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.)


The Weigel affair: shooting the watchdog

  1. How do you explain this?

    """Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a pro-life Democrat from Illinois who expressed reservations about the abortion provisions in the legislation was, according to Weigel, a “monster” because he represents “a deeply safe seat” and could afford to vote for it."""

    He should have stayed at the news organization that shared office space with media matters.

    • The explanation is that Weigel doesn't have a very high opinion of Lipinski.

  2. Hostile coverage of a movement is definitely valuable, particularly to the members of that movement.
    However, it's not a good way to get a complete picture of that movement to the public…which should be the goal of good journalism.

    The partisan narrative-shaping, in my view, is killer. One such quote is enough, unless it was just poor phrasing or taken out of context.

    • Weigel tells me, having read the piece above, that he was discussing Coakley from an "if-you're-a-Democrat" game-theoretic perspective. So it could have been taken out of context (which I've invited him to provide me). Certainly, one way or another, the context was removed by Daily Caller.

      • Weigel has posted the email on his site..

  3. I've read some of the things Weigel said.

    If you want to be cruel and rude, it will come back to haunt you. Weigel got what he deserved. Those nasty things Weigel said, on many occasions, were not criticisms, they were insults.

    There's a lot of aggression and hate emanating from those on the left, and this comes at a time when in the US they have control of the presidency and both houses. Weigel is just one example of many. It's unfortunate that such behaviour is seen as perfectly acceptable by those on the listserv maintained by Klein. Not only that, it's rather surprising that Weigel was dumb enough to say such things on a listserv, which is a public discussion open to anyone (which is obvious to most of us), just as much as everything I write here.

  4. I didn't read Weigel every day, but what I did read struck me as, for the most part, well reported and fair. Ironically, the only time I read anything by him that I thought was very unfair concerned a former Reason staffer.

    And for the most part, I'm not troubled by the Journolist posts that have been revealed so far. The major exceptions have been noted here, especially his attempt to spin the Brown victory.

    But can someone who knows him better tell me why he was so upset by the story about him dancing at the Suderman-McArdle wedding. I read that when it first apperaed, and I read it again just yesterday, and it was really innocuous.

    I think his overreacted to the Drudge link as well, but at least I could see what upset him.

  5. I've tried to reprint some of what Wiegel said, but funny enough, some of his comments are filtered by the software, and the rest will be deleted by Maclean's staff. Suffice it to say, much of what Wiegel said on that listserv, is not nice, not in the slightest. I think Cosh is being disingenuous in trying to make much more out of it.

    • "Because he's not nice" is an even lamer reason to fire someone than "Because he has private opinions." I've given links to what Weigel's been quoted as saying (click on "tart-tongued" and "borderline nutty").

      • Well, the story goes that he resigned. Maybe he was fired.

        I don't think he was fired/resigned for being not nice, he was fired/resigned for showing through those emails that he's not capable of doing what he was hired to do, which is to cover conservative news, either with objective reporting or objective opinions. Maybe Weigel felt his readers would not be able to see beyond this. His loathing for conservatives transcends his thoughts, and he's clearly not objective about his opinions of them. And it showed in his Post writing as well – defending Van Jones (attacking those who criticized van Jones 911 truther beliefs), or defending McGinniss (attacking Palin's rather restrained and commendable reaction to her new neighbour instead) , and so on.

        Anyway, if I were his boss at the Post, I would consider it a good reason to fire him – the reason being that I wouldn't want to keep someone who showed so much sheer hostility for those with whom he disagrees. I'd want my employees to be calm, cool and collected, capable of objective understanding the positions of others. He's too much of a hostile partisan.

        I'm sure he'll have no trouble landing a position somewhere else though.

  6. I have read a number of _Reason_ articles, enough to form impressions of some of the authors, but not of Weigel. So my main impression of Weigel was from some of his remarks on Rep. Etheridge a few weeks ago. I was, and I remain, pretty underimpressed. It seems to me that if Weigel's published analysis of the Etheridge incident was that it's an illustration of how conservatives manufacture multiple memes per week from "any video of a member [of Congress] acting strangely, no matter how grainy," then Weigel was doing a pretty poor imitation of journalism.

  7. Forget, please, "conservatism." It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    "[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth."

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor,
    Recovering Republican

  8. In principle, there's nothing wrong with a Weigel covering conservatives. But he clearly isn't the conservative equivalent of Ezra Klein. And, well, the conservative equivalent of Klein is apparently what the Washington Post thought it was hiring, and is certainly what he was advertised as to Washington Post readers as when he was hired.

  9. Radley Balko and Reason Magazine are fake libertarians. Gillespie is sort of in a panic right now becuase he stood silent while Obama spewed bull shit in 2008, and now that his administration is as far away from real libertarianism as possible, he must cover his ass.