instead, they cut him loose. And some inside the Post are reveling in this as a great victory, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, who published some quotes of Post staffers crowing about the whole thing:
“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.”
The backstory here is the internal struggle between the print and online sides that the “print guys” famously won when the two were consolidated. As a result the paper’s embrace of the web has at times been ambiguous.
The print side is built on traditions like sending reporters to cover the city or suburbs before they’re allowed near national politics. Weigel never paid those dues. As a practical matter, though, the Post ought to be able to assign talented, well-sourced political reporters to cover, well, politics, without first making them cover the Howard County zoning board for eight years.
3. The “view from nowhere” retains its grip on the political press.
But the burning issue here is whether Washington Post reporters can have opinions, and if they do, how should they express them? Weigel came out of the world of blogging and Washington’s independent political journalism community (the libertarian Reason and the left-leaning Washington Independent). The writing is looser, shaped by a personal perspective/politics. I think this is the future, in part because it’s more honest and accessible. The traditional “view from nowhere” that posits the truth lies midway between left and right is an untenable construct, especially in an age of shocking institutional failures. Clinging to it is eroding the credibility of traditional media.
But the world outside the warm embrace of objectivity looks dangerous to those still inside it, especially if there’s any ambiguity about what team you’re on. Politico’s Ben Smith wrote a piece before Weigel’s resignation broke that basically stated: if you are one of these journalists-with-opinions, you have to choose a side. If you don’t, we’ll choose one for you. Weigel, you’re a liberal. This is preposterous for two reasons: first, Weigel says he’s not a liberal. (And indeed, there is little evidence for ideological liberalism in his snark; rather, it’s contempt for individuals and conservative strategy/tactics – blunt, yes, but honest.) Second, a journalist (or, for that matter, anybody) ought to be able to hold opinions without actually joining a political movement. This describes most Americans, after all.
Sadly, it appears that an unholy alliance between culture warriors and journalism traditionalists has won the day here, and Washington journalism is weaker for it. At least until Weigel turns up at the Huffington Post.