Forget Dave Weigel -- the Real Issues Are the 'JournoList,' MSM Groupthink, Transparency, and Advocacy Masquerading As Journalism

The David Weigel saga continues to stagger on, becoming ever more intellectually incoherent. Not only has Weigel written yet another story about himself, this time for Esquire, but Ezra Klein of the Washington Post -- the man who recommended Weigel for his short-lived job there -- has also come out with another piece, largely argued along juvenile tu quoque lines that wouldn't pass muster in a first-year logic class. If Weigel and Klein are the best young talent the Post can find, then things are even worse with MSM journalism than we thought.

teabagweigel

More seriously, over the holiday, both the Washington Post, in the form of its ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, and the New York Times, in the person of media critic David Carr, both weighed in, with the result that the line between real journalism -- in the form of straight reporting -- and opinion journalism is now more blurred than ever. If ever readers deserved clarity on this increasingly important issue it's now, and yet both establishment papers just fell on their faces.

Why? Because they don't know what to say. Instead, these apologists manage to pretzel themselves in contortions worthy of the Cirque du Soleil while trying to explain to their readers the fine distinctions, the nuances, between a reporter acting as a reporter and a reporter acting as purveyor of opinion, i.e. either bien-pensant leftist conventional wisdom or the youthful exuberance that attends the re-invention of the wheel.

Let's start with Alexander:

Ezra Klein, one of The Post's most talented and stimulating young journalists, writes online from a liberal perspective. His Web site bio promotes his "opinionated blog" on economic and domestic policy issues. He is featured on the site's Opinions page, alongside other columnists with well-defined ideologies. But in the Business section of Sunday's newspaper, Klein writes a column that is more analysis than dogma and contains no descriptive identification beyond his name and area of expertise. Should print-only readers, unaware of the slant of his blog, be told that he's a well-established liberal?

Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein

Gee... ya think?
Like readers, some in The Post's newsroom are perplexed. Internal guidelines say reporters should not "offer personal opinions on a blog in a way that would not be acceptable in the newspaper." But they also are encouraged to blog with attitude and "voice," which seems incompatible with neutrality...

Similarly, internal rules governing public appearances say that except for opinion columnists, "Post journalists should avoid making statements that could call into question their objectivity." But in a typical week, Post reporters make dozens of appearances on television and radio programs where they are pressed for their views on the news of the day. Many oblige.

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In my conversations with a dozen Post reporters in recent weeks, not one had more than a passing familiarity with these rules and guidelines. None knew where they exist, so that they can be consulted. (They reside on The Post's intranet but are well hidden.)

Well, there you have it, no? The Post has strict, if well-hidden, rules on reporters' voicing opinions, so it's an open-and-shut case against Klein, Weigel and others, right?

Not so fast:
Like all legacy media, The Post is grappling to set proper standards for a new, fast-changing era. It's most difficult for the vast majority of Post journalists who play the traditional reporter's role, prowling beats and trolling for information that enlightens and entertains. Increasingly, they are being asked to expand The Post's brand on new media platforms that don't strictly adhere to the time-honored just-the-facts approach.

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli acknowledged that readers may be confused by Post journalists who "wear more than one hat" when they "opine in one forum and appear to report in another forum."

The solution, he said, is to be "completely transparent about what people do . . . and completely transparent about where people stand."

And those in "traditional reporting positions," he said, should remain "nonpartisan, unbiased and free from slant in their presentation in the paper and in any other public forum. There should be no appearance of conflict."

Everything clear now? In case it's not, allow me translate: "We here at the dying Washington Post, in order to assure our survival as we migrate to the Internet, have got to become more like our blogging competitors, so we're going to chuck more than half a century of policy and openly embrace partisanship, just as long as we afford our warriors the fig leaf of 'transparency'. Hope this clears everything up."

Carr seconds the motion:
[Weigel's] job, part of a broader experiment at The Post, was to combine reporting and opinion in search of deeper understanding of the conservative movement. His Twitter feed gave a steady, and sometimes spicy, accounting of exactly what was running through his head. His writing on the newspaper’s blog, which contained real immersive reporting and significant inquiry, was also clear about what he believed to be true.

That’s part of what The Washington Post was seeking when it hired Mr. Weigel, a former writer from The Washington Independent and Reason magazine, to blog about the conservative moment. Like many mainstream media outlets, it wanted some of the crackle that is coming from the perimeter of insurgent media.

Let's leave aside for now the issue of why the Washington Post felt the need to "cover the right," as if the plurality of Americans who self-identify as conservatives were some sort of exotic species of fauna in a faraway place (i.e., outside the Beltway): the revelation that a man who passed himself off as something he was not was certainly newsworthy. Leave aside also, for the nonce, the thorny issue of the distinction between public and private remarks and the notion that since reporters are also human beings, and thus have opinions, those opinions should somehow find their way into their news stories (a variation of the old "they're going to do it anyway, so why not give them the downstairs bedroom instead the back of the '57 Chevy" argument).

The larger issue is the existence of the now-defunct "JournoList," a listserv group of about 400 left-leaning journalists organized by Klein, the Post's wunderkind blogger and nakedly partisan health-care advocate, and what it portends for the future of journalism.

reporter-oldtime

Let's start with this fact: in the old days of "dispassionate" professional journalism, there likely would not have been a place either for Weigel or Klein on a major newspaper, and certainly not on the national level. Both -- were they hired at all -- would have served several years down on the farm, learning the craft of reporting on the police beat in Boise and at sewer-district commission hearings in Hartford, before getting the call to the Show. Both would have learned that before opinions come facts and that in order to find facts, one must first divest oneself of opinions, in order to properly form them down the line. Weigel and Klein are not only what's wrong with contemporary journalism, they're emblematic of what plagues the whole country right now, which is being run by a collection of ardent adolescents, devoid of experience but brimming with fierce rectitude and a burning desire for payback against inherited or imaginary cultural grievances.

Friends on the JournoList assure me that it was a largely stultifying circle of policy wonks, so it's theoretically possible that Weigel's boisterous attitudinizing was the exception, not the rule. But what Klein doesn't seem to understand is that his list has become the story, and that what real journalists do is get the story. Real journalists are not moonlighting policy mavens, angling for a job in the current or next Democrat administration by appearing on panels and going on television to advocate administration initiatives while news happens around them; their duty is to their publications and their readers, not their political party.

Given the embarrassing revelation -- once again involving the Post -- that one of its bloggers was also a White House functionary, a fact not disclosed to its readership, you would think the Post and the few grownups left there would want to clean up their act before they have not even a fig leaf of professional dignity intact. Which is why they ought to insist that Klein release the JournoList archives.

Then let real journalists sort through it and try to correlate the list's talking points with the ostensibly unbiased coverage of its membership. See whether certain story clusters, with many of the same talking points, suddenly start appearing around the same time in various publications. In the old days reporters might share minor bits of information but two things they would never share were scoops and original insights, and the notion that the staffs of a great city's multiple newspapers could possibly collude on shaping coverage would have been both antithetical to the idea of journalism itself and abhorrent to the fiercely competitive editors.

With the JournoList outed, the public now has a clear right to know whether the Washington Post, via one of its employees, facilitated an unprofessional collaboration among ostensibly independent reporters and columnists, about which their readers knew nothing -- the lame jokes and cheap shots and locker-room swagger, while embarrassing, are just collateral damage. If this were about any other profession than journalism, reporters would be all over it, screaming about transparency.

But since this is the Washington Post, one of the twin hearts of the Democrat-Media complex, newspaper division, their silence tells you all you need to know.

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