The Weigel affair: shooting the watchdog

Friday’s big American media story was the resignation of Washington Post weblogger and conservative-movement specialist Dave Weigel, who came under pressure when gossips obtained some of his tart-tongued and borderline nutty private e-mails to Journolist (a controversial private online club for young liberal media personnel which itself collapsed amidst all the chaos and poo-flinging). By a weird happenstance, Canada’s most remote, reclusive correspondent actually knows Weigel slightly. In February 2008, at the peak of the presidential primary campaigns, I spent a week slouching around the Washington offices of Reason, the libertarian magazine where he then worked.

Weigel was one of the more interesting figures in that scene: trained more conventionally in “traditional” journalism than other Reasonites, he was the detail-oriented data guy in the newsroom, par excellence. If somebody needed to know whether Tom Dewey won Illinois or how big the Pennsylvania congressional delegation was, it was pretty much fifty-fifty whether they’d Google it or Weigel it. My impression of him was that he was sarcastic, a little tightly wound and, not improperly, conscious of his own cleverness. He’s a type of person I find it pretty easy to get along with.

Weigel’s personal politics—liberal? Left-libertarian?—were not on display while I was there. I’m sure his bosses, Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, knew of his views at least in a general way, and I’m equally confident that they didn’t really care, because he was doing good reporting for them, as he did for the Post. Ideological media enterprises in Reason‘s category need to have someone with the “right” philosophy holding a golden share and making editorial-line decisions. But with that condition met, they can find tasks for anybody who is prepared to be fair and inquisitive.* For all I know, Reason‘s Radley Balko, who covers paramilitary excesses in policing and incompetence in the U.S. justice system, might be earnestly in favour of eugenics for Uzbeks. Would this somehow alter the (immense) value of his reporting?

Weigel is interested in movement conservatism and well-informed about it, so Reason handed him an oar and got him underway with his career of documenting its weirder fringes. It should not be a fatal problem that he privately loathes movementarian robot Republicans, unless some evidence of persistent inaccuracy can be shown in what the man publishes. And Weigel’s published journalism has held up to counterattacks pretty well everywhere he has worked. It seems somewhat cowardly of the Post to have asked him to step down for reasons completely unrelated to what appears under his byline, especially in the face of what constitutes at least a misdemeanour attack on his privacy.

After all, why can’t there be a critic/observer of Palin-Beck conservatism who hates much of Palin-Beck conservatism? Who, frankly, reports on anything for any length of time without developing some contempt for it? Isn’t it possible to argue that it should be a prerequisite rather than a disqualifier?

Weigel did commit enough technical infractions against fairness to feel the need to issue an apology on some minor points before he resigned. And one extract from Journolist did raise concerns about his fundamental ability to be fair: commenting on the Massachusetts special Senate election, he told fellow list members that “pointing out Coakley’s awfulness is vital, because…unreasonable panic about it is doing more damage to the Democrats.” I would consider such narrative-framing for the sake of a party interest (as opposed to an ideological preference) a problem even for an opinion columnist, let alone a beat reporter. (Weigel’s work for WaPo was poorly specified, but certainly somewhere on this spectrum.)

“Fairness” means being hypothetically prepared to attack any party or person; I figure if you want to be a partisan hack, you should go be one, and work on the supply side of the quote machine. But that’s one slip amongst many thousands of words, and I am not sure anyone at all could survive the level of scrutiny to which Weigel’s private conversations were subjected. The Post‘s failure to defend him seems dangerous to its practical ability to create and sell interesting journalism.

*(These outfits can end up more diverse intellectually than “objective” news organs; in any place where explicit opinions and “biases” are suppressed, it becomes easy to end up with a homogenous nicey-nice liberal workforce whose members never challenge each other. The letters “CBC” might have magically appeared just now in your mind’s eye upon reading that.)

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