On Weigel v WaPo, Today's Inside-the-Beltway Journalism News

Normally it's not my place to weigh in on an issue lighting up the blog world. But because this is emerging as an unexpectedly polarizing moment in conceptions of journalism in general, web-based journalism in particular, the predicament and future of the Washington Post, the consequences of an "always on the record" culture, the differences between "objectivity" and "fairness," etc, I feel I should say:

I agree with my Atlantic colleagues Marc Ambinder, Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf, and (in guest role for Megan McArdle) Julian Sanchez that the Post was wrong to force its reporter David Weigel out today, after some of his reckless private emails were leaked. This means disagreeing with my Atlantic colleague Jeff Goldberg's initial condemnation of Weigel, later modified in several posts.

Going through all aspects of the issue would require many thousands of words, on top of the zillions already written. In brief: I agree with Friedersdorf's explanation of what should and should not count as bias in journalism; Sanchez's warnings about where the veneration of faux-objectivity would lead (as opposed to fair-mindedness and transparency); and Ambinder's account of the kind of reporting Weigel actually did. Weigel was foolish to put the things he did into emails, but the posts 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. UPDATE: An interesting video on the "Think Before You Post" theme, plus a change of mind on the virtues of living in public, here.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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