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Posted by on Jun 25, 2010 in Breaking News, Media, Politics, Society | 0 comments

Dave Weigel and the Deceptiveness of Internet Intimacy

Earlier today, the Washington Post “accepted” Dave Weigel’s letter of resignation — in the slimy corporate parlance — from the paper, where he wrote a column about conservatives called “Right Now.” His resignation followed on the heels of an uproar over anti-conservative comments Weigel posted at Journolist — a private, by invitation only list for liberal journalists —  which became public after a member of that list, or someone with access to that list member, published a raft of them on Fisbowl DC and The Daily Caller.

There are serious issues to consider here about confidentiality, journalistic ethics, and more — and I would like to do a roundup as a separate post — but for now, you all need to read Ezra Klein’s piece on Journolist and Dave Weigel. (For those who don’t know, Ezra Klein founded Journolist, and Weigel is a very close friend of his.) Here is part of it, but there is much more, and every single word is important:

At the beginning, I set two rules for the membership. The first was the easy one: No one who worked for the government in any capacity could join. The second was the hard one: The membership would range from nonpartisan to liberal, center to left. I didn’t like that rule, but I thought it necessary: There would be no free conversation in a forum where people had clear incentives to embarrass each other. …

But over the years, Journolist grew, and as it grew, its relative exclusivity became more infamous, and its conversations became porous. The leaks never bothered me, though. What I didn’t expect was that a member of the list, or someone given access by a member of the list, would trawl through the archives to assemble a dossier of quotes from one particular member and then release them to an interested media outlet to embarrass him. But that’s what happened to David Weigel. Private e-mails were twisted into a public story.
[…]
There’s a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it’s dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It’s public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It’s easy to talk as if it’s private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public, and that some ambitious gossip reporters will dig through it for an exposure story. And because that possibility doesn’t feel fully real, people still talk like it’s private and then get burned if it goes public.
[…]
It was ironic, in a way, that it would be the Daily Caller that published e-mails from Journolist. A few weeks ago, its editor, Tucker Carlson, asked if he could join the list. After asking other members, I said no, that the rules had worked so far to protect people, and the members weren’t comfortable changing them. He tried to change my mind, and I offered, instead, to partner with Carlson to start a bipartisan list serv. That didn’t interest him.

In any case, Journolist is done now. I’ll delete the group soon after this post goes live. That’s not because Journolist was a bad idea, or anyone on it did anything wrong. … But insofar as the current version of Journolist has seen its archives become a weapon, and insofar as people’s careers are now at stake, it has to die.

As for Dave, I’m heartbroken that he resigned from The Post. Dave is an extraordinary reporter, and a dear friend. When this is done, there will be a different name on his paychecks, but he will still be an extraordinary reporter, and a dear friend.

HERE’S A CROSS SECTION OF BLOGOSPHERE REACTION TO THIS STORY:

Steve Benen:

Dave, like most members, came to think of the list as a safe place to throw around ideas, vent, ask questions, highlight news, and engage in spirited debate. On a few occasions, Dave, like plenty of others sharing thoughts on a private email list, had some uncharitable words and opinion about others. What’s wrong with that? Nothing; he was among friends.

Or so we thought. Someone — it remains unclear who — decided to try to destroy Dave professionally by leaking emails from the list. Tragically, it worked.

As much as the Post deserved enormous credit for having the good sense to hire Dave in the first place, the paper deserves equally strong blame for accepting his resignation today. For three months, he did exactly what he was hired to do — cover the conservative movement — and he did it better than anyone in American journalism. Was Dave let go because the emails brought his objectivity into question? If so, that strikes me as inherently ridiculous — his left-leaning libertarianism wasn’t a secret, and it helped shape the quality of his reporting.

Worse, I’m at a loss to explain the Post’s approach to ideology. Marc Thiessen and Bill Kristol can publish dubious, morally-bankrupt nonsense, and remain contributors in good standing. Dave Weigel trashed Drudge and “Paultards” in a private email and has to go?

Just One Minute:

Weigel’s role was to provide daily reassurance to libs that no matter the deficiencies of their own side, the other guys were worse. I am sure that in that role he may have been “the best”.

Alan Colmes:

It doesn’t take more than a Google search or two to come up with literally dozens of shocking remarks by conservatives who, in nearly every case, not only keep their jobs (and their platforms for spewing such hateful nonsense), but who also often garner kudos from the sycophantic hordes who hang on their every putrid word. Yet when a liberal columnist/commentator makes the same mistake, he’s out the door faster than you can say “Don’t tease the panther.”

I’m not defending Weigel’s inappropriate slams on Drudge and York (nor, I believe, would he), and although his statements were meant to be private, everyone — especially a writer for a national publication — has to know that emails to listservs do not carry with them the same guarantees of privacy that, say, verbal communication or even one-to-one emails might. But when right-wing media mavens regularly earn praise, glory, and riches for their despicable rhetorical attacks, the instant canning of a liberal commentator for comparatively minor remarks ought to raise more than a few eyebrows.

Pajamas’ Media’s Stephen Green:

I’d read Weigel starting with his stint at Reason about three years back. He was always caustic, often funny, and typically cranky — an angry left-libertarian. Now, left-libertarian isn’t the most tenable position, but it isn’t exactly unusual, either. And at a time when the GOP is in charge, a voice like Dave’s wasn’t just good for Reason, it was downright necessary.

Man, was I fooled.

From the moment Weigel started at the Post, it became pretty obvious that he wasn’t a libertarian of any sort, left or otherwise. And if you followed his Twitter feed, his “progressive” tilt, and open hostility towards most anyone to the right of, say, Dave Weigel, weren’t even debatable.

Megan McArdle:

First, having been both Dave’s professional colleague at Reason and his housemate for several years, I can say pretty confidently that he is not any sort of liberal or progressive. “Libertarian” might be closer to the mark, but the truth is that he’s just not easily classified ideologically. He’s more conservative than I am on some issues, more liberal on others. Nor has he ever pretended otherwise–certainly he’s never claimed to be any kind of party-line conservative, as anyone following his published writing or public Twitter feed would immediately realize. But contemporary movement conservatism is apparently so Manichean, and so tightly in the grip of a bunker mentality, that such fine distinctions are no longer possible. To take a dim view of the self-serving demagoguery of a handful of prominent conservatives like Matt Drudge or Newt Gingrich is apparently, now, to display contempt for conservatives as such. If the Princess-and-the-Pea brigade now cheering his departure would bracket their persecution complex for five minutes, they’d realize that he was consistently delivering coverage about as fair and sympathetic as could reasonably be hoped for. What they apparently wanted was a movement hack to dole out indiscriminate praise to anyone claiming the mantle of conservatism–whereas Dave took the right seriously enough to make distinctions between what he saw as its credible thinkers and its nuts and opportunists. Memo to my friends on the right: If you bristle at being stereotyped as an undifferentiated bloc of racists and crude blowhards, maybe you shouldn’t take automatic umbrage when someone points out particular individuals who are.

Second, as Alyssa Rosenberg points out, whatever treacherous bottom-feeder decided to leak Dave’s e-mails was either on or had access to the liberal JournoList, which raises a question of motive. In the socially stunted high-school environment of DC, simple professional jealousy can’t be ruled out. But as former RNC tech guru Liz Mair argued in a series of tweets and a blog post this morning, there were also many on the left who were displeased by Weigel’s rejoinders to attacks against conservatives he saw as unfair or overblown–with his defense of Rand Paul provoking particular outrage. There’s the distinct possibility that the right got played by a leaker who selected, probably from months or years worth of e-mails, the remarks most likely to set the media bias hounds baying. (I have no doubt someone combing through years of my correspondence could cull enough material to paint me as either an unhinged leftist or a fire-breathing right-winger, were they so inclined, and possibly a Zoroastrian to boot.)

And she makes this point:

So the lesson for young writers from all this: Be Tracy Flick. Don’t say anything remotely interesting, certainly not over e-mail. If you lack the mental discipline to completely suppress critical thought about people and institutions you spend your life covering, get good at pretending. The lesson for activists: Our news cycles are so short that, with a little coordination, nothing is too tame or trivial to be transformed into a weapon of personal destruction–so that’s an excellent use of your resources. We’ll doubtless get–are getting–precisely the quality of public discourse we deserve.

Ed Morrissey:

I should note that Dave and I are on friendly terms, and he appeared on my show this week to talk more about the flap over his Etheridge reporting. That criticism had a little more merit than his JournoList commentary, since it had to do with his actual reporting and not his conversations among friends and colleagues not intended for public consumption. Most of these comments are fairly laughable and I’m certain routine in parlor discussions on the Left. What matters, as Dave says, is his reporting, although it’s fair to say that this kind of exposure of his attitudes towards the Right won’t help build credibility for his reporting on conservative politics, which is his beat for the Washington Post.

That’s why I wonder why someone on JournoList decided to leak Weigel’s commentary. Dave is hardly the most high-profile contributor on JournoList (well, before today), and he seems a strange choice for someone’s animus. His incendiary comments certainly are sensational, but that’s about the only thing about them that makes them at all pertinent — unless someone on JournoList doesn’t like the fact that the Washington Post is focusing on conservative issues in any way, shape, or form. While I don’t think Dave has been unduly hostile in his reporting, he’s not exactly been cuddling up to the Right, either, but that may not be enough for someone on JournoList. Or, conversely, it could be a JournoList member with more sympathy towards conservatives than his colleagues suspect that has objections to Dave’s coverage of the Right. Either way, it’s hardly a fair way to go about criticizing the work Dave does.

Perhaps the Post should reconsider this idea anyway. Having an anthropological study of conservatives, such as Dave provides, would work if the Post had a similar anthropological look at liberals from someone on the outside to balance it.

In a long post that must be read in full, Liz Mair starts out:

Dave Weigel is my friend. Not one of my best friends. But he is a friend.

So when I see stories erupt involving him, like the one in which he is currently engulfed, I take an interest– and find myself prepared, and arguably well-placed, to say some things that may not prove popular but which I think deserve an airing. And with that, here goes nothing

.
And further down:

There are a couple of real stories that are being missed in all the coverage of Dave and his various remarks that range from stupid to snarky to sensible, but in some cases badly stated, but the big one is this: The Left, whether as an army or an army of one, has a problem with Dave, and a big one at that. A lot of leaking has been done with the clear objective (I believe) of ruining Dave’s career, and forcing his ouster by the Washington Post. I suspect it is happening because dave committed the cardinal sin of defending Rand Paul, a figure who has become so reviled by many on the Left that it’s hard to draw a bright-line distinction between him and Saddam Hussein, by their standards (in fact, for some of them, I believe Saddam Hussein is held in less contempt). That’s a bad place for Dave to be, but he got there because he had the courage of his convictions and defending a man who many on the Right consider almost indefensible– and he did it at the Washington Post, not Reason Magazine.

The follow-on from that is that there are conservatives who are equally determined to shut Dave down because (pick your reason) a) he disagrees with them on gay marriage and other social issues b) he is friends with liberals c) he sees a lot of snake-oil salesmen involved in conservative politics and thinks they stink d) he’s been prepared to report on some aspects of the conservative “movement” that occasionally appear more akin to a racket than an outgrowth of deeply-held philosophical conviction, and depict them as such and/or e) they would infinitely prefer for the Washington Post to host Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent, but no one who is even several houses away from a conservative, because it aids and abets their ability to wage a cultural war in which the media, and media bias, is target #1. By no means should this suggest that even 90% of the people who are expressing outrage at Dave have cynical motivations for doing so, or aren’t entitled to their views regarding his actions (and indeed, I’m not discounting the existence of media bias, though I don’t see it as extensively as some others). But that fact is, some of the people who hate Dave the most and want to see him fail do not have pure intentions. Whichever liberal(s) leaked Dave’s comments were counting on a general outcry from conservatives who feel like Dave isn’t one of them and craps on people they may like and admire in private, but even more so on those who have something to gain by trashing Dave and seeking to oust him doing just that.

Clearly, my view is that the Washington Post should keep Dave around. Dave is not a conservative, and he is not of the conservative movement. But he writes interesting stuff, a lot of conservatives do read him, and frankly, he’s good for business– as are Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent.

Andrew Sullivan:

And the Post accepts. A sad day for journalism. Ben Smith claims Dave is a liberal. Not from where I sit. He’s a sane libertarian, which means he understood just how completely nuts the conservative movement and Republican party now are…

…There is a war going on within American journalism. All I can say is that I have learned more from Dave Weigel’s brilliant, obsessive, accurate and first-hand reporting – yes, old-fashioned, grass-roots reporting – on the conservative movement than I ever have from the pompous dinosaur “journalists” at the WaPo.

Salon’s Alex Pareene :

Conservative movement journalist and blogger David Weigel just resigned from the Washington Post, following an apparently coordinated campaign to humiliate and discredit him by forwarding and posting his private messages to a listserv to unfriendly media outlets. I’m reasonably sure Weigel quit — as far as I know, he wasn’t fired or forced out — but it’s still an embarrassment for journalism as a whole.

Weigel originally got in trouble with conservatives for calling opponents of gay marriage “bigots” on Twitter. He apologized, even though, to my mind, the position that the people actively, obsessively campaigning to restrict the rights of gay people will be looked at as bigots in 20 years is pretty defensible.

He gives more details about what happened after that, leading to the publication of the comments Weigel understood were not for public consumption, then writes:

Weigel isn’t a “conservative blogger” — he’s a journalist covering the conservative movement. Weigel is a libertarian. He voted for Ron Paul in the primaries. Many conservatives, for some reason, took umbrage at the mere existence of a reporter dedicated to explaining their movement to outsiders, as if it either wasn’t fair or legitimate to have a reporter who wasn’t part of the movement cover it.

…Weigel did his best to be scrupulously fair. Not necessarily “objective” in the traditional newspaper sense, because he didn’t hesitate to call out people like birthers as crazy (and unlike plenty of left-wing bloggers, he didn’t obsessively report on the craziest of the crazies just for the sake of attention and traffic), and he let it be known upfront that he was a libertarian.

His crime was expressing his opinions less guardedly in private messages to friends than he did in his Washington Post blog — or even on his oft-sarcastic and critical Twitter feed. In other words, his crime appears to have been professionalism.

Anyone who follows Weigel’s public Twitter feed knows his opinions on most of the subjects he wrote about in the Journolist messages. Readers of his earlier work for Reason certainly knew his political leanings. And everyone is entitled to think and write whatever the hell they want in private messages to friends, or even semiprivate correspondence with other professionals in your field.

Lawyers Guns and Money:

Not so much “ironic” as “why this non-scandal culminated as it did.” (I can’t imagine why Ezra thought Tucker couldn’t be trusted!) The more guilty party isn’t so much Carlson as the dishonest creep on the list who did his dirty work, but if you’re looking for any actual unethical behavior there you go. I just hope Weigel lands on his feet quickly, and if the leaker gets fired for some trivial nonsense irrelevant to his or her actual work that would be a nice bonus.

-Another Black Conservative:

I guess WaPo will be putting up a classified ad for another “conservative” to take his place. Here is a thought for you WaPo, rather than signing up another sham conservative, how about hiring a real one for a change? Think about it, just a single unapologetic pro conservative column would probably generate more traffic than any of the predictable pieces Weigel could have thrown together.

Newsbusters:

Weigel continued to defend these outbursts, as he did when contacted by the Daily Caller. “My reporting, I think, stands for itself,” he said. “I’ve always been of the belief that you could have opinions and could report anyway… people aren’t usually asked to stand or fall on everything they’ve said in private.”

First, there’s the issue of whether anything said on a 400-member email list can really be considered “private.” “There’s no such thing as off-the-record with 400 people,” Nation columnist Eric Alterman told Politico.

But the real issues are, first, whether such mean-spirited jabs demonstrate a disdain for many conservatives that precludes Weigel from covering them fairly (he did label gay marriage opponents “bigots,” after all), and second, whether the Post feels it is appropriate to have someone hostile to the right covering conservatism, while a through-and-through liberal in Ezra Klein covers the left.

The Post signaled that it did not consider Weigel’s comments to be a serious problem. It seems that attitude has changed.

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat:

Set aside the fact that Weigel — who’s actually a left-tilting libertarian rather than a liberal partisan — really is a good reporter, good enough and fair enough to have a number of conservative bloggers rallying to his defense, or at least speaking well of his reporting. The more important point is that no journalistic standard was violated by firing off intemperate e-mails to what’s supposed to be a private e-mail list. Maybe Weigel should have known better than to trust the people on JournoList, and I can certainly understand why once the e-mails were leaked, his ability to cover the conservative movement would be compromised, and a parting of the ways with The Post might seem necessary. But 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. The real story here isn’t Weigel’s public embarrassment — it’s the shame of FishbowlDC for publishing private correspondence, and the disgrace of JournoList for harboring at least one would-be career wrecker. The only decent response is to disband the email list — and to his credit, its founder is doing exactly that.

UPDATE:

James Fallows at the Atlantic reviews some of the blogosphere discussion, including those by other Atlantic writers and adds:

Weigel was foolish to put the things he did into emails, but the posts [the ones he links to] above do a good job of explaining why that folly shouldn’t disqualify his reporting. One obvious lesson: never say anything negative about a specific person in email or other digital media. Sooner or later, the person will see it. There is no exception to this rule.

To say two other things: 1) Why is this different from the recklessness of Gen. McChrystal’s associates, which I said couldn’t be tolerated? Because there is a difference between the military chain of command and the varied menagerie that is any healthy news organization. 2) Might this episode mark a change in the digital-generation’s tragic imagination about the consequences of “living in public” through social media etc? Yes, the emails shouldn’t have been leaked, and even when they were the paper shouldn’t have gotten rid of Weigel. But until now, many tech viziers have said that the whole idea of discretion and privacy was antique; that when all opinions from everyone were on the permanent record, nothing could prove embarrassing; that everything should hang out. Maybe not.