… NYT’s David Carr has a piece up at the Times on the Dave Wiegel contretemps at The Washington Post.
For those not following along at home, which is probably all of you, Wiegel posted some derogatory (but, in at least some cases, factually accurate) things about certain prominent conservatives to a supposedly private e-mail list before becoming a reporter/blogger for the Post, covering the U.S. conservative movement. When these e-mails were made public a few months after he joined the Post, Wiegel offered the Post his resignation. The Post accepted with unseemly haste.
Carr starts out by acknowledging that Wiegel’s “job” was actually a no-win situation for its holder:
Wanted: Political blogger covering the conservative movement. Must be provocative and write with a strong point of view although not in a way that would reveal bias or offend any of your potential subjects. Social media a plus until it’s not. Must be completely transparent, unless that proves embarrassing to the newspaper. Send sanitized résumé, innocuous clips and nonpartisan references to The Washington Post.
But part of working the edge is that every once in a while, you go flying off, which Mr. Weigel did rather spectacularly last weekend when a news site, The Daily Caller, published some of his contributions to JournoList, an invitation-only e-mail list composed of 400 politically interested journalists.
Looked at in the light most favorable to Carr, this sentence suggests that Wiegel was thrown off, rather than having gone off course under his own power. And if that’s what Carr meant, I’d be at least somewhat inclined to go along. Despite the common-sense dictum that everything on the Internet is public, Wiegel joined JournoList believing it to be a closed community. That’s not smart, but it is neither malicious nor proof that he cannot cover conservatives fairly and accurately.
And what were Wiegel’s offending comments? Per Carr, they were that
Mr. Weigel used the term “Paultard” to describe followers of Ron Paul and also suggested that Patrick Buchanan was “an anti-Semite” and that Newt Gingrich was an “amoral blowhard.” More recently, he wrote that Matt Drudge, the conservative aggregator and blogger behind The Drudge Report, should “set himself on fire.”
Dumb, that, especially the part about sliming both disabled people and conservatives in just eight letters …
Well, let’s take a look at that. “Paultard” is politically incorrect, certainly. But frankly, the more of Ron Paul’s views come to light, the stupider and more out of touch with reality he appears. Moreover, denigrating Ron Paul doesn’t denigrate all conservatives; it denigrates a well-defined subset whose grip on reality is, at best, tenuous. [UPDATE: Preceding two sentences edited to eliminate my conflation of Ron and Rand. Hey, it was late. Don't judge me.] Patrick Buchanan’s anti-Semitism has long since been recognized by everyone except Patrick Buchanan; it’s a fact, like oxygen. Newt Gingrich an “amoral blowhard”? Well, “blowhard” is in the eye of the beholder, but, yes, anyone who creates something like this as an instrument of campaigning/governing should consider himself lucky to get off with being dismissed as “amoral,” given what God had to say in Exodus about bearing false witness. And someone please tell me what’s so wrong with suggesting — in a joky kind of way, sort of like Rush Limbaugh’s sense of humor — that Matt Drudge should “set himself on fire,” other than what he should really do is take a long walk off a short pier so as to replenish the ecosphere and not contribute to global warming?
Considering the evil that can credibly be laid at the feet of these subjects, and the fact that Wiegel wrote this stuff before the Post hired him, this is bad … how, exactly?
… but even as his resignation was offered and quickly accepted, none of the Post leadership suggested his actual work was anything less than rigorous or fair.
“Dave did excellent work for us,” the executive editor of The Post, Marcus Brauchli, told Howard Kurtz, the paper’s media columnist, but then added, “We can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work.”
So, let me make sure I understand Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli: What matters is not the quality of the reporter’s work. What matters, instead, is the opinion about him of those he covers.
Gee. I’m SO freaking glad my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather John Alexander took a bunch of his sons-in-law into battle at Cowpens and Kings Mountain and Yorktown so that Marcus Brauchli could see to it that some of the most sociopathic figures in American politics don’t get a case of the vapors over something that somebody freaking wrote about them. God bless America. Seriously. I think I might weep.
This past weekend, (Brauchli) told the newspaper’s ombudsman that The Post needed to be “completely transparent about what people do … and completely transparent about where people stand.”
So, we’re now going to get completely transparent about the fact that where Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt stands is with his lips firmly attached to Dick Cheney’s rear end? That Mark Thiessen gets sexually aroused at the thought of Abu Ghraib? That Charles Krauthammer probably shouldn’t be left unattended around little children? Well, the photos’ll be ugly, but …
And it ain’t just Brauchli who has no grip on reality:
The Post’s managing editor, Raju Narisetti, said in an earlier interview with the ombudsman that one need not be a conservative to cover conservatives. “But you do need to be impartial,” he said, adding, “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?’ ”
So: Expressing an opinion, particularly a negative one, about those one covers, makes it “difficult” for a reporter to do his job. How? Because doing so might create the perception that the reporter cannot be fair to them.
OK, I follow that logic as far as it goes. Which, unfortunately, isn’t very far, because the real test of a reporter’s work isn’t whether there’s a perception that he can’t be fair. It is whether the work he actually publishes is fair, accurate, and ethically produced. That’s all that matters. The problem a lot of conservatives have with Wiegel wasn’t that he was, or even was perceived to be, unfair. It’s that he was all too fair — so fair that he hung them with their own rope, as even “Post leadership” and Carr acknowledged (see the bolded line in the excerpt above).
This Old Media management obsession with “perception” needs to stop, because whether those managers like it or not, time is not their friend on this issue. The World Wide Web is almost as old as some reporters, e-mail older still. The likelihood that you can hire a reporter who has never expressed a potentially controversial opinion in some online forum or other grows slimmer by the day. The way you judge whether a reporter is fair and accurate is whether his stories are fair and accurate, factually and contextually. If the work is fair and accurate, perceptions are irrelevant. If the reporter follows what Jay Rosen has called the discipline of verification, the work will stand … and the reporter’s opinions, however artlessly or indelicately phrased, will be all the more damning for being undergirded with fact, which is something that I’m just guessing might help bring readers back.
Something else the Post doesn’t get: The days when you could punch a hippie and not get called out on it are, thankfully, drawing to a close. Even Carr seems to get this, and to get that the Post doesn’t get this: He writes, in a tone of something less than complete approval, that Wiegel
… probably could have survived if he had slammed Rachel Maddow or had some fun at Al Franken’s expense … A little thought experiment: What if a reporter made a wildly inappropriate video suggesting that the secretary of state, who happens to be a woman, should drink Mad Bitch beer? Surely that reporter would be forced to apologize to Hillary Rodham Clinton before walking the plank. Yet when this happened, Dana Milbank, the longtime Washington Post star who made the video, remained a prized political writer at the paper.
Yup, but those filthy bloggers are destroying journalism.
Carr observes that Wiegel’s
willingness to train his guns inside the conservative movement was a bit much, especially in the eyes of The Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander. “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,” he wrote. “Ironically, Weigel was hired to address precisely those concerns.”
And why is that, exactly, Andrew? Why should the Post be “properly attuned to their ideology or activities” … as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, reporting on them fairly and accurately and letting the chips fall where they may? Their ideology is, in many cases, blatantly anticonstitutional, so, O Ombudsman of the Highest Pillar of Amerian Political Journalism, please enlighten me: just how attuned to that does a reporter need to be? Because if the Post gets any more attuned to it, Fred Hiatt is going to be accused of practicing proctology without a license.
I would point out that that would not be a crime if Rand Paul were in charge, but then I’d have to go set myself on fire.
(UPDATE: Title changed and first sentence revised after some readers suggested they thought I was implying that the Times was at fault here. No. The Times was at fault here. I know it’s hard, but please try to keep up.)