Congrats to Dave Weigel on his new gig. You might want to read his mea culpa piece that just went up at (of all places!) Big Journalism. Comments are a hoot. [UPDATE: I see Breitbart is now offering a $100,000 reward for the complete JournoList archives. Sigh.]
The mea culpa makes the point that it’s risky, trying to make too many different groups like you, by talking down the other groups – whom you also want to like you. Age of Facebook and all. Not the sort of thing you should have to lose your job over, but embarrassing.
A point about the original leaked emails/postings. Weigel’s critics didn’t take kindly to severe snark about Drudge and Newt and Rand Paul; but what was presented as truly damning evidence that Weigel wasn’t willing and able to play his role as journalistic ‘bystander’ were the bits where he seemed to be 1) saying some prominent conservative thinkers/ideas aren’t worth taking seriously; 2) criticizing framing/spin efforts by conservatives and conservative media, and maybe hinting at ways that journalists should try, collectively, to counter such efforts. It’s easy to see why conservatives would be put off by the tone of Weigel’s comments, but it was apparently the fact that Weigel expressed ideas whose content fit categories 1) and 2) that got him fired. Let me try to say why this is nuts in a slightly different way than other people have been, rightly, saying this is nuts. And let me roll up 1) in 2), because 1) is just a special case of 2): crazy people are just spin doctors who have gone native, as it were.
The following thought is, I hope, uncontroversial: there are sustained, at least semi-coordinated efforts by conservatives and partisan conservative media to ‘work the refs’ of the MSM, for conservative partisan advantage. This isn’t to say that conservatives are the only ones doing so, merely that they are among those who do so. And it isn’t to say that ‘working the refs’ is wrong either. It’s clear all political players are going to be constantly pushing preferred frames and self-serving talking points. Sometimes people are going to go too far. Sometimes way too far. Granting this fact, it’s ethically incumbent on journalists to acknowledge this, and adjust coverage appropriately. And journalists can talk to other journalists about it. On private lists, I should think.
It’s like discussions of what to do about flopping in sports. Blame the refs? Blame the players? Change the rules in some way? (What if there were a team whose players rigorously trained as floppers, and everyone pretty much knew that this was an integral part of their basic strategy?) It’s noteworthy that the one response that obviously makes no sense whatsoever, which no one would consider in the sports case, is the only response the WaPo is even willing to consider, to judge from Weigel’s case: refs have a professional duty not to perceive that some players may be flopping more than others. (Here we might note that there is a crazy person/spin doctor distinction that doesn’t carry over very well into the area of sports. Suffice it to say that if there were involuntary floppers – players subject to minor bouts of epilepsy, when lightly brushed by opposing players – the game would get yet harder to officiate.)
Cue chorus of complaint: conservatives long-term victims of bias, working the refs just an attempt to level the playing field (to mix sports metaphors). Why isn’t Weigel equally worried about liberal bias etc. etc.? But there are good responses to all such complaints. Weigel’s beat was the conservative movement, so if he tended to focus on difficulties reporting his beat, in particular, that is not suspicious. He is certainly willing to defend conservatives when he feels liberals are being unfair. But mostly the thing to see is that these Weigel-specific points are irrelevant to the main point about what proper journalistic norms should be. Let’s go back to our hypothetical squad of champion floppers. Suppose this team justifies their tactics on the ground that refs are unfair to them, so it’s basically a wash. Suppose it’s even true that, in the past, this team has maybe suffered from biased refereeing. Even so, no one would think it makes sense for refs to institute some sort of informal, ad hoc, affirmative action program for floppers.
Conservatives feel the refs – the MSM - aren’t fair to them, so conservatives treat these refs as players for the other team. To put it another way: having decided the refs aren’t doing their job, conservatives have decided to do it for them. How should journalists respond? Well, obviously, it gets a bit complicated being ‘a bystander’, while being treated as an opposing player by the people who are complaining about what a lousy bystander you are being. But what is the proper professional norm for dealing with this sort of situation? It would obviously be irresponsible just to assume that there can be no basis for conservatives’ aggrieved feelings. Maybe they’ve got a point. But here’s the thing: whether it’s understandable or not, you can’t let them do your job, on pain of you not doing it. Journalists are responsible for determining what is a ‘reasonable’ frame, which means, potentially, ruling some stuff out as beyond the pale, as a proposed frame. If you yourself can’t make reasonable determinations of what is ‘reasonable’, you can’t be a journalist. (This is not to say it’s easy, just that it’s necessary.) If you really believe you can’t, if you believe you have systematic left-wing bias, and for some bizarre reason you are unable to correct for that, short of informally contracting out to conservatives to trick you into correcting for it by accident on a regular basis, you ought to quit.
So for damn sure you shouldn’t be fired for not doing this silly thing.
Lots of people have made the correct point that it’s silly to think reporters, like Weigel, should have no opinions. But beyond that, it’s silly to think reporters should not have opinions about the dynamics of opinion-formation – opinions about how prominent crazy people and spin doctors in the public sphere affect public discourse. And it’s silly to think reporters do not have a positive duty to act on these opinions, changing up their stance to counteract the influence of perceived craziness, the better to help their readers form sensible opinions. This is hard to do, and it puts you on a slippery slope to arrogance and error. Maybe the people you think are crazy aren’t crazy at all. Maybe you are the crazy one. And you are making your readers crazy. Fine. This is possible. Everyone should do their best to be self-critical, and consider whether their paradigm needs shifting. But at the end of the day, you have to believe what you believe. There is literally no other place to stand than at the top of this slippery slope. ‘Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the sun goes around the earth …’ is a sensible thing to think, staking a claim while opening the door to correction. On the other hand, ‘the sun goes around the earth, but I’m half wrong, so it doesn’t,’ is unstable, and not in a healthy, open-to-paradigm-shifts way, just in a senseless way.
Solomon can split the difference between parties to a dispute, but not if Solomon is a party to the dispute, such that Solomon is now obliged to split the difference between splitting the difference and not splitting the difference. You end up with a cross between a Russellian Theory of Ramified Types and a Liberal Who Can’t Take His Own Side In a Fight. (And we haven’t even started in on what happens to Solomon once the other parties get wind of the fact that Solomon always splits the difference.) Committing yourself to evenhandedness, while thinking of yourself as just one player in the game – not as ‘above it all’ – seems sensible and modest, but it risks giving you an epistemological itch you can’t scratch. It may preserve you from groupthink, but by attacking the ‘think’ bit, not the ‘group’ bit.
We’ve left Weigel far behind. Like I said, his snarky postings aren’t the point. The point is the norm of evenhandedness that got him fired. But let me conclude by saying just a bit about Weigel’s actual case.
As he says in his mea culpa, he’s mostly guilty of having been a clumsy diplomat. He wanted to be on everyone’s good side and it backfired. If the WaPo had actually said that – if they had, in effect, said they were removing Weigel from his diplomatic posting as the WaPo’s envoy to the conservative movement – that would at least have made sense. Of course, saying a reporter is being fired for being a bad diplomat, not for being a bad reporter, is awkward for obvious reasons. It makes sense for diplomats to be forever trying to appear even-handed, so as to be agreeable to all parties. And we expect reporters to appear even-handed. But that does not mean reporting and diplomacy are the same thing. The reasons why you are self-effacing in one case are totally different than in the other. Yglesias has related thoughts today. I would add that there actually is a kind of hybrid intellectual-diplomatic option worth considering: there is a real intellectual benefit, potentially, to enforcing falsely diplomatic standards of decorum. People who really have contempt for each other – who maybe don’t even think the other side is worth debating, in an ideal world – can debate in a superficially civil manner. This can work out pretty well, given that the likely alternative is just a lot of shouting. Although it can also not work out well even compared to this unedifying alternative. It would be possible to justify the obligatory ‘evenhandedness’ of MSM political coverage along these lines: false decorum in the regulative service of vigorous debate, in the service of truth. Needless to say, I don’t think that’s quite the system we’ve got.