Hubris and Humility: David Weigel Comes Clean on Washington Post, the D.C. Bubble, & the 'Journolist'

In the first (and still best) “Austin Powers” film, a United Nations representative makes a faux pas and calls the film’s villain “Mr. Evil.”

“It’s Dr. Evil,” he huffs. “I didn’t spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called ‘mister,’ thank you very much.”

This is how I feel when I’m referred to as a “blogger,” sometimes with a political qualifier like “liberal” or “conservative” attached. I’m a reporter. I’ve been a reporter since high school. Like a lot of other people, I lucked into some reporting jobs that took advantage of the speed of the web — thus, I blogged. And I left the Washington Post because I was intoxicated by this medium by and the privileges of reporting. The leak of my private e-mails wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago; but then, neither would have my career been possible.

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Let’s go back to the start. I started in journalism in a fairly typical manner, by discovering how much I liked writing articles and doing interviews at my high school paper. I chose to go to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. It was there that I became editor of the campus’s weekly conservative paper, and became plugged into the campus conservative journalism network.

Was I really that conservative? Yes.

I interned at the libertarian Center for Individual Rights in the summer of 2001. I supported the Iraq War and crashed an anti-war protest on my campus. I voted in Republican primaries in 2002 and 2004. (Since I was in Illinois, I voted in 2004 for Jack Ryan to get the GOP’s nomination for Senate, to oppose Barack Obama. I’m better off than one of those guys.)

But I was never combative against liberals. Reporting in a close-knit campus community made it impossible and untenable to pick political fights every day. I was more interested in covering politics than in advocating for a political stance (outside of columns I wrote for my paper and later the daily campus paper). I cared more about finding out stories first than about advocating positions — those stories would get me the jobs I wanted, not the opinions I had. And I knew that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed.

In 2004, when I was graduating, I was offered two jobs — an editing role at the libertarian magazine Liberty and a fellowship at USA Today, sponsored by the conservative Collegiate Network. I chose the USA Today job, but kept freelancing, mostly for magazines like The American Spectator and Reason.

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A few months after my USA Today gig ended, I was offered a full-time job at Reason. For the first time I had a byline at a national media outlet, and part of my job was to feed a blog with reporting and takes on the news. It became clear that two things were rewarded with traffic and respect — original reporting, and arguments with other blogs.

This was the start of my success, and it was the start of my problems. Remember how I said it was “impossible and untenable to pick political fights every day?” When I started doing real reporting, I realized that political fights happened every nanosecond. It was just a matter of managing them, and picking them. As I got to find out about gossip and news, I’d banter about it privately and publicly. That’s what everyone did. Let’s let David Brooks explain this:

So every few weeks I find myself on the receiving end of little burst of off-the-record trash talk. Senators privately moan about other senators. Administration officials gripe about other administration officials. People in the White House complain about the idiots in Congress, and the idiots in Congress complain about the idiots in the White House — especially if they’re in the same party. Washington floats on a river of aspersion.

To use a phrase that I’m rolling my eyes at even as I type it: Nobody told me this in journalism school. Seriously, though, nobody did! The fact that one part of journalism in Washington was a give-and-take of gossip, and that sources learned to trust one another by bitching about people and projects they didn’t like, was a total mindfuck. Put me in a room with a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and I ask about where his “controlled demolitions” theory comes from. Put me in a room with a union organizer and I push him about how depressed he is about card check. Put me in a room with a GOP strategist and I tell him, in confidence, what the people I know on the left are saying about his candidate’s chances. How do I get people to tell me what they don’t want people to know?

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Being at Reason allowed me to do this while broadcasting a clear opinion. Rep. Ron Paul (R, Tex.) knew that I liked him, and that I was voting for him — although that didn’t stop me from co-writing a story about the history of racist comments in newsletters he published. Bob Barr knew that I liked him, and trusted me enough to tell me, off-the-record, what he thought of people. I kept that trust with people, and people kept it with me. In this business you have to keep that trust or no one will talk to you, and then you can only learn what people want you to know.

Here’s an example from a bit later in my career. In September 2009, Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Creigh Deeds, bumbled and fumbled his way through an impromptu press event, utterly unable to explain whether or not he would raise taxes, and at one point calling a reporter “young lady.” I was at the Values Voter summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, where I pulled Rep. Eric Cantor (R, Va.) aside for an interview.

“Fair warning,” I said, framing him with my iPhone’s video camera. “I’m going to tape this. So let’s not have a Creigh Deeds moment.”

Did that comment make it unfair for me to write about Deeds? (His communications director, who appeared in the video wincing as his candidate imploded, was a college friend.) But can we assume no reporters joked about Deeds after the implosion? “The opinionless man,” as Jeff Jarvis put it in a post on my current adventures, does not exist. (Here I’d make a reference to the perfect-but-boring human prototypes that survive the end of civilization in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, but that would just be showing off.)

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You’ve read this far, so you must think I’m trying to explain away the emails leaked this week. I’m not. Here’s what happened.

After the 2008 election, I drove up from Atlanta to D.C. and was greeted by my editor, Matt Welch, with surprising news. It would be better, he said, if I worked somewhere else. I’d voted for the Obama-Biden ticket (having joked, semi-seriously, that I was honor-bound to vote for a ticket with a fellow Delawarean on it) and wasn’t fully on board with the magazine’s upcoming, wonky focus on picking apart the new administration. My friend, Spencer Ackerman, immediately bought me Ethiopian food and suggested I come to work at his magazine, The Washington Independent. I was dicey about the suggestion, partly because I was already doing some work for The Economist. At Reason, I’d become a little less favorable to Republicans, and I’d never been shy about the fact that I was pro-gay marriage and pro-open borders. But could I do the same work if I jumped to a left-leaning web magazine? I figured that I could, largely because I wouldn’t change at all.

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A few weeks later, Ezra Klein invited me to join Journolist — which I’d known about for a year. I don’t know why he did, but I think it was an assist to a friend trying out a new job, and a way to build my list of sources. I was dazzled by the sudden, immediate access I had to more than a hundred journalists and academics, mostly on the left, some without an ideology I could discern. And I was encouraged that they were so blunt about what they were thinking about and working on. My first big contribution to the list, in response to a question about which conservatives “mattered,” was sent out on January 26, 2009.

Hugh Hewitt, as buffoonish as he can seem, is incredibly well-used by Republicans. Check out the guest list for a week of his show – plenty of governors and congressmen show up. If you count Newt Gingrich as a pundit (I do and I’d be stunned if his yearly rumblings about political comebacks were anything more than book promotion stunts) I’d rank him near the top of this list, if not at the top. Hill Republicans who weren’t actually there for his screwed-up tenure speak of him as a prophet. Gingrich had a LOT to do with the drilling obsession and messaging that hit the GOP conference last summer. Finally, I’d nominate the very young Rob Bluey of Heritage for a place near the bottom of this list. He’s done a lot work convincing Republicans that they need to copy Democrats on internet outreach/YouTube/Twitter, and of course now they’re all obsessed with that stuff as the path back to victory.

One thing I’m watching is whether insulting Sarah Palin or occasionally praising Barack Obama is enough to drum someone out of the conservative movement in a real way – being disinvited from dinners, for example, as David Brock was after his Hillary book. I haven’t seen that yet, although conservative blogs are trying to write David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, etc out of the movement. This is a reason why President Obama scored more of a direct hit telling the GOP conference to “stop listening to Rush Limbaugh.” They really do stop and listen to talk radio, or their talk radio-massaged constituent mail/phone calls, before they take big steps.

This would become typical of what I sent to the list. I was talking, largely, to liberals who didn’t really know conservatives. So I assumed they thought Hugh Hewitt was “buffoonish.” I said Gingrich had a “screwed-up tenture” because Republicans I admired, like Sen. Tom Coburn (R, Ok.) and Dick Armey, had serious problems with how Gingrich ran the House.

But I was cocky, and I got worse. I treated the list like a dive bar, swaggering in and popping off about what was “really” happening out there, and snarking at conservatives. Why did I want these people to like me so much? Why did I assume that I needed to crack wise and rant about people who, usually for no more than five minutes were getting on my nerves? Because I was stupid and arrogant, and needlessly mean. Yes, I’d trash-talk liberals to Republicans sometimes. And I’d tell them which liberals “mattered,” who was a hack, who was coming after them. Did I suggest which strategies might and might not work for liberals, Democrats, and the president? Yes, although I do the same to conservatives — in February, for example, I told many of them that Scott Brown’s election hadn’t killed health care reform, and they needed to avoid dancing in the endzone, because I was aware of what liberals were saying about how to come back.

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Still, this was hubris. It was the hubris of someone who rose — objectively speaking — a bit too fast, and someone who misunderstood a few things about his trade. It was also the hubris of someone who thought the best way to be annoyed about something was to do it publicly. This is the reason I’m surprised at commentary accusing me of misrepresenting myself. One other part of my career that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago is my Twitter account, which has been popular — I’m assuming — because I’m sarcastic and don’t hide my biases. That Twitter account has echoed the way, described above, that I talk to liberals and conservatives in private. And it’s flashed like Drudge’s siren with every take I have on Republican politicians, on Democratic politicians, on fringe movements — everything. When I tweeted that Van Jones needed to resign, I was also e-mailing this to Journolist:

Jones had five years to distance himself from this bullshit. Five years. He didn’t do it. And I can’t believe that a man who spoke at basically every left/liberal event in 2007 and 2008 did not see what the Truthers were up to.

Yes, as [Charles] Johnson points out, they’re liars who try and suck everyone into their orbit. One year ago I was backstage at a Ron Paul event with Kevin Barrett, the lunatic University of Wisconsin professor, who deliriously informed me of all these famous people he’d gotten on board with the Truth movement. He was full of shit–they were people who’d been accosted by Truthers and said nice things to blow them off. Here’s an example of a Truther baiting Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand into indulging his nonsense.

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But there was nothing preventing people like Paul, or like Jones, from brushing aside people like Barrett from releasing clear statements that they didn’t believe in these conspiracy theories.

I’m talking to a few media companies about what I’ll do next. Anyone who wanted to force me out of this business will have to settle for the consolation prize of me having to tediously inform sources of a new e-mail address. No serious journalist has defended the leak of my private e-mails; no one who works in politics or journalism would accept a situation where the things they said off the record could immediately become public. But no serious journalist — as I want to be, as I am — should be so rude about the people he covers.

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