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Jun. 25 2010 - 6:46 pm | 1,327 views | 2 recommendations | 10 comments

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.

Instead, one of his offenses was … dancing, maybe a little strangely, at a wedding. This was truly a feeding frenzy worthy of a Seinfeld episode.

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.


10 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    God, such oceans of stupidity. Where to start?

    – How ’bout with “decorum”? Just as “civility” is the last refuge of a right-wing ass who’s about to get hit with the chair, “decorum” is the last refuge of a purported journalist who is unhappy that someone pointed a video camera at him as he knelt in front of his corporate masters.

    – Anyone worried about bloggers “trading on the name of the Washington Post” and not worried about Fred Hiatt doing exactly the same thing is too stupid to live.

    – True objectivity is as rare as true love; the best any moral would-be journalist can hope to achieve is fairness, accuracy and interest, and if more quote journalists unquote worried about those three things, journalism in general and The Washington Post in particular would have far less to worry about.

  2. collapse expand

    Let’s take a deep breath and think. The “ratfuckers” have elevated Dave to new heights of recognition and legitimacy. WaPo has clearly shown their distaste for credible journalism. I think Dave Weigel wins and wins in this situation. He has moved from my occasional read list to my must read list. Good luck to him.

  3. collapse expand

    Actually the conservatives just look at this and ask, what’s the big shock here? Did somebody think the Post reporters weren’t leftists pretending to be objective? It is like observing that the sun rises in the East.

    Then this made me chuckle.

    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.)

    Again, preposterous only to a lefty who couldn’t find objectivity in a dictionary. Righties don’t trash righties as ‘ratfuckers.’

    If the situation were reversed, and a blogger for NRO who supposedly ‘objectively’ covered the leftosphere was caught calling the KosKidz ratfuckers, the nutroots would be ablaze and Katie Couric would run a piece about duplicitous, corrupt, right-wing so-called ‘objective’ journalists.

    I do agree that bloggers, writers, and journalists should pick sides. Anybody with a brain can spot bias, which then makes the story about the writer, not the story. It is easier and more honest to report the news and add whatever opinion you want. If you are accurate with your sources and your opinions are worthwhile reading, you will develop an audience. It is called the free market and is why the newspapers are going paws-up. People want accurate news and opinion from their side of the aisle. Why waste your time sifting through biased journalism masquerading as objective, when you can get the news, whether good or bad for your ’side,’ presented the way you like it.

    I like accurate, hard news (i.e. facts) with conservative analysis and a healthy dose of snark. That is what I write. That is what I read. That is what most folks on both sides of the political spectrum want. The Weigels of the world are just the youngest of the dinosaurs.

    If I want to know what the lefties think, I will read Journolist-master Ezra Klein. He’s an admitted lefty. I have no problem with that. And it is a lot easier than wasting my time trying to figure out where the bias is.

    • collapse expand

      “Righties don’t trash righties as ‘ratfuckers.’”

      You obviously haven’t spent much time in DC.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Okay, maybe McCain . . .


        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Bill, thanks for the comment(s). The notion that journalism, or for that matter politics, by definition must be divided into two ideological warring camps — and that journalists must pledge loyalty to one or the other – does not make sense to me for a number of reasons. If you choose the see the world in this way, fine. If you choose to pledge fealty to some a political movement or party and define your work that way, fine. But if you expect the rest of the world to conform to this, it does the world a disservice.

          You’re saying conservative journalists or thinkers can’t insult other conservatives (leaving aside for the moment that this was in a supposedly private forum). Let’s say “ratfucker” is off limits. What about something milder like “asshole” or “idiot”? Or “this guy’s wrong?” Where would you draw the line? It seems to come back to decorum again. If you are a political conservative or libertarian – or whatever non-liberal category – and think Drudge or Limbaugh is bad for conservatism or the Republican Party, you can’t say so, publicly or privately? And if you do, you’re a “liberal” – in spite of substantive positions you may hold on issues? Ridiculous.

          Classifying every piece of writing and every journalist as either conservative or liberal, I don’t know what that means either. What if a given journalist a libertarian or a paleo-libertarian or a free-trading social conservative Democrat? It seems to me that might be useful information in understanding where they’re coming from, but more often it’s just a weapon to either attack or dismiss what they have to say without even paying attention to it. The judgment should be based on the work itself, not the label. Sometimes journalism advances a particular policy or broader political agenda. Sometimes, in my own experience, the reality is such that the politics of the moment cannot address or classify it adequately, which is what makes it interesting.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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