I wasn’t going to write about Dave Weigel, the talented journalist who left the Washington Post on Friday and joined MSNBC on Monday, because the media has already thoroughly parsed this rather insular media story. But then I read Weigel’s own account of recent events.
Surprisingly, Weigel repeats the very error that drove his traditional media detractors. Weigel’s critics think his mistakes were about objectivity, and apparently he agrees. But this story was not really about bias. It was about negativity and power.
At 3:06 on Monday morning, Weigel posted a 2,300-word confessional essay at the conservative website BigGovernment.com. He copped to the “cocky” mistake of harshly criticizing conservatives, both in private messages to a media email list, and through bursts of attitude on his Twitter account. And his big takeaway, issued in the final sentence of the piece, is that he was too mean: “No serious journalist — as I want to be, as I am — should be so rude about the people he covers.”
Of all the problems ailing serious journalism, an excessive willingness to offend powerful people does not exactly top the list. The Post counters that it wasn’t Weigel’s offensive impact alone, but rather that his comments fed a view that the paper’s reporters “bring a bias to their work.” That sounds alright, but doesn’t actually add up, either.
The fact is that modern news organizations give reporters plenty of room to say positive things about the sources and subjects on their beat. Bias is workable when it tilts towards power.
Journalists can praise the troops and laud presidential appointees and root for the government to succeed against terrorists, recessions and oil spills. Going negative, however, and rooting against the home team is tougher to pull off.
So while many saw Weigel’s fall as a revenge of the inventions – blogs are blurry, Twitter is scary and his colleague’s media listserve was just a press conference waiting to happen – his problem was actually pretty basic. He got caught going negative on people who matter.
The same thing happened four years ago to John Green, who was suspended from his influential perch as executive producer of Good Morning America. Green wrote an email to a colleague that was leaked to The Drudge Report – why is Drudge always involved? – which said, “Bush makes me sick.” Now there would not have been a scandal, if you think about it, for a comment about the president making a reporter feel healthy, or happy, or proud. The A.P.’s Washington Bureau Chief, for example, sounded both proud and encouraging when he praised the late Pat Tillman in a 2004 email to Karl Rove, later revealed in a House Committee report:
Rove exchanged e-mails about Pat Tillman with Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier, under the subject line "H-E-R-O." In response to Mr. Fournier's e-mail, Mr. Rove asked, "How does our country continue to produce men and women like this," to which Mr. Fournier replied, "The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight."
There was no discipline or backlash among traditional reporters when the email leaked. (The A.P. ran an item regretting the “breezy” style of the exchange.) So, once you untangle the traditional media’s peculiar standards for “bias,” it’s clear that a few degrees warmer than neutral is usually fine, while a few degrees colder than neutral can get you canned. The structural incentives here are obvious, though usually unstated. Being positive keeps sources calm and access open, while being negative – especially when it seems “avoidable” – undercuts the access stories that drive so many bureaus. And this is where Weigel’s insults overlap with something more important.
Weigel could have dispensed with his digital Burn Book and still practiced great journalism. (That’s what he says he’ll do now.) Solid reporters have to be pretty negative, however, hassling powerful people and scrutinizing motives while defying their very credible threats of retaliation. We will have a new general in Afghanistan because one reporter just met that challenge. But it’s worth appreciating how Michael Hastings’ bombshell article narrated glaring truths that were not so much hidden from the press as concealed with the press. Many beat reporters simply “would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks,” as Politico explained in an unusually candid description of access journalism. (Politico later cut the blunt line from its McChrystal coverage.)
Losing access is a genuine challenge for reporters, of course, and needlessly antagonizing sources can definitely hinder reporting. But when the press marches out to discuss its definitional values, it’s important to avoid confusing tactics with ideals. Access is not “journalism,” and while erring on the side of positive may be fine for the rolodex, it’s more of a nod towards establishment bias than a quest for “neutrality.” And readers can tell.