On Friday, Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel -- who covered conservative groups -- resigned his position after incendiary partisan emails he had sent were published by the Daily Caller. The day before, some of his intemperate emails were published by Fishbowl DC. He had apologized already for those and chalked them up to a bad day. All of the emails were sent to a closed professional list-serv that required privacy as a condition of membership. So all hell broke loose when these emails were published and there is a lot of commentary you can read about the situation. Almost all of the inside-the-beltway folks rushed to his defense. Media critics did likewise. Ross Douthat of the New York Times says the shame is that the list had a rat and that someone published the leaked material. Beliefnet's Rod Dreher also laments the violation of privacy. At the end of Dreher's post on the matter, he brings the discussion around to religion coverage. And I think he draws some interesting comparisons.
Weigel's emails were sent to a list-serv for liberal journalists. It was called JournoList and was started by his friend Ezra Klein. (You may be interested in TMatt's prescient take last year on potential problems with the list-serv, as well as some reader comments at the time.) Their publication made his continued reporting about conservatives difficult because on the list he'd strategized about how to help the Democratic Party. He'd also called a Democrat with pro-life concerns about health care reform a "monster" and generally mocked those he covered as racist and stupid.
Those emails were sent before he became a Washington Post reporter but just a few weeks ago he publicly tweeted:
I can empathize with everyone I cover except for the anti-gay marriage bigots. In 20 years no one will admit they were part of that.
He apologized for that, too. But Time religion editor Amy Sullivan says she thinks that his clarification of those remarks showed the problem with his reporting:
Weigel's departure is a good thing for journalism. Not because he was biased against the subjects of his beat but because for someone who often seemed obsessed with conservatives, Weigel was surprisingly incurious about them. To my mind, Weigel's most damning comment in the past few months was not calling gay marriage opponents "bigots" or suggesting that Matt Drudge set himself on fire, but this response to a Politics Daily reporter as he tried to clarify the "bigots" remark: "I do not understand or respect the motivation of anti-gay marriage campaigners."
Now, you can't fault a journalist for not respecting those with whom he personally disagrees (although it's hard to see how someone can decide to respect or disrespect motivations that he doesn't understand.) But you could argue that an essential part of Weigel's job was trying to understand the motivations of conservative activists, including anti-gay marriage campaigners. What good is it to have a reporter on the conservative beat if he's not digging into what animates different conservative factions and then trying to explain those motivations to readers?
I had some inaccurate assumptions about those who oppose same-sex marriage that were quickly dispelled by interviewing them and reading their arguments. It's quite easy to understand their arguments and should be a basic requirement for a reporter covering the issue. And I wish reporters would care more about the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage rather than relying solely on emotion to
advocate report on that side, too.
When he took the Post position, Weigel tried to present himself as someone who took the right "seriously." His activism on JournoList has harmed his credibility on that front. However, he has more than enough defenders of his work. They sit all across the political spectrum, too, although it's worth noting that the left is much more upset about his departure from the Post than the right is. Still, Weigel will be fine, as you will see if you read his explanation of his behavior over at BigGovernment.com. (I should note that the accuracy of part of his account questioned by one of his former editors.)
The Post, however, has some problems on its hands. To start with, the editors there were so clueless that, apparently, they actually believed Weigel was a conservative when they hired him and presented him as such. Even if he downplayed his liberalism, there is just no excuse for believing that. As the Weekly Standard wrote:
Unfortunately for Weigel, the Post believed he was a diversity hire, someone they could point to whenever conservatives complained about ideological imbalance at the paper. His emails undermined their talking-point. They wanted a reporter who would allow them to maintain the fiction that they run a balanced newsroom. He embarrassed them by holding opinions indistinguishable from their own.
The Washington Post ombudsman addressed the situation in a related fashion:
Weigel's exit, and the events that prompted it, have further damaged The Post among conservatives who believe it is not properly attuned to their ideology or activities. Ironically, Weigel was hired to address precisely those concerns.
The article also quotes an editor saying "I don't think you need to be a conservative to cover the conservative movement. But you do need to be impartial ... in your views."
Okay, that's ridiculous. You do not need to be impartial in your views to cover anything well. I have a friend who is one of the best reporters I know. He's gay and -- in his private life -- is an activist for gay causes. I would still trust him to write fairly about people who oppose same-sex marriage or other causes he endorses. That's because he believes his job as a reporter is to . . . report, not be an activist. I've seen him write fairly on issues about which he passionately cares. I think what helps is that he's very up front about his biases and is curious about the views of those he disagrees with.
To look at the religion beat, what in the heck would "impartiality" mean on that beat? There's no such thing! No matter what you believe or don't believe, there's no escaping partiality. I know next to nothing about the personal religious ties (or lack thereof) of the Godbeat specialists we criticize here. Part of the reason is because it doesn't matter -- we're just concerned that the topic gets covered fairly and accurately. As far as I know, there's no creed with that specialty!
Now having said all that, it's also true that the Post is in desperate need of some different viewpoints in its newsroom. The paper has acknowledged as much previously. That they thought they were getting a diversity hire in Weigel is proof of how dire the situation is.
And Byron York at the Washington Examiner, where my husband works, asks why newspapers are hiring reporters to look at conservatives without also hiring reporters to provide in-depth coverage of liberals. Reflecting on New York Times editor Bill Keller's explanation, York notes that "just because you're a liberal, and your fellow reporters and editors are liberals, doesn't mean you fully understand the liberal world. There might be other ways of seeing it." Or, as he concludes:
But even if the Post really believed Weigel was a conservative, there is still the question of why they hired a (presumed) conservative to cover the conservative movement. Why not have some of the many liberals already on staff cover that and hire a conservative to cover liberals? Or maybe -- gasp -- hire two conservatives to cover liberals. After all, there are a lot of liberals in powerful positions these days. If the Post is going to practice opinion journalism, having the perspective of a couple of conservative journalists couldn't hurt, could it?
That's certainly a good idea for the opinion journalism emphasis that the Post is trying out. And on that note, the blogging world is making fun of the ideal of journalistic neutrality (which should not be confused with having reporters with no viewpoint), but as much as I like the viewpoint-heavy blogs, I think something is lost when journalists just resort to, for instance, calling opponents bigots instead of trying to report on an issue fairly. It may be less exciting but it certainly seems more civilized.