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 have 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 e-mail 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 all right, 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 e-mail to a colleague that was leaked to The Drudge Report—why is Drudge always involved?—that 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 AP’s Washington bureau chief, for example, sounded both proud and encouraging when he praised the late Pat Tillman in a 2004 e-mail to Karl Rove, later revealed in a House Committee report: