How Should Journalists Be Judged?

Conor Friedersdorf

Elsewhere at The Atlantic, my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the finest reporters I've ever had the pleasure of reading (seriously), writes this about just-resigned Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel:

The liberal blogger Dave Weigel, who was hired by The Post to cover the conservative movement, has resigned, after advising Matt Drudge on a semi-public forum for leftish commentators to set himself on fire. Put aside the controversy over whether the Post, which was advised by its star blogger, Ezra Klein (who once advised parties unknown, via his Twitter account, to "fuck tim russert. fuck him with a spiky acid-tipped dick") that Weigel would do an excellent and balanced job of reporting on conservatives, even understood that it was hiring a liberal, and not a conservative (Ben Smith has more on this aspect of the controversy), the issue in the newsroom today is, How did the Post come to this?
 
"How could we destroy our standards by hiring a guy stupid enough to write about people that way in a public forum?" one of my friends at the Post asked me when we spoke earlier today. "I'm not suggesting that many people on the paper don't lean left, but there's leaning left, and then there's behaving like an idiot."

I gave my friend the answer he already knew: The sad truth is that the Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training. This little episode today is proof of this. But it is also proof that some people at the Post (where I worked, briefly, 20 years ago) still know the difference between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior, and that maybe this episode will lead to the re-imposition of some level of standards.
Mr. Goldberg and I are in agreement that Mr. Weigel showed poor judgment in emails he sent to a listserv for liberal Washington DC journalists. The indiscretion is something that most journalists I know would guard against, and I also found objectionable his suggestion that links should be withheld from The Washington Examiner as retaliation for a mean-spirited item written by one of its gossip columnists. Links ought to be afforded on the basis of merit, full stop.

But the main "stupidity" on display here is that Mr. Weigel trusted the members of an avowedly private forum to keep his rants off-the-record, as advertised. In others words, he trusted his colleagues too much, and that isn't a flaw that should disqualify someone from being a reporter, nor should the fact that they have strong, occasionally intemperate opinions, as do we all.

Do we really want to establish a standard whereby the worthiness of a journalist is measured by whether or not he has controversial opinions? Or how adept he is at concealing those opinions?

Let me put this another way. There is no opinion Jeffrey Goldberg could offer on an e-mail listserv that would change my high opinion of the magazine stories he has produced over many years. His work is the only standard by which I judge him, and so long as he writes at the level to which I am accustom, I'll read him regardless. Obviously that isn't the standard that high profile media corporations use when hiring reporters and writers, and Mr. Goldberg and I probably both feel a responsibility to our various employers to maintain some hard to define level of discretion when writing for public or even semi-private consumption.

I'll defend to death, however, the proposition that the work of a journalist should be the only standard by which he is measured. Mr. Weigel's work is superb: he breaks news, his foremost loyalty is to the facts, and he reliably treats fairly even folks with whom he very much disagrees. The conservatives he covers are the biggest losers here. As Ben Boychuk wrote on Twitter, "I find you insufferable, but indispensable. Sorry you resigned. I'll read you wherever you land, you magnificent bastard." That should be the reaction of someone who finds what Mr. Weigel wrote to be distasteful.

Let's examine the implications of the standard that The Washington Post is actually employing here, and that most newspaper companies would also employ.

-- In the excerpt above, Mr. Goldberg quotes an anonymous Washington Post staffer who, it should be noted, spoke disparagingly of his or her own newspaper in a conversation with a journalist from a competing media company. This source disparaged Dave Weigel, The Post, and the people responsible for hiring him, anonymously. In other words, this source's very actions imply that he or she knows The Washington Post would look unfavorably on the public airing of this opinion, but decided that lack of discretion isn't the problem so much as being stupid enough to get caught. Do journalists really want to help establish a standard whereby "stupidity" equals transparency?

-- Firing Dave Weigel incentivizes more digging into the personal opinions of journalists, and validates the idea that they should be judged on the basis of those opinions, rather than the content of their work. What's next? E-mails sent to a few people and leaked? Opinions offered at a bar over beers and surreptitiously recorded? Can I reiterate how glad I am to have moved away from Washington DC? (You should hear what I say about De Beers in private!)

-- Mr. Goldberg suggests that this episode might "lead to the re-imposition of some level of standards" at The Washington Post, suggesting that the newspaper's problem is that it employs people like Ezra Klein and Dave Weigel, who've exercised poor judgment in writing intended for a private audience. I submit that seeing these two staffers -- who are intellectually honest and talented, whatever their flaws -- as the problem at The Post is to miss the Mark Theissen for the trees.

Oops, Freudian slip. What I mean to say is that The Washington Post publishes many talented writers at the tops of their games -- Gene Weingarten, I'd give half of what I own if I could clone you -- but its most egregious flaw is confusing what actually consists of inexcusably poor judgment. To be more specific, by firing Dave Weigel, and continuing to employ columnists like Marc Thiessen, the Post is saying that it is inexcusably poor judgment to utter honestly held, intemperate opinions if they wind up being made public, but it is perfectly acceptable to write an intellectually dishonest, error-filled book on the subject of your main expertise, and to publish columns of the same quality.

Mr. Goldberg and I agree that Dave Weigel showed poor judgment, but by holding him up as the poster child for declining standards at The Washington Post, as opposed to other more deserving targets, the inescapable message is that the quality of a journalist's actual work for publication matters less than the public image he is able to project. As far as I know, Mr. Thiessen has never said anything intemperate on a semi-private listserv. Apparently that is what's required if he's to resign his column -- that's the consequence of a weird standard whereby firings at a newspaper are utterly unconnected to single word actually published in its pages.      

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