The Binary World of The Washington Post

Conor Friedersdorf

Over at The Washington Post, ombudsman Andrew Alexander opines on the resignation of blogger Dave Weigel. The piece is so perfect a distillation of the flawed value system that governs newspaper journalism that it is worth a close read.

Let's jump right in:

Weigel bears responsibility for sarcastic and scornful comments he made in e-mails leaked from a supposedly private listserv called "Journolist," started in 2007 by fellow Post blogger and friend Ezra Klein. Weigel's e-mails showed strikingly poor judgment and revealed a bias that only underscored existing complaints from conservatives that he couldn't impartially cover them.

But his departure also raises questions about whether The Post has adequately defined the role of bloggers like Weigel. Are they neutral reporters or ideologues?
When he writes "neutral reporter," what Mr. Alexander means is a reporter who might be quite opinionated indeed, but who carefully conceals his or her beliefs from audience members and subjects of coverage. It would be more accurate had he written, "Are they 'reporters who carefully maintain the illusion that they're neutral' or ideologues?"

That more accurate rendering, however, wouldn't solve the larger problem with the false dichotomy that Mr. Alexander is creating. Dave Weigel wasn't "neutral" in the sense that the ombudsman means, but neither was he an ideologue, as anyone can see who tries to articulate what exactly his ideology was supposed to be. Doctrinaire liberal? Nope. Movement conservative? Definitely not. Someone described Mr. Weigel as a disaffected liberaltarian, which may be right.

In any case, an ideologue he is not.

The ombudsman goes on to contact Raju Narisetti, managing editor of The Washington Post Online.

"I don't think you need to be a conservative to cover the conservative movement," Narisetti told me late today. "But you do need to be impartial... in your views."

He said that when Weigel was hired, he was vetted in the same way that other prospective Post journalists are screened. He interviewed with a variety of top editors, his writings were reviewed and his references were checked, Narisetti said.

"But we're living in an era when maybe we need to add a level" of inquiry, he said. "It may be in our interests to ask potential reporters: 'In private... have you expressed any opinions that would make it difficult for you to do your job."
This is incoherent. What human being could be "impartial" in his or her views about every topic on a beat? The conservative movement includes some "birthers" on the fringe. Is the Washington Post going to replace Mr. Weigel with a reporter who is impartial "in his views" about whether the President of the United States is an illegal immigrant? Or consider the quote about Matt Drudge. It's definitely inappropriate -- joking that someone should set himself on fire is beyond the pale (or at least it's beyond the pale if offered for public consumption by a journalist, and reckless to offer on an e-mail list of dozens, which isn't the same as in a bar with friends). As for the substance of the judgment being made, though, I'd be worried about any Washington Post reporter who is impartial about whether The Drudge Report meets the standards of honest journalism.

It does not.

Pay careful attention to this next part:

With bloggers such as Weigel, "I think The Post needs to decide what it wants to be online," said Dan Gainor, a vice president at the conservative Media Research Center. "Does it want to be opinion? Or, does it want to be news? The problem here was that it was never clear."

"If it's going to be opinion, it ought to have somebody on the conservative side -- something Dave Weigel never was," he said.

If The Post wants to assign a "good neutral reporter" to cover conservatives, "we'd be thrilled," said Gainor. But quickly added, Weigel "wasn't one. He looked at the conservative movement as if he was visiting a zoo. We're more than that."

Gainor raises valid points. Klein's blog posts clearly pass through a liberal prism. For that reason, liberals have a comfort level with what he writes, and conservatives know where he's coming from, even if they disagree. In contrast, Weigel's blog seemed to confuse many conservatives who contacted me. Was he supposed to be a neutral reporter, some wondered? Others complained that he was a liberal trying to write about conservatives he disdained.
See what just happened? Earlier in the piece, the complaint was that Mr. Weigel might be an ideologue rather than a neutral reporter. Suddenly, however, there's a new problem: he isn't ideological enough. It "confuses" some members of the audience to read someone who is neither on Team Red nor Team Blue, but not a cipher either.

If so, confusion is long overdo. The average angry letter writer to American newspapers might consider himself a movement conservative or a committed progressive, but most of us find something distasteful about the orthodoxies of thought that control so much of our political discourse, and the last thing we want from a newspaper is to read a predictable voice from the right and another from the left, each hired for his ability to echo without fail the day's talking points.

The problem, Mr. Alexander, is the binary categories that Washington Post editors and some of its readers are imposing, as if they correspond to reality. Actually, being a careful reporter and an opinion writer aren't mutually exclusive. (See the magazine industry.) Nor are "neutral reporter" or "ideologue," or "conservative" or "liberal," descriptors that accurately describe every newspaper employee.

In pretending otherwise, aid and comfort is given to all the actual ideologues on the left and the right who are threatened by reporters like Mr. Weigel, whose work is neither stripped of all opinions nor ideologically driven -- just a constant, reportage based effort to convey facts and get at the truth. Rather than encouraging reporters and opinion writers to be fair, accurate, and intellectually honest, you're creating incentives whereby reporters are encouraged to conceal their true opinions, opinion writers are encouraged to be movement hacks, and between the two there is no overlap. 

This approach has never earned you the respect of movement conservatives and never will. Nor will it silence your progressive critics. How many decades of their complaints are required before this lesson is learned?

As ombudsman, perhaps you should turn your attention away from perceptions of whether someone can do good journalism, and evaluate their actual work, assessing it for accuracy, thoroughness, and fairness. You might find, as Jonah Goldberg, John Miller, Philip Klein, and many other movement conservatives have, that Mr. Weigel covered the right "fairer than most." 

Some critics will remain unsatisfied with the newspaper, but at least you'll be able to claim an earnest daily effort at producing the most informative, accurate coverage possible -- and to tell critics, "address what we publish, which speaks for itself for better or worse." The alternative is absurd. Your talk of asking prospective hires if they've ever said anything in private that might affect their ability to report is the journalistic equivalent of our modern Supreme Court nominations: the most important qualification is to never have said anything very interesting on the record.

It is perfectly defensible to wonder, after the revelation of Mr. Weigel's e-mails, if he'd still be able to get the necessary access from movement conservatives to do his job. It is my belief that the access would've been forthcoming. The people he's covered mostly agree that he is a fair journalist, and they know as well as I do that they're unlikely to fare better under an alternative. And if it turned out that he couldn't any longer do his job? That is a perfectly appropriate reason to terminate a business relationship. In closing, I'd say to Mr. Weigel's critics that if you can't find anything objectionable in his actual work -- as opposed to private e-mails leaked to the press -- you ought to reconsider whether you're being critical of the wrong side in this dispute.

UPDATE: See Chait and Stacy McCain too.


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