The Dave Weigel resignation

by on June 26, 2010 at 2:10 am in Current Affairs | Permalink

One summary of the details is here (I don't know whatever inside story there may be), but the bottom line is that he had to resign from The Washington Post because of negative comments he made about conservative figures on a supposedly private email list.  Weigel's job for the Post was to cover the conservative movement and it seems the Post expected him to maintain a more objective stance, including in his private emails.  Matt Yglesias has more extensive coverage of the episode and here is Ross Douthat.  Here is Weigel's account and apology, which includes the postings which got him into trouble.  And here is a detailed Politico article.

It is likely I prefer Weigel over his replacement, and if you're wondering I don't know Weigel well, even though he lives nearby.

At a more general level this is a tax on journalists, who now have a greater fear of being fired for past actions.  It's also a tax on the moody, the volatile, the web-savvy, the non-mainstream, and a subsidy to in-control smooth talkers and careful writers.

The Washington Post wrote:

“But we’re living in an era when maybe we need to add a level” of inquiry, he [a WP web site managing editor] 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'm not sure what kind of answers they expect to that question nor what they understand by the word "private" in that context. 

Conceptually, the core problem is that the distinction between the private and public spheres is breaking down, but at different rates for individuals and mainstream institutions.  The practical question is what an equilibrium would look like for the WP, given that the paper courts advertisers, relies on political contacts, and wishes to avoid becoming a target for right-wing (and left-wing) media.  It's easy to imagine the targets of Weigel's criticisms citing them repeatedly against the Washington Post and questioning the Post's objectivity.  "Oh, that was written by the guy who said that…"

One possible outcome is that the current public code of behavior becomes applied to writers' private lives and I suppose that is what we are seeing and it is also what a lot of "common knowledge" models would predict.  That is, most of us know that many writers say such things in private, but that's tolerated as long as it doesn't become common knowledge about any particular writer.

Common knowledge mechanisms often lead to inefficient (and unfair) outcomes, in part by non-convexying returns with regard to the actions of the individual.  Maybe we would like taxes to be linked to individual type, but common knowledge mechanisms tend to link the actual "tax" to how social forces process information about an individual.  A polemicist who is secretly taped encounters a greatly different outcome.than a polemicist who is not taped.

One option is for public institutions to adopt a "statute of limitations" for private remarks and with a short time window.  That would not help in this case, since Weigel's relevant postings do not predate his Post employment; still it might be a good reform.  Another option is for public institutions to adopt different norms for their web writers.  There are already different norms to some extent (web writings receive less editing, for instance), but it is hard to spread the different norm for the writing to become a different norm for the writer.  Web traffic is already massive for newspapers, and most readers probably do not distinguish between different kinds of paper employees, such as web vs. non-web.  Anyway, it's a fuzzy line if a writer has both web and non-web output.

A more radical change would move away from the manufactured image of the objective newspaper, but this is especially difficult for the Post, given that it relies on both conservative and liberal sources for its key political coverage.

Overall, we need more incentive-compatible, generalizable organizational reforms which will allow mainstream institutions to have more flexible relationships, and indeed sometimes more distanced relationships, with their writers.  Yet reputational forces are often quite blunt, and grossly calculated, and mainstream institutions are not very far along on making such reforms work.

DP Roberts June 26, 2010 at 2:49 am

Cry me a river. The guy was a left-wing moonbat covering conservatives who actually suggested on this “private” club that a certain conservative should set himself on fire. Journolist was only ostensibly private. Nothing in the blogosphere is truly private.

You and Tyler do justice to your profession by upholding a code of respect and scientific inquiry. Your employers deserve nothing less because even if you are speaking on your own time and place, you represent them. Pause and consider why McChrystal had to lose his job. Consider how costly that was. Now you can stop feeling sorry for a pathetic journalist whose only skill of measurable worth is writing.

The man’s JOB was to be an objective reporter, not to become part of the story. His fatal error was telling people the despicable thoughts actually rolling around inside his head. It embarrassed the WP.

Journolist is a haven for cowards who love nothing better than the sound of their own voices They crave external validation from like-minded people to prevent their heads from exploding from cognitive dissonance.

If you were an editor and you assigned a writer to cover Tiger Woods, would you condone that writer expressing private opinions on a public site not merely critical of Tiger but malevolent and malicious toward him on a regular basis? Could Tiger ever expect fair treatment from your organization again? Should anyone else trust you to be fair and objective? Doesn’t the power to report news come with the responsibility to be fair and objective?

I have a blog which contains rather ardent and inflammatory political opinions, but you won’t find any comments which are more than slightly peripheral to my line of work. I wouldn’t impose on my employer the burden of having to apologize for my opinions if they were public, although I feel I have no reason to apologize for any of them. I have a duty to my employer not to embarrass them. They respect my private opinions and I do my best to remain anonymous.

Borealis June 26, 2010 at 3:09 am

Count this as the 4 billionth time someone discovered that the internet is not a private conversation.

Rahul June 26, 2010 at 3:25 am

Did the WP know prior to this event that Weigel was very left leaning? In that case what’s the rationale behind appointing him to do neutral reporting on the conservatives?

thehova June 26, 2010 at 4:43 am

I’m sure Weigel was a solid reporter.

But a big part of the uproar about the situation seems to stem from the fact that Weigel has a lot of blogger friends who really like him and aren’t happy that he was fired.

It’s a very incestuous affair that I honestly don’t care about. Weigel wasn’t a good fit at the WaPost. He’ll find another blogging job. It’s not a big deal.

Andrew June 26, 2010 at 5:59 am

“what’s the big deal?” It’s called progress.

People are smart. They know journalists are liberals. They know they are biassed. Journalists’ job is to pretend to be objective. If we can barely tell in their columns then they’ve done their job. It’s not the newspapers’ job to give us the snow job that everyone really is objective.

This is what libertarians mean when they say the market works. Sometimes it works too well. And yeah, it reflects on on Washington Post- their lack of progress. Not everything everyone does reflects or affects everyone else. That is the core belief (I believe) of illiberal liberalism, that you can’t do anything that doesn’t cause the slightest ripple on my life which justifies me legislating or dictating all your behavior.

And yes, it’s not like the guy evaporated. He’ll pop up someowhere else, probably somewhere with less of a muzzle where he can reall go off. But we don’t really care about the guy, per se. If newspapers want salesmen, they will get them, good and hard.

It doesn’t have anything to do with the nature of his job. It has to do with the ubiquity of information. People are still behaving like you have to make drastic decisions based on limited data. However, the internet provides immense data, and yet people are making drastic decisions based on the outliers. The have it bass ackwards.

Roy June 26, 2010 at 7:06 am

The furor is that he was presented to the punlic and the WP’s readership as a conservative , albeit a libertarian one. He clearly is not in any way. If you read tge offending messages he was more than just “venting” at the right and the tea parties but also libertarians in general. But most of all he was helping other journalists to coordinate strategy on how to counter conservative political efforts.

Look at his comments on Palin and the Death Panel business, or his rreaction to how the Scott Brown election might effect healthcare.

He was behaving like a political operative more than a reporter, and doing so in the WP under an apparently false flag.

Andrew June 26, 2010 at 8:21 am

Oh wait, he “called Ron Paul supporters “Paultard Tea Party people.”

Fry him!

But seriously, where did this “Paultard” thing come from? Paul doesn’t even sound like “re”. And did it suddenly become acceptable to make fun of retards as long as it is directed at libertarians?

Anyway, Paul and the Tea Party are distinct movements. It’s only that they are so big that now someone can get fired over it. But people still don’t get it. That’s fine for a Paul Krugman. But for a blogger who is supposed to take people inside the conservative movement not to get it that is more incompetence than imprudence.

Scrutineer June 26, 2010 at 9:11 am

Weigel wishes for Drudge to die in a fire, and Zephyrus minimizes this as “criticism.” This is like Weigel euphemizing Rep. Etheridge’s assault as “a member [of Congress] acting strangely.”

bkarn June 26, 2010 at 9:47 am

As for Drudge, he is, without a doubt, a blight on journalism. I don’t wish him to die in a fire, but the world would be a better place without his site and the way he shapes ‘news’ by skewing headlines and emphasizing what he presents. If he were a simple news aggregator, he would be far less popular. It is specifically his amping up of the “if it bleeds it leads” concept, and the use of his own comments in the headlines, as well as rewriting headlines entirely, that is so disturbing.

not_scottbot June 26, 2010 at 10:07 am

‘Your employers deserve nothing less because even if you are speaking on your own time and place, you represent them.’

No I don’t. My ‘relationship’ to my employer (not including areas like the military or police, which are not typical employers to begin with – how many employers include killing people in the line of duty?) begins and ends with my workday.

I do realize that this concept has been utterly debased in the U.S. at this point, to the extent that the idea that an employer can simply fire someone for their opinions, their political beliefs, or whether their employees date outside of the workplace, is not only accepted, but as mentioned above, seen as justification for firing someone.

This is not true in Germany, a fact which may have been the final factor for Walmart to have abandoned the German market (losing an estimated cool billion to discover that Aldi is actually better managed and lower priced was probably the major factor, along with the utter impossibility to sweep away union employees as a cost saving measure) – a court decision that ruled Walmart had no right, in any conceivable sense of the word ‘right’ (the decision was unusually emphatic in how it was reported in the German media at the time), to have any rights to determine how their employees acted outside of the workplace. Absolutely and completely no right to in any sense go outside of the workplace and impose limits on how a citizen lived in their free time (free in all senses of the word).

ziel June 26, 2010 at 10:13 am

I don’t get what’s going on here – I am honestly puzzled. Is the argument that you can’t, even in a private email, criticize any conservative, for any reason, if you’re supposed to be writing about conservatives? The use of “Paultard” is disturbing, as it suggests he buys into the notion that fanatical Ron Paul fans are, by virtue of that fact, stupid, when it’s almost certainly true that such people are better informed than the general public. Other than that, there was nothing to suggest he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Isn’t criticism directed inside a movement often the most vitriolic? The Matt Drudge comment is obvious hyperbole – the kind of hyperbole that is self-defining.

Anyway, I’m honestly puzzled by this, so if anyone can explain in clear, unemotional language the basis for his firing I’d be appreciative.

Indy June 26, 2010 at 10:38 am

Isn’t this a subsidy to in-person encounters and conversations? That might be a net positive in some ways.

At any rate, now we lose journalists to the smooth-talking, careful-writing, never-concrete dark-side, where our Politicians, Bureaucrats, Public Officials, CEO’s, Supreme Court nominees, certain Academics, and all those obsessed with a universally appealing (or at least, universally non-objectionable) public image went long ago.

Joe Kristan June 26, 2010 at 10:48 am

“It’s also a tax on the moody, the volatile, the web-savvy, the non-mainstream, and a subsidy to in-control smooth talkers and careful writers.”

The “web savvy” know that what they say in a group email can end up on the web. Sad for him, but it’s an old story — when you speak carelessly and rudely, and enough people hear you do so, it can come back and bite you. The internet increases the risk, but it happened before computers.

Edward Burke June 26, 2010 at 11:19 am

” . . . it seems the Post expected him to maintain a more objective stance”. –OR: it is the case that the Post merely expected him to merely maintain a merely objective stance.

Hurrah hooray, the myth of journalistic objectivity lives to fight another day!

This post of yours, TC, dovetails nicely with your post on the status of narratology. I don’t follow that subject closely, but if I guess the terminological usages perzacktly, I’d gladly guess that “journalistic objectivity” is one of the chief victims of “narrative” in contemporary contemporaneity; but also because its practitioners labor in a comparably lazy profession equally larded with lazy practitioners, we might also agree that “public education” is another institution that has been dutifully murdered by the dual means of “narrative” and “laziness”. (You can never tell exactly, even on a good day, who is being more lazy, a given journalist or a given schoolteacher.)

Mercer June 26, 2010 at 1:14 pm

” The guy was a left-wing moonbat ”

Someone who worked for Reason magazine? Do you think Reason is left-wing?

I don’t see how it is a tax on the “web-savvy”. Someone who was web savvy would not expect emails sent to hundreds of people to stay private forever.

I think it was dumb of him to put his blunt thoughts in group emails. It is strange to me that using caustic language that offends a few people is considered terrible for the Post but cheer leading for a war that has led to the death of thousands of Americans on premises that turn out to be false does not hurt the careers of people like Kristol and Krauthammer.

Scrutineer June 26, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Patrick Levin – It’s as though people have never encountered “the internet” before and think Weigel was literally wishing death on [Drudge], as opposed to hyperbolically expressing the exact opinion quoted above.

Yes, it’s hyperbole, which is beside the point. Imagine the WaPo’s White House correspondent writing on Journolist: “This would be a vastly better world to live in if Obama decided to handle his emotional problems more responsibly, and set himself on fire.” You would leave the reporter in his position? The Post needed, at the very least, to reassign Weigel.

brian June 26, 2010 at 3:44 pm

I’m having a lot of trouble understanding this narrative. Weigel seems to have pissed off everyone – Drudge enthusiasts have declared him a progressive with irrational hate of conservatives, yet littlegreenfootballs has no problem referring to him as a ‘Rand Paul apologist’.

I’m told he’s a cheerleader for healthcare, but I can’t seem to find much that supports that intuition. I’m told he can’t hide his liberal biases – but he managed to work at Reason Magazine for several years.

If his worst crime is criticizing the hypocrisy of FoxNews coverage, the idiocy of Drudge, the whitewashed media versions of Newt Gingrich & Buchanan as “political commentators”, and the silliness of Palin as a legitimate political candidate… Well I can’t muster too much outrage.

Zephyrus June 26, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Oh, just to be clear, Scrutineer: I’m not actually calling for Drudge to be run off a cliff. It’s a figure of speech.

Scrutineer June 26, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Zephyrus – But you’ve already revealed your hand: Weigel’s not allowed to use mean language about any conservative, even those he’s not reporting on.

A conservative who writes (sorry, “jokes!”) that Kos should set himself on fire and Olbermann should “fail” when taken to the hospital with chest pains would be a less than ideal choice to cover the Left as a Post blogger. It isn’t a question of being too “mean.” It’s just a transparently bad idea to assign someone to cover a political movement he despises (unless the point was “coverage of the Right from a Left perspective,” in which case, carry on).

Also: stop moving the goalposts.

Let’s move them again: I concede for the sake of the argument that Weigel’s comment was hyperbole, but he’d probably think it’s more funny than horrifying if Drudge actually torched himself. Don’t the “ratf*ckers” deserve a hard end?

I don’t feel any sympathy for Drudge. He only benefits from the controversy.

No one falls for your bullshit.

This from the guy who soft pedals “please set yourself on fire” as “criticism.” You are marvelously persuasive. Stop flailing and go back to /b/.

Scoop June 26, 2010 at 5:38 pm

I would agree with those who believe the only workable response is for news companies to dispense with the idea that anyone can provide fully objective news. Provide full disclosure of the journalist’s views and the views of every editor who exerts any influence over the piece. Then do your best to write an objective piece anyway but let your readers know where your opinions lie and where you’re most likely to fail.

That’s a start by it still allows reporters and editors to hide some of the biggest biases that influence coverage — their feelings about the people they are covering. If you have a beat that brings you into repeated contact with the same people, you quickly develop opinions (though you prefer to think of it as insight) as to which are smart, stupid, honest, venal, etc. You also grow to dislike many of them intensely and to like a few of them. (This is why corporations make sure that the same PR people always work with the same reporters. We like to tell ourselves that it doesn’t affect coverage, but if the PR folks are good at their job, it does.)

That said, I’m not sure you could create a workable system that forced reporters and editors to disclose such feelings, even though they are pivotal to coverage, perhaps more so than abstract ideology. Thoughts?

Gladys June 26, 2010 at 6:20 pm

He deserved to be fired- , he pretended to be impartial.
MvCrystal got his post for speaking out against Bush and lost it for speaking out for speaking out against The One
If they were conservatives you would not be compalining

Scrutineer June 26, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Anon at 6:56:07 PM – Yet again, Scrutineer refuses to engage with the fact that Drudge wasn’t ever one of Weigel’s subjects.

Can you read? I offered an analgous situation in which a blogger covering the left said similar things about two progressive icons, whether or not they specifically have been his subjects. You would want the the Post to keep the guy on that beat?

Weigel’s Journolist rants are full of loathing for the right. It’s not limited to one or two stray remarks. If they want someone like that to write the “Right Now” blog, that’s fine, but then don’t pretend he’s approaching the subject from a remotely neutral perspective.

rapscallion June 26, 2010 at 8:05 pm

This case bears a lot of similarities to the Harvard race email controversy a little while ago. Here’s a link to refresh you memories:

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/opinions/view/opinion/Debating-the-Leaked-Harvard-Law-Email-Intelligence-and-Race-3511

I know there were some, but I don’t recall too many lefties standing up for the 3L student who had her emails published.

Matt June 26, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I meant, “Once you’ve let it be known that you have no respect for conservatives, including your would-be sources, you’re ability to do the job of reporting about the conservative movement is compromised.”

Sorry for the error.

Michael Drake June 27, 2010 at 11:35 am

“Once you’ve let it be known that you have no respect for conservatives, including your would-be sources, you’re ability to do the job of reporting about the conservative movement is compromised.”

Yes, clearly one can only competently report about an individual or group if one has “respect” for that individual or group. Which is not at all a self-evidently absurd requirement, and why we need more reporters who have respect for al-Qaeda, Robert Mugabe and the Baltimore Orioles.

thehova June 28, 2010 at 2:41 am

Ha, I’m not sure how @Not_scottbot managed to work walmart and the tyranny of American employers in this discussion, but he did (hasn’t he randomly brought that up before).

Weigel and the Post are simply a bad fit. He sounds like a good reporter. Perhaps it’s the Post’s loss. But it is what it is. If you want a mainstream media job, it’s important to signal total objectivity.

Montana June 28, 2010 at 3:02 pm

You gotta love all the conservatives in Kentucky who voted for Rand Paul and brought him to national exposure, priceless. Let’s face it they will try to vote this liar in but we can only wait and see if there is other skeletons in his closet, oh yeah he is not a racist, I repeat, he is not a racist. Great thing is we are talking about Kentucky, so being a racist maybe a positive, we will see. Yee Haw!

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