Saturday, June 26, 2010

More dispatches from your liberal media

So here's the back story. Dave Weigel "resigned" from the Washington Post yesterday due to a leak of some unflattering comments made by him on a private listserv the day before. For reasons I will lay out later, this pisses me off to no end.

Weigel's column over at WaPo, "Right Now" was an interesting case study into the minds of the current conservative movement going on in America, well, right now. He covered the Tea-Party extensively, and not just by musing on the actions that got play in the larger media, but instead by doing something unheard of these days - journalism - he visited their rallies, conducted interviews with their leaders, and reported on the issues they were currently addressing in their movement. It's been his beat for a while now, I first found him covering this for the Washington Independent, although he has worked for other media outlets such as Reason and USA Today prior to that.

Weigel was part of Ezra Klein's liberal and progressive media listserv - the now defunct Journolist - where it appears he would do the unthinkable act of blowing off steam by bitching about politics. This included bemoaning the fact that Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan could say whatever racist garbage tickled their fancy that day and still be guaranteed prime spots on cable networks like CNN and MSNBC, musing that media would be better off if blogger Matt Drudge lit himself on fire, laughing at the legal troubles of ACORN prankster James O'Keefe, denouncing Sarah Palin as a rat-fucker, or marveling at how large-establishment conservatism could be so successful at re-imaging themselves as a populist movement.

The comments were leaked to Tucker Carlson's conservative news site, The Daily Caller, under the headline "E-mails reveal Post reporter savaging conservatives, rooting for Democrats" and the predictable right-wing hissy-fit ensued. Some critics complained about Weigel's apparent disgust for the subject he was covering, others needed fainting salts over the alleged hostility of Weigel's comments. Others gloated that this just proved what they thought all along, that Weigel was some sort of liberal plant trying to discredit conservatives. And there was the usual hand-wringing over the existence of Journolist itself (the existence of Journolist has long been "proof" for the right wing blogosphere that liberal bias is rampant in the media and that liberals are evil). As a result, Weigel will no longer be working for the Washington Post.

There's the story in a nutshell. But here's what I don't get about the whole debacle.

First, the idea that in order to eradicate bias from reporting, someone should (a) never have an opinion on the subject they are covering and (b) if they do, that opinion must be favorable. I can't honestly believe that some are so naive to not understand that everyone has an opinion, and everyone includes journalists. There are no inner buttons one can push while on assignment that just automatically turns them into monotonous information gathering robots. Even the beat they accept is indicative of their opinions on the subject. I actually have less trust for a reporter that attempts to argue that they do not have an opinion on the subject in order to paint themselves as a more credible source, much like I distrust people that tell others that they are "moderates" or "independents" or adhere to "common sense". I assure you, if this truly is your nature, it will come out not only the opinions you hold, and also how you present (or not) those opinions. You are not merely bestowed with the honor of "objective" merely because you swear it is so. A truly valuable journalist is not one that holds no opinion, but one that can hold that opinion and still produce quality reporting.

Weigel was a good reporter in that sense. The main reason why this Journolist scandal is such a major deal is because for those that were unhappy that he was covering in detail the Tea party movement, it was the only positive "proof" that Weigel's sympathies did not lie with the majority of wingnuttia. You never got that impression from his reporting, because it just didn't exist there. If members of the Tea Party said rationale things, Weigel reported them. If members of the Tea Party said stupid things, Weigel reported them.

As for Weigel being unfavorable towards the Tea Party and as such, a bad hire for the Washington Post to cover that beat, I don't really see the problem. Are we really suggesting that no one can cover say, the Phelps clan, unless they have a favorable view of them? One of the major problems I see with journalism today is the often cozy relationship reporters have with the subjects they cover. It's a lot harder to call out your friends then your foes.

Furthermore, Weigel's comments seem to overwhelmingly be directed at media figures and political leaders rather then the Tea Partiers themselves. Last I checked in on conservative dogma, attacking media figures and political figures was a good thing. Apparently this only holds true if they have the audacity to not regurgitate the party line's talking points.

Secondly, can we just drop the whole "OMG people are sometimes mean" shtick that is so prevalent with right wingers? For a group that seems so up in arms about the danger of "PC-Culture", the feelings of right-wingers sure do get hurt a lot. I grow so tired of the "civility" debate in political discourse, not because I don't see the value in discussing things civily, but because the accusation of being uncivil is often used as nothing more then a tool to attack people based on their character rather then for their actual opinions. John Cole at Balloon Juice has an excellent example of this ridiculousness, highlighting a pious lecture from Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic about "standards" in regards to Weigel. Goldberg is best known for not only peddling straight-up false pro-Iraq war propaganda back in the day, but also never correcting himself or apologizing for his own lack of journalistic "standards". Leaving aside the major fact that Weigel's transgressions were meant to be private while Goldberg's were major stories, I think as far as journalistic standards go, I'll take someone that makes a crude joke about Matt Drudge being on fire over someone that publishes propaganda against a nation in hopes that we can then go bomb the shit out of them.

Third, the issue with epistemic closure and conservative tribalism is on full display here. Weigel's a libertarian. That he sometimes doesn't hate liberals enough or says mean things about bat-shit insane movement conservatives doesn't change that. It was probably Weigel's libertarian leanings that led him to this beat in the first place (before being co-opted by the Republican Party, the idea of a Tea Party was a libertarian one). This idea that one can never, ever criticize anything conservative and be anything but a liberal is exactly what is hurting the Republican party right now. It's no surprise that the conservative bloggers that have come to Weigel's defense (instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, pretty much any libertarian blogger) are the same ones that have come under the same fire for failing to sufficiently kiss the feet of their Republican overlords.

Fourth, you know why you only hear about Journolist and not the various right-wing listservs? It's not because Journolist is unique or some sort of hidden left-wing conspiracy. It's because liberals overall don't really give a flying fuck if conservatives are saying mean things on a private listserv. We are well aware that many of them hate us and view us in an unfavorable manner, and that this will probably play out in their private conversations, because you know what? People are human. Yes, we talk a lot of shit when we are in private with our political allies. Kind of like how we talk a lot of shit about co-workers when we are with our work friends, or why we talk a lot of shit about the Yankees when we are in Boston. In these more insular communities we build for ourselves, we get the ability to blow off steam, so that it doesn't leak it's way into public discourse where it may not belong.

That we know this is common behavior is probably why we don't get the damn vapors when we discover that other groups might do this too. Perhaps this speaks to the idea that the actual difference between a liberal and a conservative is the ability to empathize. If you can't possibly fathom the idea that someone would joke around, even crudely, in private and insulated areas, I'd have to wonder if you have contact with people at all. If you honestly can't fathom that someone could present a more civilized case to the public then they can when among their buddies, I'd have to wonder if you were some sort of sociopath that doesn't understand the difference between acceptable and non-acceptable behavior in certain social situations.

At the end of the day, the double-standards, psychological projection, and intentional dishonesty of the whole ordeal whole thing just frustrates me, but it's a consistent pattern that I doubt we can win against in the foreseeable future. What matters is that the WaPo lost an actual reporter in order to appease a bunch of whiners again (and odds are, they will hire some wingnut to replace him, just to show how very not liberal they are). And in the end, all of us will be stupider for it.

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