New media and old media collided head on this week — and both appear to have been the losers when Dave Weigel, who has been blogging about the conservative end of the political spectrum for the Washington Post, resigned under pressure.
Weigel is not a conservative himself but is what Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic describes as a “disaffected libertarian” who “hates stupid people” and “says what he thinks.” He served as a contributing editor at the libertarian Reason magazine, among other positions, before joining the Washington Post last March.
But now Weigel’s occasional tendency to use intemperate language, combined with the desire of some conservatives to be covered by one of their own instead of being subjected to the jaundiced eye of a semi-outsider, has brought his career as a mainstream journalist to a turning point.
Salon blogger Alex Pareene had no doubt that Weigel had been the victim of a political dirty trick. “David Weigel just resigned from the Washington Post, following an apparently coordinated campaign to humiliate and discredit him by forwarding and posting his private messages to a listserv to unfriendly media outlets,” Pareene wrote on Friday.
“Weigel originally got in trouble with conservatives for calling opponents of gay marriage ‘bigots’ on Twitter,” Pareene explained. “Then, this week, a hack named Betsy Rothstein — a former DC gossip columnist whom I’ve known to write inexplicably nasty, personal items about other DC journalists … scored a Drudge link by posting excerpts from messages Weigel sent to Journolist, a ‘private’ email list of mostly liberal journalists in Washington.”
The first set of excerpts offered at Fishbowl D.C. showed Weigel — who was apparently angry about receiving hate mail after conservative Matt Drudge had misrepresented something he wrote — suggesting that Drudge should “set himself on fire.” He also referred to Tea Party activists as “Paultards,” a term originally used to describe followers of Ron Paul.
Weigel quickly apologized and appeared to have weathered the storm until a second set of his messages appeared Friday morning at Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller. According to Politico, “In the latest emails from the list, Weigel joked about wishing for the death of Rush Limbaugh and accused Republicans of ‘racism.'”
The second set of revelations led not only to Weigel’s resignation but also to the shutting down of Journolist by liberal blogger Ezra Klein, who founded the listserv in 2007. Klein expressed his dismay at the turn of events in his own blog at the Washington Post.
“The eventual irony of the list was that it came to be viewed as a secretive conspiracy,” Klein wrote. “As it grew, its relative exclusivity became more infamous, and its conversations became porous. The leaks never bothered me, though. What I didn’t expect was that a member of the list, or someone given access by a member of the list, would trawl through the archives to assemble a dossier of quotes from one particular member and then release them to an interested media outlet to embarrass him.”
Ben Smith at Politico, however, took a somewhat different view of the controversy, suggesting that part of the problem was that “the Post appears to have hired Weigel, a liberal blogger, under the false impression that he’s a conservative.”
“Before the Post hired him, he’d written about whom he voted for and what he thought of various people and movements, and any of his regular readers knew that he’d migrated fairly comfortably into the liberal blogosphere, if its libertarian side,” Smith recalled. “His keen understanding of the conservative fringe has been a source of steady entertainment to the left. … But the Post seems simply not to have understood what they were getting when [Ezra] Klein suggested they hire him. National editor Kevin Merida told me for my story on the subject in May that he never asked Weigel about his politics.”
Right-wing blogs and websites were naturally jubilant over Weigel’s departure. Lachlan Markay at NewsBusters wrote, “Many conservatives, including a number of NewsBusters contributors, have been skeptical of Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel since he was hired in March to cover the right. … It seems that the Washington Post has little interest in an objective blog-based approach to the news. … Likewise, Weigel seems to have little interest in covering the right with an even hand; he has consistently shown his disdain for the movement and its members.”
Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic added his own spin to the narrative, writing condescendingly, “The sad truth is that the Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training. … This little episode today is proof of this.”
Many liberal bloggers, equally naturally, are furious. Weigel has already received tweeted messages of support not only from Pareene but also from Slate’s Jack Shafer and The Nation’s Chris Hayes, and has tweeted back, “Getting an exceptionally good sense of who my friends are today.”
Perhaps the most philosophical note, however, was struck by the Guardian’s Michael Tomasky.
“He’s been a great reporter of the tea party movement,” Tomasky wrote. “What matters to a journalist’s work is how he behaves with his sources, in person and in print, not what he says to friends and acquaintances on a listserv that was supposed to be off-the-record in the first place. And it’s quite obvious that Dave’s sources trusted him, which in turn means he gave them reason to trust him.”
“I mostly feel terribly for Dave,” Tomasky concluded. “He was obviously set up by someone who wanted to sink him. And it’s lousy that this happened to a fun and engaging forum. My only solace is knowing that the people who think that by breaking up J-list they’ve scored some major triumph over the vast left-wing conspiracy are deluding themselves, which I suppose is something.”