David Weigel, the 'Journolist,' Wolves In Sheep's Clothing, and the Death Of Privacy

weigel

The Washington Post's David Weigel has resigned in the wake of a series of leaked emails, in which the blogger disparaged various figures in the conservative movement he was "covering" in his official capacity as the Post's point man on the right. His resignation came less than a day after he posted this apology on the Post's website:
I'm a member of an off-the-record list-serv called "Journolist," founded by my colleague Ezra Klein. Last Monday, I was deluged with angry e-mail after posting a story about Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) that was linked by the Drudge Report with a headline intimating that I defended his roughing-up of a young man with a camera; after this, the Washington Examiner posted a gossip item about my dancing at a friend's wedding. Unwisely, I lashed out to Journolist, which I've come to view as a place to talk bluntly to friends.

Below the fold are quotes from me e-mailing the list that day -- quotes that I'm told a gossip Web site will post today. I apologize for much of what I wrote, and apologize to readers.

There follows some choice Weigelisms:

  • "This would be a vastly better world to live in if Matt Drudge decided to handle his emotional problems more responsibly, and set himself on fire."

  • "Follow-up to one hell of a day: Apparently, the Washington Examiner thought it would be fun to write up an item about my dancing at the wedding of Megan McArdle and Peter Suderman. Said item included the name and job of my girlfriend, who was not even there -- nor in DC at all."

  • "I'd politely encourage everyone to think twice about rewarding the Examiner with any traffic or links for a while. I know the temptation is high to follow up hot hot Byron York scoops, but please resist it."

  • "It's all very amusing to me. Two hundred screaming Ron Paul fanatics couldn't get their man into the Fox News New Hampshire GOP debate, but Fox News is pumping around the clock to get Paultard Tea Party people on TV."


matt-drudge2

The flap has created a furor in the blogosphere, and for lots of reasons, few of them having anything to do with the unimpressive Weigel himself, other than this one salient fact: he was, as Politico's Ben Smith notes, a liberal masquerading as a conservative and thus not the man the Post thought they were hiring to write the "Right Now" column.
The Post seems simply not to have understood what they were getting when Klein suggested they hire him. National editor Kevin Merida told me for my story on the subject in May that he never asked Weigel about his politics, and Klein said he presented him to the paper simply as the best reporter covering conservatives. (Weigel's blog is subtitled, "Inside the conservative movement.")

“The way I explained Dave is that he’s the best reporter on the conservative movement beat,” Klein said, describing Weigel as “hard to characterize politically."

“I have not heard him express many policy opinions,” he said.

Merida, in a web chat in April, was asked if the paper would be "adding more conservative/Republican voices to better balance what is now your predominately liberal/Democratic leaning coverage?”

He replied, “[W]e recently have added to our staff the well-regarded Dave Weigel, and also mentioned columnists Kathleen Parker and Charles Krauthammer. (Merida and a Post spokeswoman didn't respond to questions about Weigel this morning.)

Washington Post

Weigel's resignation -- which came on the heels of more leaked emails, this time by the Daily Caller website -- also brought back into prominence Ezra Klein's "Journolist," a private email circle of center-left to hard-left journalists. One member of the list describes it as a "fairly boring list, mostly concerned with stuff like the Blue Dog Democrats. It's not 'how can we screw the Right today?'" Still, the notion that Weigel could call for an informal information boycott of the influential (and eminently fair) Byron York only serves to reinforce the notion on the right that there is something sinister about the "Journolist," something beyond the usual lefty policy-wonkism -- although there's much merriment in the thought that there's a mole in Klein's sewing circle.

But the most important thing to emerge from this mess is the notion of privacy, that there is a difference between on and off the record, and it simply must be observed unless freedom of speech -- and thus of thought -- is irrevocably chilled. For decades, reporters have observed the distinction between what is meant for public consumption and what is spoken of behind closed doors. The principle is not only enshrined in journalism, but in the government: "executive privilege," however at times abused, is vital to the decision-making process, and freewheeling (if often "offensive") conversation and characterizations are part of that process. If we have arrived at a point where we literally have to watch every word we speak, than we are no better than North Korea or the former East Germany. Somewhere, Gen. McChrystal is smiling...

Still, the days when "gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail" are long gone, and in cyberspace any utterance, no matter how "private," is now potentially public -- and potentially career-ending. That's the real lesson from the Weigel flap: in the war of ideas in cyberspace, truth is no longer the first casualty. Trust is.

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