Post blogger Dave Weigel, who wrote about the conservative movement, resigned amid controversy today following disclosure of disparaging e-mails he’d written about some of the very people he was hired to cover.
Weigel bears responsibility for sarcastic and scornful comments he made in e-mails leaked from a supposedly private listserv called “Journolist,” started in 2007 by fellow Post blogger and friend Ezra Klein. Weigel’s e-mails showed strikingly poor judgment and revealed a bias that only underscored existing complaints from conservatives that he couldn’t impartially cover them.
But his departure also raises questions about whether The Post has adequately defined the role of bloggers like Weigel. Are they neutral reporters or ideologues?
And, given the disdainful comments in his e-mails, there is the separate question of whether he was miscast from the outset when he was hired earlier this year.
Raju Narisetti, the managing editor who oversees The Post’s Web site, said Weigel called him last night and offered to resign after Fishbowl D.C. initially revealed some damaging e-mails. Narisetti said Weigel alerted him that another Web site, the conservative Daily Caller, planned to disclose more e-mails today.
“This morning, after reading them, I accepted his resignation,” Narisetti said. Contacted by e-mail, Weigel replied: “I no longer work for the Post.”
The e-mails made negative comments about Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, among others. One suggested it “would be a vastly better world” if Webmeister Matt Drudge “decided to handle his emotional problems more responsibly, and set himself on fire.”
Weigel apologized online yesterday, but the damage was too severe to save his job.
“I don’t think you need to be a conservative to cover the conservative movement,” Narisetti told me late today. “But you do need to be impartial… in your views.”
He said that when Weigel was hired, he was vetted in the same way that other prospective Post journalists are screened. He interviewed with a variety of top editors, his writings were reviewed and his references were checked, Narisetti said.
“But we’re living in an era when maybe we need to add a level” of inquiry, he said. “It may be in our interests to ask potential reporters: ‘In private… have you expressed any opinions that would make it difficult for you to do your job.”
Weigel’s exit, and the events that prompted it, have further damaged The Post among conservatives who believe it is not properly attuned to their ideology or activities. Ironically, Weigel was hired to address precisely those concerns.
With bloggers such as Weigel, “I think The Post needs to decide what it wants to be online,” said Dan Gainor, a vice president at the conservative Media Research Center. “Does it want to be opinion? Or, does it want to be news? The problem here was that it was never clear.”
“If it’s going to be opinion, it ought to have somebody on the conservative side — something Dave Weigel never was,” he said.
If The Post wants to assign a “good neutral reporter” to cover conservatives, “we’d be thrilled,” said Gainor. But quickly added, Weigel “wasn’t one. He looked at the conservative movement as if he was visiting a zoo. We’re more than that.”
Gainor raises valid points. Klein’s blog posts clearly pass through a liberal prism. For that reason, liberals have a comfort level with what he writes, and conservatives know where he’s coming from, even if they disagree. In contrast, Weigel’s blog seemed to confuse many conservatives who contacted me. Was he supposed to be a neutral reporter, some wondered? Others complained that he was a liberal trying to write about conservatives he disdained.
“We will look for someone to replace Dave,” Narisetti said.
Instead of just a replacement, The Post might consider two: one conservative with a Klein-like ideological bent, and another who can cover the conservative movement in the role of a truly neutral reporter.
In the meantime, Post managers would be wise to remind all staffers that personal opinions, expressed privately on listservs or through social media, can prove damaging if made public.
Klein addressed that danger this afternoon in a thoughtful blog post explaining why he is closing down Journolist, and why he is saddened that leaks from the listserv led to the resignation of Weigel, a “dear friend.” Klein wrote:
There’s a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it’s dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It’s public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It’s easy to talk as if it’s private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public.
Alas, it took only one listserv participant to bundle up Weigel’s archived comments and start leaking them outside the group. The result is that Weigel lost his job. But the bigger loss is The Post’s standing among conservatives.
// By Andy Alexander | June 25, 2010; 5:24 PM ET