by Tracy Thompson
Most reporters think that the average reader is totally in the dark about the rules of the journalism game. After the Washington Post fired one of its bloggers last week, readers would be justified in concluding that they know more about the rules than the journalists do.
The Washington Post fired David Weigel, a blogger for washingtonpost.com who covered the Republican Party and conservative politics in general, after it came to light that he had written some nasty e-mails about Ron Paul, Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh. The comments about Matt Drudge (“He should handle his emotional problems more responsibly and set himself on fire”) and Rush Limbaugh (“I hope he fails” after hearing the Limbaugh was hospitalized with chest pains) are pretty standard Internet humor—which is to say raw, devoid of nuance and not all that funny. Weigel’s comment about Ron Paul (a reference to the “Paultard Tea Party”) was either a play on the word “retard” or the word “paltry”—and I’m not sure that qualifies as humor even on the Internet. The e-mails were brought to the attention of the Post’s upper management by The Daily Caller, a conservative website publication, which got them out of the archives of a private listserve Weigel belonged to. They were leaked by….um, well, we don’t know. The Post story doesn’t tell the readers the identity of the leaker, or what his motive for leaking might be. Wouldn’t that be interesting to know?
But no matter! The Post is in favor of transparency, make no mistake, and that’s why Weigel got fired: it’s a no-no, said Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, to create the perception among readers that people who write for the Post “are conflicted or bring a bias to their work….There’s abundant room on our Web site for a wide range of viewpoints, and we should be transparent about everybody’s viewpoint.”
All righty, then. So was Weigel transparent about what his blog, entitled “Right Now,” was supposed to be about? According to its website, “The goal of this blog will be to explain what the right is doing, thinking, and planning as it hurtles toward the possible salvation of the 2010 midterm elections…There's no shortage of news about the right. There is, I think, a shortage of coverage that puts the movement in context. This is where ‘Right Now’ comes. That's going to mean a lot of on-the-scene reporting, interviews with the people driving this movement, and close reading of the arguments making headway among the people trying to bring the Obama era to the quickest possible end.”
Sounds like your standard newspaper column, no? Readers understand that columns are not straight news, and that a political column would be expected to have a particular “take” on the news—in this case, conservative. But here’s where we get into trouble. If those e-mails are accurate barometers of Weigel’s frame of mind, and let’s assume for the sake of argument that they are, then the Post hired a guy with liberal sensibilities to write a conservative blog. But that’s okay! According to Brauchli, who went on to explain the peculiar logic at work down at the Post, the paper “doesn’t believe it’s necessary for somebody to be of a certain ideology to write about people who are of that ideology. We do think it’s imperative we bring independence to that coverage.”
So….wait a minute. Why did Weigel get fired again? Oh, yeah, that’s right—for creating the perception of bias. But….isn’t it a bona fide occupational qualification for columnists to have some kind of political bias? But maybe Weigel wasn’t a columnist. Maybe he was a reporter. The Post seemed to think so, and judged him by traditional reporting rules. If you look for his blog on washintonpost.com, you’ll find it under “News,” not “Opinion.” So what we have here is a blog which describes itself in a way that does not fit how the Post itself categorizes it. Confused yet? I sure am.
In an effort to mitigate my confusion, I scanned a couple of weeks’ worth of Weigel’s blog (which I do not regularly follow), and it seemed like a pretty straightforward reporting blog to me. So now, instead of characterizing it as a “column,” I changed my mind and decided it was more “news analysis”—a category which no journalist has ever been able to define coherently but which in the newsroom roughly translates to “all the stuff I’ve come to understand about this subject but couldn’t quite get into the regular news story.” Usually, in the context of a running story—a Presidential race, say—the tag “news analysis” works okay despite its vagueness, because readers understand that reporters on the trail of a long-running story occasionally need to step back and put things in context. That’s just common sense. But a daily “news analysis” is a much harder concept to explain. A person who does nothing but put things in context is not a straight reporter; he’s a…..what? I don’t know. I guess he’s a blogger, which brings us back to where we started.
So what are the rules for Post bloggers? I couldn’t find any statement on the washingtonpost.com’s website. I did find a blog called Story Lab, listed under Local News, which drew my attention because I am a former journalist with an interest in the nuts and bolts of how stories get written. While I was there, I noticed a Blog Roll which mentioned “Tom Shroder’s Story Surgeons,” which turns out to be a website in which Shroder, a former editor of the Washington Post magazine, solicits manuscripts from writers which he offers to edit—for a fee ($35 will get you expert advice on a 1,000-word document). I have no problems with Shroder running a business on the side, but I know a lot of freelance editors who would kill to get that kind of free advertising, and the whole thing strikes me as really weird. What next? Will we start seeing news stories with a tag at the end—“Call 1-800-TEXTHELP to hire this writer for television script doctoring and/or term paper revisions”? If such a thing were to happen, it would no doubt provoke outrage in the journalism community—and a lot of ordinary news consumers would find the whole to-do rather mystifying. For them, the whole concept of “journalistic ethics” is as much an oxymoron as “in-flight dining.”
It may seem I have wandered far off the track here, but my basic point is this: if there are rules about blogging vs. reporting vs. being a columnist—or using one’s position as a Post staffer to drum up a little work on the side, for that matter--it is not apparent to me in anything the Post has said or done so far. If anything, the Post appears to be using 1995 rules to deal with 2010 reality. Then it hired a blogger to cover conservative politics who was not personally conservative enough to please his conservative readers, even though by the Post’s own standards it’s no crime not to share the ideology of the people you cover. Sensing the intellectual void that passes as a journalistic philosophy for blogging at the Post, somebody out there with an axe to grind dug up something that passed for dirt and ratted Weigel out—and the Post, fearful as always of being tagged as a tool of the liberal establishment (as if), promptly caved in. Move along, folks. There’s no logic to see here.
Journalists say the average reader is confused about all journalistic ethics, which is correct, but they’re not half as confused as the journalists. Readers, at least, know what they don’t know. The whole Weigel affair would be a comical footnote, except that it illustrates a big and pressing problem: when journalists keep up the pretense that they are using a coherent set of principles when they’re not, they wind up playing precisely the role they try most to avoid: as handy little tools for people who operate under no rules whatsoever.