When “diversity hires” attack

On Friday, Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel — who covered conservative groups — resigned his position after incendiary partisan emails he had sent were published by the Daily Caller. The day before, some of his intemperate emails were published by Fishbowl DC. He had apologized already for those and chalked them up to a bad day.

All of the emails were sent to a closed professional list-serv that required privacy as a condition of membership. So all hell broke loose when these emails were published and there is a lot of commentary you can read about the situation. Almost all of the inside-the-beltway folks rushed to his defense. Media critics did likewise. Ross Douthat of the New York Times says the shame is that the list had a rat and that someone published the leaked material. Beliefnet’s Rod Dreher also laments the violation of privacy. At the end of Dreher’s post on the matter, he brings the discussion around to religion coverage. And I think he draws some interesting comparisons.

Weigel’s emails were sent to a list-serv for liberal journalists. It was called JournoList and was started by his friend Ezra Klein. (You may be interested in TMatt’s prescient take last year on potential problems with the list-serv, as well as some reader comments at the time.) Their publication made his continued reporting about conservatives difficult because on the list he’d strategized about how to help the Democratic Party. He’d also called a Democrat with pro-life concerns about health care reform a “monster” and generally mocked those he covered as racist and stupid.

Those emails were sent before he became a Washington Post reporter but just a few weeks ago he publicly tweeted:

I can empathize with everyone I cover except for the anti-gay marriage bigots. In 20 years no one will admit they were part of that.

He apologized for that, too. But Time religion editor Amy Sullivan says she thinks that his clarification of those remarks showed the problem with his reporting:

Weigel’s departure is a good thing for journalism. Not because he was biased against the subjects of his beat but because for someone who often seemed obsessed with conservatives, Weigel was surprisingly incurious about them. To my mind, Weigel’s most damning comment in the past few months was not calling gay marriage opponents “bigots” or suggesting that Matt Drudge set himself on fire, but this response to a Politics Daily reporter as he tried to clarify the “bigots” remark: “I do not understand or respect the motivation of anti-gay marriage campaigners.”

Now, you can’t fault a journalist for not respecting those with whom he personally disagrees (although it’s hard to see how someone can decide to respect or disrespect motivations that he doesn’t understand.) But you could argue that an essential part of Weigel’s job was trying to understand the motivations of conservative activists, including anti-gay marriage campaigners. What good is it to have a reporter on the conservative beat if he’s not digging into what animates different conservative factions and then trying to explain those motivations to readers?

I had some inaccurate assumptions about those who oppose same-sex marriage that were quickly dispelled by interviewing them and reading their arguments. It’s quite easy to understand their arguments and should be a basic requirement for a reporter covering the issue. And I wish reporters would care more about the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage rather than relying solely on emotion to advocate report on that side, too.

When he took the Post position, Weigel tried to present himself as someone who took the right “seriously.” His activism on JournoList has harmed his credibility on that front. However, he has more than enough defenders of his work. They sit all across the political spectrum, too, although it’s worth noting that the left is much more upset about his departure from the Post than the right is. Still, Weigel will be fine, as you will see if you read his explanation of his behavior over at BigGovernment.com. (I should note that the accuracy of part of his account questioned by one of his former editors.)

The Post, however, has some problems on its hands. To start with, the editors there were so clueless that, apparently, they actually believed Weigel was a conservative when they hired him and presented him as such. Even if he downplayed his liberalism, there is just no excuse for believing that. As the Weekly Standard wrote:

Unfortunately for Weigel, the Post believed he was a diversity hire, someone they could point to whenever conservatives complained about ideological imbalance at the paper. His emails undermined their talking-point. They wanted a reporter who would allow them to maintain the fiction that they run a balanced newsroom. He embarrassed them by holding opinions indistinguishable from their own.

The Washington Post ombudsman addressed the situation in a related fashion:

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. Ironically, Weigel was hired to address precisely those concerns.

The article also quotes an editor saying “I don’t think you need to be a conservative to cover the conservative movement. But you do need to be impartial … in your views.”

Okay, that’s ridiculous. You do not need to be impartial in your views to cover anything well. I have a friend who is one of the best reporters I know. He’s gay and — in his private life — is an activist for gay causes. I would still trust him to write fairly about people who oppose same-sex marriage or other causes he endorses. That’s because he believes his job as a reporter is to . . . report, not be an activist. I’ve seen him write fairly on issues about which he passionately cares. I think what helps is that he’s very up front about his biases and is curious about the views of those he disagrees with.

To look at the religion beat, what in the heck would “impartiality” mean on that beat? There’s no such thing! No matter what you believe or don’t believe, there’s no escaping partiality. I know next to nothing about the personal religious ties (or lack thereof) of the Godbeat specialists we criticize here. Part of the reason is because it doesn’t matter — we’re just concerned that the topic gets covered fairly and accurately. As far as I know, there’s no creed with that specialty!

Now having said all that, it’s also true that the Post is in desperate need of some different viewpoints in its newsroom. The paper has acknowledged as much previously. That they thought they were getting a diversity hire in Weigel is proof of how dire the situation is.

And Byron York at the Washington Examiner, where my husband works, asks why newspapers are hiring reporters to look at conservatives without also hiring reporters to provide in-depth coverage of liberals. Reflecting on New York Times editor Bill Keller’s explanation, York notes that “just because you’re a liberal, and your fellow reporters and editors are liberals, doesn’t mean you fully understand the liberal world. There might be other ways of seeing it.” Or, as he concludes:

But even if the Post really believed Weigel was a conservative, there is still the question of why they hired a (presumed) conservative to cover the conservative movement. Why not have some of the many liberals already on staff cover that and hire a conservative to cover liberals? Or maybe — gasp — hire two conservatives to cover liberals. After all, there are a lot of liberals in powerful positions these days. If the Post is going to practice opinion journalism, having the perspective of a couple of conservative journalists couldn’t hurt, could it?

That’s certainly a good idea for the opinion journalism emphasis that the Post is trying out. And on that note, the blogging world is making fun of the ideal of journalistic neutrality (which should not be confused with having reporters with no viewpoint), but as much as I like the viewpoint-heavy blogs, I think something is lost when journalists just resort to, for instance, calling opponents bigots instead of trying to report on an issue fairly. It may be less exciting but it certainly seems more civilized.

Print Friendly

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Of course, much of the media does not want liberals covering or commenting on liberals as liberals. That is because there is no such thing as a liberal in the mainstream media since in the eyes of so much of the media “liberal”= Middle-of-the-road, or moderate, or the center. It is sort of like in politics where there are now virtually no admitted liberals today, just “progressives”– even if they are so far left they would give Karl Marx a run for his money.
    Sadly, it seems like an awful lot of people in this particular media controversy who are clearly liberal are also not the most ethical or aboveboard.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    If you read the Keller quote linked to above, he says they don’t have a liberal beat because they think that they have no gaps in their coverage. York is saying that if your newsroom is full of liberals, you probably are missing some things that a more critical observer might see (and vice versa).

  • Ben

    …the blogging world is making fun of the ideal of journalistic neutrality (which should not be confused with having reporters with no viewpoint), but as much as I like the viewpoint-heavy blogs, I think something is lost when journalists just resort to, for instance, calling opponents bigots instead of trying to report on an issue fairly.

    Agreed, and nicely put.

  • Padraic

    I think that Amy Sullivan hit the nail on the head. Everyone has biases and opinions, but when a journalist projects his own biases or makes one-size-fits-all generalizations about diverse groups, as opposed to actually doing his job, there is a problem.

  • Hyhybt

    On “understanding,” you seem to be taking a different sense from the word. For a hopefully-noncontroversial example, I might truthfully say “I don’t understand why people like tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches.” I *do,* in fact, know why: ask anyone who likes them, and they’ll say they taste good. So in the sense that would be required for accurate reporting, I do understand. Nonetheless, how they could possibly find them tasty, I cannot quite grasp and never will.

  • David

    How objective are you about Weigel? Your twitter feed is full of snarky clients about Weigel and journalist and both you and your husband were critics of Weigel’s before last week, especially in connection to the Tea Party movement. There’s a need for a little transparency here given your professional conflicts.

  • michael

    The crucial thing is that the bread be a kind of white farmhouse bread, that the tomatoes be home-grown,ripe, and lightly salted and that the mayonaise be very thinly applied. Or course lettuce and bacon helps too.

    I haven’t paid very close attention to the Weigel story, though I can’t say I’m surprised or scandalized by it.

    But I’ve been railing ever since I began posting on this site that understanding ought to be an important ingredient in reporting and that it clearly isn’t in a great many cases, especially where ‘religious’ reporting is concerned. This problem is by no means limited to Weigel. All too often, perhaps more often than not, ‘reporting’ seems to be a matter of finding facts to fill in the relevant blanks on a story whose plot has already been written. If you’ve ever been interviewed, this is pretty obvious simply from the way the questions are formulated. I can’t say that I’m too familiar with Weigel’s work or interested enough in his career or in goings-on at the Post to become familiar, but I’d be willing to bet it fits this pattern.

  • Chip Smith

    If the Washington Post editors thought they were getting a traditional conservative when they hired Weigel, they are completely incompetent. He has never portrayed himself that way, his public Twitter account is just as caustic as the emails to Journolist ever were, and his work for Reason and the Washington Independent clearly pointed to a libertarian perspective. But the idea that he a liberal is just as sloppy as the idea that he is a conservative.

    Their publication made his continued reporting about conservatives difficult because on the list he’d strategized about how to help the Democratic Party.

    I assume you are basing this on the comments about the Scott Brown race. On his website, Weigel posted the entire email. It is more than a stretch to say he was strategizing for the Democratic Party in that conversation.

    The York article is interesting and I agree with part of what he writes. TWP would be well served to find a conservative counterpoint to Ezra Klein (focus on policy, 60-70% reporting and 30-40% analysis from a clear political point of view, regularly publishing transcripts of interviews with both conservative and liberal wonks and politicians), which was never Weigel’s approach to his blog.

    However, York misses an important point. Conservatives have done so much to “work the refs” (see Deacon John M. Bresnahan’s comment above for a perfect example) that folks like Keller end up bending over backwards to try to appease their conservative critics. This is where the idea of a conservative beat originates. When one group constantly complains no matter what you do (it is impossible to take a look at TWP’s editorial page and call it liberal with a straight face) creating a beat to try to understand that group makes sense. Liberals are often unhappy with coverage of their political ideas, but their complaints tend to take a different form. A liberal beat does not address their complaints.

    The thing about this issue that saddens me is that none of it deals with the actual work Weigel has done. I have seen anyone point out problems with what he wrote for TWP. I also have not seen anyone that has he interviewed complain about unfair treatment. Amy Sullivan suggests potential problems if those excerpts from a few emails represented the totality of what Weigel thinks, but she sure does not point to any examples of those problem showing up in anything he published.

  • Jerry

    There are two issues here – one is confidentiality. This has come up more than once in more than one situation such as the confessional seal topic. It seems that privacy and confidentiality are two obsolete words that do not apply to the current era.

    I think the best person to report on a story is one who does not know much about the issues but is very curious and can see things from points of view other than his or her own.

    That leads me to laud reporters who exemplify humility because humility will permit someone to understand another person’s perspective.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    David,

    Disclosures: I could be wrong about this but I believe I met Weigel once for about 30 seconds. I have tons of friends who are friends with him and they really like him.

    I frankly haven’t followed his writing very much since he was fired from Reason. Actually, I didn’t even follow his writing there very much, although I’m a devout reader of that magazine. I felt his focus on the conservative fringe was a bit overdone. Obviously I was in the minority on that since he will likely cover that beat for decades to come!

    I’m a libertarian and I will be honest that I was very disappointed to see a “fellow libertarian” say some of the things he was saying on Journolist. However, I had never quite understood what, exactly, made him a libertarian to begin with.

    Now, I could be wrong but I as far as I know my husband likes Weigel and his work. I’m not sure what you’re getting at there although I could also see him taking Weigel to task over various issues. Many other people I respect like Weigel’s work, too. If he’d covered religion, I would have read him more, I’m sure.

    What I’m interested in these discussions are the larger media questions. I mean, I have lots of thoughts. I have put some of them on my Twitter, as you note, and that’s about as public as you can get. It’s all out there for everyone to see.

    I should also point out that Weigel’s initial trouble began, in part, when he said some things (for which he apologized) about my husband’s colleagues.

    As for Journolist? I think it was a really bad idea from the get go. I said so here on GetReligion last year.

    My husband’s criticism of that site — written when he was at National Review — held up pretty well and I will link to it if I find it.

    UPDATE: Here it is.

  • mark

    David,

    I know and like Dave Weigel. Certainly, I have some opinions about recent statements and conduct that have come to light and the wisdom of saying them in the first place, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s a very good reporter. Weigel is obviously being reflective about the episode in a way I think is positive, and I think much of the problem here lies with his employer who in retrospect seems incredibly confused about why he was hired. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever directly criticized his reporting. I wish him well, I really do.

    My two public comments on the matter have been that I thought Politico’s write-up on Friday night was terrible and unfair for saying conservatives didn’t like Weigel because they felt he was insufficiently “supportive.” That had nothing to do with Dave.

    And second, I merely referred to on twitter what I had written when JournoList became public knowledge in March of 2009. At the time, I wrote:

    I would like to think that journalists whose credibility rests on working for publications that represent themselves as objective news outlets as well as very influential civil-service employees would see the problem in granting exclusive access to people with a specific political agenda. Even the appearance that the news, let alone actual policies that affect all Americans, are being shaped disproportionately by reporters and unelected civil servants in the thrall of ideological crusaders is a problem. To some extent I can’t fault the list’s overtly liberal members for trying to get in even better with the press and policymakers than they already are, but if Klein and others on the list want to sluff off the questions here by saying “what’s the big deal?” — well, that’s a problem too.

    I’d like to believe that a great many people on the list originally saw this as an informal opportunity to chat and share ideas and didn’t think beyond that. Nonetheless, I suspect a great many people on this list are more aware of the ethical conflicts here than they’d like to admit and their willingness to compromise their ethics has probably been informing their reporting and policy prescriptions for a long time. Ultimately, when it comes to diagnosing Washington’s ethical ailments, the JournoList is the symptom and not the disease.

    Yeah, I think that holds up pretty darn well.

  • Evanston2

    Gotta agree with “michael” when he says: “All too often, perhaps more often than not, ‘reporting’ seems to be a matter of finding facts to fill in the relevant blanks on a story whose plot has already been written.”
    From the 7th grade through my mid-30s, I read TIME cover-to-cover every week. In the mid-90s I suddenly realized I wasn’t learning anything new, other than an odd word or 2. It is absolutely unsurprising that JournoList was used to coordinate narratives against conservatives, that these esteemed professionals felt entitled to their private conspiracy, and that the great thoughts they shared were insults (not facts leading to greater understanding). Nor am I surprised that Rod Dreher likens an “outing” of a pasto who was in a private support group or his own experience with Dallas Muslims to what happened to Weigel. Dreher doesn’t understand that there is a public trust involved here, that this is not about 1 pastor’s job or Dreher’s job but entire political movements and public policy issues that have an impact on the entire country. Plus, his self-professed restraint may be admirable but it is woefully out of touch with reality. Journalists believe in privacy for no one, except themselves and people of the correct political persuasion (almost Vice President Edwards, etc.). It’s really swell that you all like each other but no one trusts you. Whoever leaked Weigel’s comments was the only genuine journalist in the whole rotten apple cart.

  • Chip Smith

    Thanks for jumping in here, Mark. It is good to have someone who actually read Weigel participate in the conversation.

    The thing that I’m confused about is the criticism of Journolist. I get that there is a perception problem (and nothing will ever satisfy folks in the conservative media who have a huge financial incentive to push the evil-liberal-cabal-MSM idea, which has as much credibility as the vast-right-wing-conspiracy idea), but I have not really seen anything more than that other than speculation. Is the issue, setting aside the Weigel’s intemperate comments, just that participants leave themselves open to perception problems?

    Last year you wrote about civil servants participating on the list, but nobody who publicly admits to being on the list contradicts Klein when he states that no government employees have been allowed to participate. Do you know otherwise?

    The things participants have said about the list and how it works and what they discuss are innocuous. Granted, we have to decide if they are trustworthy or not. The things that have been leaked recently and earlier by Mickey Kaus don’t fit the speculation from March of 2009 that Terry made in his previous coverage here at GR or you made at National Review.

    Since the non-academic/non-wonk portion of the participants in the list all compete with each other professionally, it does not seem plausible that they would coordinate and try to shape coverage. Have you seen examples where old school, straight-news journalists have coordinated to shape their coverage?

    I read a number of the journalists who either admit or have been outed as participants, and I certainly don’t see any reluctance to criticize each other. During the health care debates, they fiercely disagreed with each other in public about both the substance of various policy proposals and the political strategies the various players should have taken. If this group was a liberal cabal intent on coordinating to shape the news, they certainly failed miserably when it came to the most important liberal domestic policy issue.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Nor am I surprised that Rod Dreher likens an “outing” of a pasto who was in a private support group or his own experience with Dallas Muslims to what happened to Weigel. Dreher doesn’t understand that there is a public trust involved here, that this is not about 1 pastor’s job or Dreher’s job but entire political movements and public policy issues that have an impact on the entire country.

    That was a pastor who was an outspoken critic of ‘gay marriage’ – a ‘public policy issue’. I agree the stakes are higher on the ‘liberal listserv’. Privacy does need to be balanced against public interest, and the question of where the line is drawn is a tough one.

    Personally, I’d agree that the pastor’s situation (barely) didn’t justify ‘outing’ him, while the emails do present a level of concern high enough to warrant talking about them. (Though no one seems to argue it actually affected Weigel’s work.)

    But they are definitely on the same continuum – a difference of degree, not kind. I can’t see how Dreher’s way off there.

  • Evanston2

    Ray (#14), I agree. Dreher is definitely trying to establish on a continuum here. Still, I think Stalin understood how pernicious this seeming apples-to-apples ‘continuum’ can be when he said “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Of course, he exploited this failing in human thinking and Dreher (and others?) seem to fall for it.
    On PajamasMedia, Richard Fernandez (a.k.a. “Wretchard”) summed up my complaint nicely on June 27th as follows: “We should not be interested in people’s private opinions about public policy, but we have a vital interest in discovering private efforts to manipulate public facts.” When Weigel talks about which conservatives are “discredited” (by whom?) and (ironically) says “I’d politely encourage everyone to think twice…” about “rewarding the Examiner” isn’t that a conspiracy to manipulate news content? Mr. Dreher’s buddies here at GetReligion should remind him that there’s an opening at the WaPo. He seems qualified to fill it.

  • Larry

    The collapse of journalism is being escorted to the exit by the lack of ethical journalists. Rod is right that this is violation of privacy. Its a violation of the morality of professional journalism, and it violates a free press that supporting a free society.

    Whether it was releasing Weigel’s off the record emails of McCrystal’s off the cuff banter, some reporters have just gotten so snarky and competitive for the big bucks. Integrity in journalism has been under attack by the same forces who feared an informed public that is at the root of democracy. These moves are character assassinations with partisan intent and the new motto of the propaganda war – kill the messenger – inevitably to kill any message they don’t find agreeable. We are all victims if we don’t allow for a free proliferation of ideas and criticism, especially when fair debate is gets displaced by one-sided monologues.

  • Evanston2

    Larry (16), did Weigel really suffer a “violation of privacy?” I haven’t challenged this premise thus far…but whenever I send an email to anyone, I’m assuming a risk. What I’m exploring here is the difference between (a) the violation of personal trust, vs. (b) journalistic integrity/trust (in the form of “off the record” comments or, even further, a promise to protect a source) vs. (c) when outside parties search through your trash or buy a house next to yours (“Palinization?”) vs. (d) outright illegal break-ins. I believe that the “violation of privacy” suffered by Weigel was even weaker than (a) — he was sharing thoughts with a group of approx. 400 people. Dreher was smart enough to withdraw from the Muslim list when it looked like group was working against him, but I don’t believe that the budding character assassination campaign against him was technically a “violation of privacy” analogous to any of (a) thru (d) examples I mentioned. I would take Dreher’s example of the pastor in a support group to be roughly analogous to (b), since there is a promise and a reasonable expectation of privacy. In sum, I don’t believe that either Weigel nor Dreher were really “violated” here. It bears repeating, Dreher was smart enough to see the potential harm while Weigel evidently believes he was perfectly justified to work within the journalistic fraternity to manipulate news content. If there is a violation in the Weigel case, it is one of the public’s trust, not of Weigel’s.

  • Evanston2

    The WSJ’s June 29th “Best of the Web” post by James Taranto & co. (opinionjournal.com)touches on the journalistic ethics of the Weigel affair, as well as shield laws. There is probably even better stuff out there for you journalists to consider, but here’s the URL (I hope it’s OK to post — please accept my apology if it’s not).
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704103904575337002190061586.html


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X