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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

It’s a bit tricky for me to write about David Weigel, whom the Washington Post parted ways with on Friday for disparaging comments he had made about some prominent Republican figures on Journolist, a self-avowedly off-the-record listserv. Not because I was a member of Journolist (although I was) but because I’m potentially somewhat self-interested here. On the one hand, beginning in August, I’ll be working for the New York Times, which is a competitor of the Washington Post. On the other hand, I have a vested interest in seeing people like Dave Weigel succeed. What he does and what I do are rather similar. To borrow from Jim Henley:

[The] Blog-reporter ethos appears to consist of

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

This is exactly the attitude I take toward FiveThirtyEight, provided that you replace “reporting” with “research”, “analysis”, or “statistical modelling” (although we occasionally do “reporting” proper). As Henley goes on to point out, this is not actually anything particularly novel; it’s a model that has been used for years in magazine journalism, for instance. Likewise in book publishing: good luck getting a book contract unless your product comes to some kind of conclusion and reflects some kind of worldview. But the “blog-reporter ethos” seems to scare some people, probably because the media industry is consolidating and when that happens, people very easily become threatened.

Anyway, let’s just be clear: when something bad happens to Dave Weigel, it’s potentially more threatening to me than it might be to some random person. You deserve to know where my bread is buttered. With that said, this issue is too essential to my professional life for me not to comment upon, and I find the Washington Post’s decision to accept Weigel’s resignation to be appalling.

Start with the forum: Weigel’s comments were supposed to be off-the-record. I actually don’t think this completely absolves him of any responsibility for his remarks. There are some things that Dave Weigel could say that could outweigh the presumption of privacy. Suppose, for example, that he had said on Journolist that he was trying to infiltrate and undermine the conservative movement: that would presumably be a firing offense, even if the comments were made in private.

Moreover, on a list of 400 people, you’re going to have a few who have vested interests, who have personality disorders, who work for competing publications, or whom you’ve rubbed the wrong way personally or professionally. Basically, you’re going to have some assholes. Even if there’s a 99.8 percent chance that any one given member of Journolist is not an asshole, the odds that you’ll have at least one asshole from among the 400 are over 50 percent.

Nevertheless, the fact that the remarks were made on a listserv that was supposed to be private ought to be an exceptionally strong mitigating factor; the violation would have to be really egregious, especially if no prior warning had been given to Weigel. As Tyler Cowen and Julian Sanchez have noted, moreover, the fact that someone could be fired for expressing viewpoints in private creates extremely perverse incentives for journalists and may ultimately lead a less well informed public.

Although Weigel’s comments were caustic and mean-spirited, they did not demonstrate that he is incapable of reporting fairly on the conservative movement. They weren’t even political comments per se, so much as locker-room, towel-snapping banter. His words were poorly chosen and to be sure, I wouldn’t have written them. (When someone reaches a threshold where there they deserve a reprimand, my usual practice is to issue that reprimand here on the blog rather than in private.) But there have been essentially zero complaints about Weigel’s on-the-record reporting. Even within the conservative blogosphere, defenses of him have probably outweighed critiques by a ratio of about 5:2. Nor did the Washington Post’s ombudsman point toward any examples where Weigel had done a less-than-admirable job of reporting under his byline at the paper.

In contrast, there occasionally surfaces the misguided notion that having opinions of any kind ought to be disqualifying to a reporter. As expressed by FishbowlDC’s Betsy Rothstein (who abetted the leaker and broke the story) and Matt Dornic (whose passion for journolistic integrity is so deep that he moonlights as a lobbyist):

We at FishbowlDC question why Weigel continues airing his political laundry. If you’re a reporter, you’re supposed to be an unbiased bystander. We shouldn’t know if he voted for Ron Paul, President Obama or David Hasselhoff. If you’re going to be reporting on any political movement, you are supposed to take an unbiased approach.

Is the expectation really that journalists aren’t allowed to develop opinions about the subjects they cover, even if those opinions are expressed only in private? We have a name for people who are so indifferent about society: we call them sociopaths. Or is the expectation that journalists are allowed to have opinions, provided that they keep them secret? (This would be an ironic stance for FishbowlDC to take, since their business model relies on blurring the distinction between the public and the private lives of journalists.) I have an opinion about Osama bin Laden: which I’m now willing to put on the record. I think the world would be better off if he were dead, and I’d hope that his death would be very painful. Am I now incapable of unbiased coverage on the war on terror? In Rothstein and Dornic’s formulation, apparently so.

Their hyperbole and mine aside, avoiding bias is not easy. It’s something that I think about virtually every time I post on FiveThrityEight, and the scrutiny will only increase once we start at the New York Times. I hope that we strike the right balance more often than not, but only you, the readers, can be the judge of that.

I have glossed over several distinctions here, one of which is whether the bias is intentional or unintentional (the latter is much more common, and much more difficult both to detect and to avoid). Another is whether the bias is real or perceived. Arguably, even if the former is not a problem for Weigel, the latter could be, especially since his reporting requires having access to those who can trust him to be a fair arbiter. Nevertheless, this suggests two questions for the Washington Post:

1) Why not take a wait-and-see approach?
2) Why not assign Weigel to another beat?

As I mentioned earlier, the conservative blogosphere has actually had a rather sympathetic reaction toward Weigel. So, while there is certainly the chance that his reputation might be impacted among rank-and-file conservatives, you might think about giving him 4-6 weeks and seeing how everything panned out. In the meantime, you could apply any number of sanctions: insist that he remove himself from any listserves, make sure that anything he posts is edited in advance of publication (if it isn’t already), ask him to be more cautious with his Twitter feed, etc.

The other “compromise” would be to retain Weigel, but to assign him to a new beat, other than (solely) covering the conservative movement. It’s a big world out there, and there’s no reason that Weigel’s skills wouldn’t transition reasonably well to covering the Congress or the White House, among many other possibilities. I’m actually surprised that this isn’t what happened.

Indeed, I think the Washington Post was asking for trouble in the way that it articulated Weigel’s role to begin with. It’s a bit strange to define someone’s beat as being “inside the conservative movement” and that alone, rather than the more organic role of someone who covers conservative activism along with other stories, as Weigel did before he joined the Post. For one thing, the packaging of the column almost seemed to imply that conservatives were some sort of exotic zoo animals that required careful study by Weigel, the journo-anthropologist. For another, it placed him into an awkward position in that his livelihood was very much dependent on his ability to cover one particular storyline.

For a third, it created some semantic confusion between “conservative reporter” and “reporter on conservatives”. I don’t really buy the notion — espoused by Ben Smith at Politico, among others — that the Washington Post didn’t know that Weigel was not in fact a ‘movement conservative’ but rather a heterodox, libertarianish, who-knows-what. If there’s one thing that distinguishes the New York Times people that I’ve met so far, it’s that they’re incredibly detail-oriented, which you pretty much have to be when you publish tens of thousands of words on a daily timetable that get as much inspection as the words in the New York Times do. I can’t imagine the Washington Post is much different (if so, they’re in very deep trouble), and they should have known what they were getting into with Weigel. Nevertheless, branding Weigel as being “inside the conservative movement” was necessarily going to invite a lot of scrutiny.

***

I don’t know Dave Weigel personally — we’ve met perhaps once or twice, in professional settings — but he seems like a pretty righteous guy, not in the California surfer dude way but rather in the sense of who is someone who is deeply concerned with the truth and perhaps gets a bit rankled when he encounters people who do not share this commitment. Many of the people whom he criticized, in contrast — Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Betsy McCaughey — seem relatively willing to distort the truth when it serves to advance their political agenda. Of course, there are are many liberals (and centrists, etc.) of whom this is true as well. But it’s the Drudges and the McCaugheys who Weigel encountered on his beat.

If Weigel chose some unfortunate ways to express his frustration, the truth-seeking impulse from which it arose is the right one. As Jay Rosen wrote early last week, it is truth-seeking that is the essential mark of journalism:

If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what’s going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work. To put it a little more sharply, power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism. The work of the journalist cannot be done without a commitment to the act of reporting, which means gathering information, talking to people who know, trying to verify and clarify what actually happened and to portray the range of views as they emerge from events.

A primary commitment to reporting therefore distinguishes the work of the journalist. Declining to express a view does not. Refusing to vote does not. Pretending to be ideology-free or “objective” on everything does not. Getting attacked from both sides? Nope. But a commitment to reporting does.

Is it always easy to distinguish truth-seeking from power-seeking — journalism from politics? Of course not, as Rosen himself has acknowledged. But that doesn’t mean that the distinction doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t important, and Weigel was lined up very much on the right side of it.

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