Weigel, WaPo, and the Tracy-Flickization of Public Life

  • [Julian Sanchez]

Like Megan and most of my fellow guestbloggers, I'm fortunate to count Dave Weigel--until this morning a blogger covering the conservative movement for the Washington Post--as a friend. Insofar as that probably renders real objectivity impossible, I'm only going to say a few words specifically about his ignominious ouster from the paper today, coming on the heels of a vile smear campaign against him, culminating over the past 24-hours in the publication of a series of cherry-picked excerpts of private e-mails to an off-the-record mailing list.

First, having been both Dave's professional colleague at Reason and his housemate for several years, I can say pretty confidently that he is not any sort of liberal or progressive. "Libertarian" might be closer to the mark, but the truth is that he's just not easily classified ideologically.  He's more conservative than I am on some issues, more liberal on others. Nor has he ever pretended otherwise--certainly he's never claimed to be any kind of party-line conservative, as anyone following his published writing or public Twitter feed would immediately realize. But contemporary movement conservatism is apparently so Manichean, and so tightly in the grip of a bunker mentality, that such fine distinctions are no longer possible. To take a dim view of the self-serving demagoguery of a handful of prominent conservatives like Matt Drudge or Newt Gingrich is apparently, now, to display contempt for conservatives as such. If the Princess-and-the-Pea brigade now cheering his departure would bracket their persecution complex for five minutes, they'd realize that he was consistently delivering coverage about as fair and sympathetic as could reasonably be hoped for.  What they apparently wanted was a movement hack to dole out indiscriminate praise to anyone claiming the mantle of conservatism--whereas Dave took the right seriously enough to make distinctions between what he saw as its credible thinkers and its nuts and opportunists. Memo to my friends on the right: If you bristle at being stereotyped as an undifferentiated bloc of racists and crude blowhards, maybe you shouldn't take automatic umbrage when someone points out particular individuals who are.

Second, as Alyssa Rosenberg points out, whatever treacherous bottom-feeder decided to leak Dave's e-mails was either on or had access to the liberal JournoList, which raises a question of motive. In the socially stunted high-school environment of DC, simple professional jealousy can't be ruled out.  But as former RNC tech guru Liz Mair argued in a series of tweets and a blog post this morning, there were also many on the left who were displeased by Weigel's rejoinders to attacks against conservatives he saw as unfair or overblown--with his defense of Rand Paul provoking particular outrage.  There's the distinct possibility that the right got played by a leaker who selected, probably from months or years worth of e-mails, the remarks most likely to set the media bias hounds baying.  (I have no doubt someone combing through years of my correspondence could cull enough material to paint me as either an unhinged leftist or a fire-breathing right-winger, were they so inclined, and possibly a Zoroastrian to boot.)

I'll leave Dave's case there, as I've no doubt some other outlet will be quick to snatch up the pearl outside the Post's sty. But maybe it's worth saying something a bit more general about what David Brooks' column today calls the "culture of exposure." We've long expected that candidates for public office would conduct their lives--to quote a wickedly on point parody video making the rounds--"in such a bland, uncontroversial and repressed manner that it's almost unnatural." Cf. Kagan, Elena--who has presumably noted how obsessively Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings focused on a single sentence about "wise Latinas." Our mediasphere is now fast and dense enough that political staffers, like speechwriter Jon Favreau, can find themselves embroiled in mini-scandals over an unguarded moment captured in a Facebook photo.  My own Cato colleague Michael Cannon recently found himself the target of what Dave Weigel himself accurately characterized as an "unfair and dishonest hit" by a blogger for ThinkProgress who decided to wrench a moment of Twitter silliness out of context and contort it, ludicrously, into an expression of anti-immigrant sentiment. You can probably think of plenty of examples of your own--there's now a cottage industry of sites devoted to combing for any offhand remark or photograph or anecdote that can be used to skewer ideological opponents.  

Lots of folks seem oddly resigned to living in a culture where anyone who is even remotely a public figure must expect to be defined by the least flattering thing they've ever said or done. Let the public mask slip for a moment--heaven forfend you're foolish enough to do it in a recordable online context--and you've only yourself to blame when, predictably, it becomes the focus of today's Two Minute Hate. Is this a culture anyone actually wants to live in?   Forget the cost to the public figures--does anyone really want to live in a world where the only people prepared to risk engagement in politics are either so rigidly self-disciplined and boring that they provide no fodder for these outrage kabuki rituals, or such consistent over-the-top blowhards that no particular comment stands out as a focus of outrage?

Part of the problem lies in the shibboleths of modern journalism--and here I find myself in growing agreement with the position Jay Rosen staked out in our BloggingHeads conversation last week. It seemed to many of us that, in hiring folks like Dave and Ezra Klein, the Post had begun to recognize there was something sterile and counterproductive in a set of professional norms that conflated fairness and objectivity with the sort of personal paucity of opinions that could never be expected of any engaged observer with a functioning brainstem. We all understood that any thinking reporter had to eventually form some conclusions about the topics they covered consistently, and that pretending otherwise was just that--pretense. Dave fused reporting chops on par with the best of the legacy press with an ethos brought from new media, one that effectively said: What if I respect the reader's intelligence and don't pretend to be an empty shell? What if I'm up front about where I'm coming from, on the assumption that being honest about what you think ought to confer more credibility than pretending you don't think at all? His new gig at the Post suggested that they got this--apparently not.

So the lesson for young writers from all this: Be Tracy Flick. Don't say anything remotely interesting, certainly not over e-mail. If you lack the mental discipline to completely suppress critical thought about people and institutions you spend your life covering, get good at pretending. The lesson for activists: Our news cycles are so short that, with a little coordination, nothing is too tame or trivial to be transformed into a weapon of personal destruction--so that's an excellent use of your resources. We'll doubtless get--are getting--precisely the quality of public discourse we deserve.

Postscript: Just a couple quick points...

  • The notion that the Post was somehow confused and believed Dave to be himself part of the conservative movement when they brought him on is frankly bizarre.  To believe this, you'd have to believe that they hired him without having read any of his prior coverage from the Windy, which was substantially similar.  In any event, they asked him directly whether he considered himself a conservative before he came on, and he told them that he didn't.

  • It's worth noting that all the e-mails in the second leak, paraphrased or excerpted in the Daily Caller's story, came from before Dave joined the Post, which seems sort of relevant.  It's silly enough to demand that your reporters never privately express a harsh opinion while they're on staff--it's downright creepy to expect them never to have done so.
Also, Photoshop credit for the image of Matt Drudge-flambé goes to Oliver Willis.