The Thorny Issue of What's Not Covered

Over at Hot Air, there is a post up that challenges some arguments I made after The Washington Post accepted Dave Weigel’s resignation. Those unfamiliar with my take can make due with this summary: A reporter ought to be judged on the merit of the work he or she publishes, rather than his or her privately expressed opinions, rants, etc. Press critic Jack Shafer has a similar take. This middle manager disagrees.

In his response, Blogger Karl complicates my “it’s about the work” argument:

In practice, questions of journalistic ethics often involve issues of what does not appear on the page or screen. When former CNN honcho Eason Jordan revealed that his network suppressed stories about atrocities in Iraq, it raised questions. When Reuters spiked a story about hedge fund trader Steven Cohen, it raised questions (for a variation on this theme, check the WaPo). When the L.A. Times told its bloggers not to write about the National Enquirer story on the John Edwards – Rielle Hunter affair, it raised questions (as did the fact that Mark Halperin and John Heilemann kept quiet about it while writing their book on the 2008 campaign). When the NYT slow-walked the ACORN and Van Jones stories, public editor Clark Hoyt opined that the paper risked “looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself.” Thus, when a journalist uses a professional forum to encourage his colleagues to boycott The Washington Examiner, curtail coverage of Sarah Palin’s “death panels” comment (including criticism thereof), and to spin the Massachusetts Senate election as a function of Martha Coakley’s awfulness — because doing so would help the Democratic Party — ethical questions are definitely on the table, even if Friedersdorf wants to continue to blind himself to them.

A few caveats. I hate the formulations “raises questions” and “questions are definitely on the table.” I dissent from some of Karl’s examples — for example, the New York Times was absolutely right to react slowly to the ACORN story considering the factually misleading presentation that turned out to be given on Andrew Breitbart’s sites. And I don’t think that Karl is accurately characterizing what Dave Weigel was trying to do on JournoList (though I think he is being earnest and honorable in his inadvertent mischaracterization).

In theory, however, I agree that a reporter must be held responsible not only for what he or she publishes, but also for ignored stories, withheld facts, etc. Were there evidence that Mr. Weigel was guilty on this score — had he written an e-mail that said, “I’m not going to cover this Tea Party speech because I think it makes the movement look too good, and I want them to fail” — that would indeed be a firing offense.

But there isn’t any evidence of that. Even what Karl alleges — and what doesn’t seem true to me — is that Mr. Weigel was engaged in serial attempts to get other reporters to cover things in ways that made their work epistemically closed. As I wrote previously, “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.’” So if, contra my perception and his public assurances to the contrary, he did that, I object! Similarly, if he encourages his friends and family to only read The Washington Independent for all their news, and ignore every other media outlet on the planet, I object! I just don’t think it bears on the quality of his work, his employment at The Washington Post, etc. Similarly, should Karl go to a bar after work with a bunch of other conservative journalists, and tell them, “Damn you all, stop linking that Conor Friedersdorf, his writing is given too much attention, and he ought to be shunned,” I’d object, but I wouldn’t think it tells me anything about the quality of his posts at Hot Air.

As it happens, Karl also thinks that Dave Weigel is guilty of ignoring actual stories relevant to his beat. He writes:

Weigel may be a talented and hard-working writer, but selective reporting is his stock-in-trade. The signature of his body of work at the WaPo was his disproportionate focus on what he deemed to be the fringe of the Right. Thus, during a period where the biggest story in America was the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Weigel wrote a number of pieces about birther Orly Taitz and virtually nothing about Gulf state Governors Bobby Jindal and Haley Barbour, either of whom could seek the GOP presidential nod in 2012. Taken as a whole, Weigel’s portrait of the GOP and the conservative movement for the WaPo (and the Washington Independent before that) was about as fair and accurate as “A New Yorker’s Idea of the United States of America” is as a map of the nation.

I disagree with this assessment. Did Mr. Weigel cover the fringe of the conservative movement? Yes. I’d argue, however, that every story he covered (or at least every story I saw) is clearly justifiable as a news item, and I haven’t heard any account of news he came across but refrained from publishing in the same way as Eason Jordan in pre-war Iraq. It’s telling that the example Karl offers in the excerpt above is so weak. Yes, the oil spill was the biggest story in America for awhile, and I’ll assume for the sake of argument that Mr. Weigel didn’t write about Governors Jindal and Barbour. But the news media was all over the oil spill story. There are plenty of beat reporters covering it already, and political reporters who’ll exhaustively cover 2012 hopefuls, and statehouse reporters who cover the two governors in question.

Dave Weigel is covering lots of conservatives who get play in movement press, but who are ignored in the mainstream media. It’s long been a complaint among these people — the grassroots, lets call them — that they’re ignored by the establishment media. Starting covering them exhaustively, however, and a reporter is accused of focusing on the fringe. Suddenly the complaint is that Mr. Weigel takes them too seriously. There is simply no way to strike a balance in a way that doesn’t make someone on the right unhappy.

I’ve noticed this same phenomenon when I engage talk radio hosts in argument about the substance of what they’re saying. Suddenly, the complaints about the mainstream media ignoring Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin or Glenn Beck despite their enormous popularity among conservatives cease, and the new complaint is that they’re just entertainers or satirists whose words aren’t to be criticized in the same way as other people.

In the end, it amounts to saying, “Cover the politically marginalized among us when it makes us look good, or advances the conservative movement, or the electoral chances of Republicans, because it isn’t fair that we’re so powerless and ignored — but ignore fringe stuff that makes the movement look bad, or hurts its electoral chances, because the people doing that stuff are ignored, powerless, and on the margins.”

Were I covering Mr. Weigel’s beat, I’m sure I’d have chosen a somewhat different mix of things to report on, and the same would be true for any reporter given the job. It involves a lot of subjective judgments about news, a sense of what one’s colleagues and one’s competitors are covering, the information needs of the audience etc. The fact that so many serious people found Mr. Weigel’s blog an indispensable source that offered information no one else was reporting suggests that, all things considered, he was doing a damn good job choosing what to cover, and certainly not so bad a job that he should’ve been forced out.

Friedersdorf wants to gloss over the questions raised by Weigel’s behavior on JournoList. However, Weigel’s disproportionate focus on the fringe of the Right, and his apparent double standard when it comes to coverage of the Leftist fringe, demonstrate that Weigel’s work on blogs was (and is) wholly consistent with his unofficial activism and anti-conservative invective on JournoList. It is not surprising that Friedersdorf cannot see that, given the degree to which Weigel’s selective reporting confirms Friedersdorf’s pre-existing attitudes about the Right.

Someone trying to gloss over a story doesn’t address it in multiple blog posts over several weeks or create YouTube parodies that attract 30,000 views. I appreciate that Karl and I disagree about this subject, and even that he thinks my biases are leading me astray. Perhaps he’s right! Everyone has biases that lead them astray. I don’t think that’s what is happening in this conversation, but I would think that, right? Nevertheless, I take steps to guard against my biases, so that even if I’m wrong, here or elsewhere, I do a minimal amount of harm.

I try to be transparent about my reasoning, avoid logical fallacies, read widely, link to people who disagree with me, and engage even forceful criticism from people hostile to my views. I’m sure I do a less than perfect job living up to all that, but I try hard, and I’m confident enough to put my record up against anyone online — even though I am hardly unique, and would do no better than a whole bunch of writers I admire from all parts of the political spectrum. It’s just the expectation in parts of the blogosphere, and I never ask anyone to meet standards that aren’t already achieved by many hundreds if not thousands of other writers.

When I complain about epistemic closure, I am talking about folks who do few or none of these things — and whatever his strengths and weaknesses as a journalist, that’s not Dave Weigel.

Comments can be e-mailed to Conor dot friedersdorf at gmail IGNORETHIS TEXT dot com — I’ll post concurrences and dissents as appropriate.


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