Posted by Brad @ 1:20 pm on June 25th 2010

When Off the Record No Longer Exists

I.e., when you write in the internet age.

Dave Weigel, who for my money is the smartest reporter on the conservative beat, belongs to an off-the-record listserv started by Ezra Klein. Weigel has been the target of a lot of people lately, it seems. Liberals don’t like him because A. the Washington Post hired him, and not a liberal blogger, and B. Weigel has a lot of sympathy for conservatives, and in particular has been defending a lot of aspects of Rand Paul and Tea Partiers generally. I’ve thought, in fact, that he’s been very fair when covering the Tea Party, but then I would, and why the WaPo would hire Greg Sargant to cover the conservative grassroots, I’ve no idea. Sadly for Dave, however, he also annoys a lot of Republicans, because he’s if not openly contemptuous of at least very cynical about social conservatives (no big secret) and Bush-era Republicans. Which, again, makes him a good fit for the beat.

In any case, on a bad day, Weigel posted a bunch of venting messages to said off-the-record listserv, and of course at the first opportunity, they’ve been made public. Weigel apologies for them (and excerpts them) here. Andrew Sullivan has a good roundup/defense here.

For my money, I don’t think anything he said was beyond the pale at all — heck, if he had openly blogged those same things I’m not sure it would be as big a deal. But I do think there’s an interesting wrinkle to it, and that’s the new fusion of blogging and journalism. If Dave were, say, Sullivan, nobody would care – he’s paid for his opinions. If he were a straight up reporter, this might be a bigger deal, but Weigel has always been both something more and something less than a traditional journalist. He wasn’t hired from, say, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch because of his years spent paying his dues as a reporter. He was hired from Reason, or, just as accurately, Reason.com. He comes from the same school as, say, Josh Marshall (who, incidentally, was a bright light for blogger-journalism, but has lately devolved into something of an oppo research outlet for liberalism – the side-by-side comparison of Weigel and Marshall on Rand Paul is fascinating).

Point being, I think this is less a legitimate controversy and more a lot of people really not sure how to take the next generation of journalists. It’s a lesson for everybody, too. At some point, MOST of our opinions, rants, vents, and what have you will be enshrined on some server somewhere into perpetuity. Do we then try to maintain the polite fiction that, say, reporters don’t have their own opinions, or job applicants don’t have social lives that are perfectly appropriate for social lives but weird in an employment context, or judges don’t post stupid funny cartoons to their friends that may, in the cold light of a newspaper print copy, seem obscene? Or do we, you know, grow up?

11 Comments »

  1. Weigel has resigned as of a few minutes ago. Which sucks. But I suspect he will continue to do exactly the same sort of high-quality work as before; he just won’t be doing it in the Washington Post.

    Comment by Rojas — 6/25/2010 @ 3:27 pm

  2. That is such monumental bullshit.

    All the people involved with this, with the exception of Weigel, or morons. Anybody that could have possibly been offended, anybody that cynically passed this stuff around, and all the people that pretended to care when really, nobody does except insofar as it advances their agenda or gets them a few thousand hits. Morons, the lot of them.

    This is why the old media can’t have nice things.

    Ezra Klein has deleted his listserv.

    Comment by Brad — 6/25/2010 @ 3:44 pm

  3. One of the things that he shockingly said (Tucker Carlson, looking for relevance with his Daily Caller, went back to the listserv well to publish more).

    In April, Weigel wrote that the problem with the mainstream media is “this need to give equal/extra time to ‘real American’ views, no matter how fucking moronic.”

    Shit, I’ve been saying that for years. Give me a column!

    Comment by Brad — 6/25/2010 @ 3:49 pm

  4. Quick Jack! Invite him to blog here!

    Comment by Brad — 6/25/2010 @ 3:53 pm

  5. It probably says something about my current political pendulum swinging that I’m back to reading The Corner on a daily basis, but two very fair takes from Ground Zero of the “respectable” class that is nevertheless catering to precisely the people Weigel was assigned to report on.

    Jonah Goldberg.

    John J. Miller.

    Related, Phillip Klein in the American Spectator.

    And the other smartest observer of conservative affairs, Conor Friedersdorf, has a typically smart take.

    But the bottom line is this:

    The conservative right, whether Weigel was a true believer or not, have lost to my knowledge the only MSM reporter who covered them exclusively, and with sympathy. I have heard not one iota of argument that Weigel performed his job poorly—indeed, just click some of those links above. And if that’s not the standard by which to judge a reporter, fuck you. Same for the liberals. Because now, the Post isn’t going to hire Josh Marshall to cover the Tea Party beat—they’ll hire Joe the Plumber, or somebody else whose allegience to the conservative cause cannot be questioned. This will be played up as a move towards balance. Score?

    The MSM old media journalists, who seemed cranky about Weigel being hired in the first place, have now done two things. They have, as Conor notes, incentivized the news value of finding out the personal opinions of mainstream journalists, and splashing those on a tabloid blog. Again, I never heard any complaints even from them that Weigel performed poorly, just that he wasn’t as disciplined as the rest of them in keeping themselves out of trouble. But, by co-signing this kind of bullshit, they’ve just co-signed the bounty on their own heads. All I have to do now, apparantly, is have another background email exchange with a Post reporter wherein he lets slip something approaching a human and non-objective opinion, and I’ve got a guaranteed post that gets eyeballs.

    If that’s the bed they want to make, well…have fun lying in it. Between Helen Thomas and Dave Weigel, the game now becomes catching MSM figures off-the-record expressing private opinions. If I were an MSM figure, I’d sure as hell be pushing back against that right now. If not…game on, I guess.

    Comment by Brad — 6/25/2010 @ 4:57 pm

  6. I gave Ambinder some shit earlier.

    Here is his take on the subject, which is as good, and strident, as any.

    Comment by Brad — 6/25/2010 @ 7:01 pm

  7. Helen Thomas and Dave Weigel? Not comparable. Helen Thomas hadn’t produced a piece of news in fifteen years. Unlike Weigel, she was employed specifically AS A CONSEQUENCE of her political views and her willingness to express them.

    Comment by Rojas — 6/25/2010 @ 7:12 pm

  8. Helen Thomas was fired for a personal opinion that had nothing to do with the performance of her duties. Period. Full stop.

    Now, if you think she was bad at the performance of her duties, fair enough. But then again, that would have been a good case to fire her twenty years ago. What changed, then, between June of 2010 and June of, say, 2007? Did she become worse at her job?

    The only thing that changed was that she was caught expressing a private opinion in a way (or perhaps the opinion itself) that she would not have in an expressly public forum. I can certainly understand why you (and, I’m sure, Weigel), would not wish to conflate the two very different public figures, but their reasons for firing were identical (if the quality of their work, as you say, was not).

    Comment by Brad — 6/25/2010 @ 9:22 pm

  9. But really, the only reason I mentioned them in the same breath is because of the effect both of their firings will have, in terms of incentives.

    Two high profile MSM figures were brought down because they were caught expressing a personal opinion that was out of touch with what mainstream audiences might have expected of them.

    Now, for future journalists/anchors/publishers/et al, or rather for the people that have a grudge against them, for whatever reason—fair, unfair, or simply mercenary—what is the lesson here?

    I tell you, if I’m Andrew Breitbert, I’m taking a button-cam with me to every D.C. bar I can find and chatting up anybody that looks remotely like they have a press credential.

    You could make the argument, I suppose, that that’ll be good for the 4th estate. I kind of doubt it. I’d rather not further cloister the media elite, and I’d also rather not further exacerbate the Myth of the Third Person Objective Reporter. Makes me miss the days when we might have judged a reporter for, you know, their work. If Helen Thomas deserved to be fired, she deserved to be fired regardless of whatever kooky shit she thought about Israel. If David Weigel deserved to step down, that should have been the case whether or not, off-the-clock, he was gracious to social conservatism in his personal ideology.

    Comment by Brad — 6/25/2010 @ 9:27 pm

  10. The irony is, we’re quickly going to reach a point where the only kind of journalism we accept is expressly partisan journalism, and by that I mean the Hannity-and-Colmes kind. David Weigel? Fuck him, he’s sort of in the middle. Bill Kristol—cool, because all Republicans (that matter) like him, and liberals don’t but of course they wouldn’t, they’re liberal. Glenn Greenwald? Ehhh, unpredictable, and he might be criticized for not being objective! Elliot Spitzer? Give that guy a primetime slot!

    I know we’ve had intellectual discussions before about the value of putting your beliefs on the table. In practice, I have a feeling that that’s exactly what we’re moving towards—only, unlike our fantasy, that’s going to look a lot more like FoxNews vs. Mother Jones than any bastian of journalistic integrity. If you think a two party political system crowds out dissenting voices, you just wait for the monopoly of two-party journalism…

    Comment by Brad — 6/25/2010 @ 9:34 pm

  11. Now, for future journalists/anchors/publishers/et al, or rather for the people that have a grudge against them, for whatever reason—fair, unfair, or simply mercenary—what is the lesson here?

    I tell you, if I’m Andrew Breitbert, I’m taking a button-cam with me to every D.C. bar I can find and chatting up anybody that looks remotely like they have a press credential.

    Alternatively…

    I’ve had $100,000 burning in my pocket for the last three months and I’d really like to spend it on a worthy cause. So how about this: in the interests of journalistic transparency, and to offer the American public a unique insight in the workings of the Democrat-Media Complex, I’m offering $100,000 for the full “JournoList” archive, source fully protected. Now there’s an offer somebody can’t refuse.

    Some time ago, I more or less made my peace with the fact that everything I say online, in any fashion, is roundabout public domain, and that if I manage to fully cleave my online life from my regular life (which I do, mostly), it’s more due to dumb luck than the minimum amount of time and effort I put into erecting some kind of safeguards. Were I to run for office or something at some point, I’ve no doubt that volumes of tasteless jokes and reckless counter-factuals and whatever else could be drummed up on me without too much effort and which, out of context (or even, at times, in), would make me look bad. And I’m a guy who has never had a Facebook account, generally shuns social media, doesn’t generally use the internet to get laid, etc. etc. My consolation, then, is that yeah it could happen to me, but in this day and age, it could happen to anybody. And, unless we want to spiral into a never-ending game of gotchya, people are just going to have to grow up about it – recipients of the information even moreso than seekers of it.

    But even having said that, I can’t help but boggle at what a bad precedent this is, for pretty much everybody.

    Hey Dave – you should not have quit over something this dumb. It would have been worth taking a stand over. Now, you’ve voluntarily given your scalp, and really swung into motion a perpetual game-playing of troublemakers and grudgeshakers who will forevermore be on the hunt to “prove” that journalists have opinions and that people share thoughts in private that, in a public context, make them look bad. Thanks.

    Comment by Brad — 6/30/2010 @ 11:22 am

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