A Few Final Thoughts on Matters "Post Weigel"

Jim Henley writes:

I want to push back just a little on the idea… that some kind of blog-reporter ethos is dumbfounding institutions like the Post because it’s such an unpredecedented challenge to traditional newspaper ideals of objectivity, while at the same time confuting the stereotype of blogging as mere pontificating about other people’s work. 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
I submit that this is just magazine-journalism ethos with the addition of cat pictures. If you think about what good long and short-form journalism looks like at a decent magazine, it looks like the bullet-points above. I’m not just talking about ideological organs. The writer who sells to Harper’s or The National Geographic or even Runner’s World is going to tend to show a personality and take a definite perspective, while at the same time doing fresh reporting from primary sources, whether human, documentary or physical. The writer will make sure to include a substantial account of challenges to her perspective, if only to knock it down later.
If you were a magazine editor and knew Paul Theroux hated the English because he wrote an entire book about how much the English suck, you might still send him to write a big piece on England for your monthly because you expected it to be interesting, and because the ethos of magazine journalism would make it “fair.” If you knew that William Greider hated economic conservatives, or Tom Wolfe hated social liberals, you would still buy factual pieces touching economics from the one and cultural folkways from the other: their very names constitute warning labels; their strong viewpoints sharpen their writing; and because they’re professionals, they’ll put in the work.

That’s exactly right.

  • * *

This is as good a time as any to respond to Karl from Hot Air, and all the folks who sent his post to me via e-mail upon seeing that it called me out by name. You can read the whole thing here — its thesis is that Dave Weigel “was explicitly urging his fellow J-Listers to engage in what Weigel’s buddies and fellow travelers like to call ‘epistemic closure,’ to operate as a closed media ecosystem that excludes competing political narratives.” (Mr. Weigel sort of addresses the subject here.)

Karl writes:

…the people whining the loudest about “epistemic closure” on the Right find themselves utterly blinded when Weigel advocated it for the Left, and had to resign due to the “epistemic closure” that was inherent in JournoList itself.

This gets a lot wrong.

Back on March 20, 2009, I defended Journolist from the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with writers talking to one another via e-mail, but I also criticized it for being ideologically closed, and encouraged its members to admit thoughtful conservatives.

In the same post, I argued that journalism should be evaluated by “the single factor that is always relevant when rendering such judgments: the substance of the work itself.” That is the exact same standard I’ve been applying to Mr. Weigel’s case. The high quality of his work over many years is why I am defending him, and that defense suggests nothing about whether I approve or disapprove of what he wrote on Journolist. Initially I did criticize one thing he wrote — the suggestion that The Washington Examiner should be denied links for a gossip item they published.

But on the whole, the fact that these were private e-mails, that I haven’t seen anything close to the context in which they were offered (nor have any of his critics), and that their content has no bearing on the larger issues that interest me have caused me to avoid commenting on them. For what it’s worth, I do disapprove of anyone, Dave Weigel included, encouraging journalists “to operate as a closed media ecosystem that excludes competing political narratives,” though I can’t help but feel that my friends at Hot Air are making that accusation with insufficient evidence in this case, and are perfectly fine with that kind of behavior when it is practiced by Roger Ailes and his employees.

Perhaps I am wrong, and we can all work at fighting all closed media ecosystems together. But as you can see, Karl, I registered my complaint about the ideological insularity of Journolist way back in Spring 2009. Since you called me out by name in your post, how about updating with that context?

  • * *

One last thing.

There is sometimes a double-standard in political discourse whereby the only people who are ever hurt by intemperate remarks are the ones who generally hold themselves to higher standards, whereas their inferiors get away with saying basically whatever they want because we expect no better of them.

A recent example familiar to American Scene readers concerns Jim Manzi, whose restraint and patience, even in comments sections, is generally far better than what 99.9 percent of people on the Internet manage. Only Eugene Volokh is in the same league. On The Corner, however, he posted criticism of Mark Levin that he called “scathing,” and that was certainly less scathing than plenty of other posts on that group blog that go totally unremarked upon. As a result, several folks on The Corner chided Mr. Manzi for his tone — this despite the fact that these same people either laud Mark Levin (I’m looking at you, Andy McCarthy), one of the most intemperate men on the radio, or else are totally silent about his particularly abrasive style of rhetoric (that’s you Kathryn Jean Lopez). To his credit, Jonah Goldberg did point out Mr. Levin’s tendency toward ugly insults.

I bring this up because in the days since Dave Weigel resigned, I’ve seen some of his critics on the right suggest in comments sections that The Washington Post would never hire a “real conservative” like Erick Erickson to replace him covering the right. If Dave Weigel says in a private e-mail disparaging things about Matt Drudge and Ron Paul supporters, he is obviously unfit to fairly cover the right. But Erick Erickson, who publicly suggested that anti-Palin conservatives should be sent to a leper colony, among many other statements that not even he defends, is by their lights perfectly capable of doing so. This is because by their twisted logic, if you criticize center-right figures within the movement like David Brooks, or heterodox conservatives like Ross Douthat, or folks on the right who criticize the conservative movement like me, or people like David Frum with strategic disagreements about the political future of the GOP, all taboos and qualms about criticizing “fellow travelers” on the right disappear.

One complaint about Mr. Weigel’s work at The Washington Post was that it focused too heavily on the conservative and libertarian fringe. Perhaps that is accurate, or perhaps not. I don’t really have a strong or informed opinion on the matter (though my personal preference would be for coverage of Tea Partiers proportionate to their actual numbers on the right). I do know that movement conservatives themselves are making the fringe more relevant and exacerbating the anthropological treatment they receive by insisting to all who will listen that anyone to their left cannot be a “real conservative,” whereas if you publicly argue that President Obama is only fighting Al Qaeda due to electoral pressure and the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is cool with it, then you’re praised by Rush Limbaugh, and no one at your high-profile movement conservative magazine rebuts you.

I’d just like whoever does the hiring at The Washington Post to remember that, pressure from the conservative movement notwithstanding, you need to have someone covering the right who treats Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, David Brooks, Alabama tea partiers, John McCain, Eisenhower Republicans, Bary Goldwater acolytes, Bruce Bartlett, Michelle Malkin, and Cato Institute style libertarians fairly (though I doubt you’ll find anyone better than the guy you just let go). The American right is a big tent — far bigger than some of Mr. Weigel’s critics on the right would have you believe. Good luck finding someone who is both acceptable to the Red State crowd and has never disparaged folks on the right, but to their left.