Politics

Weigel, Journalistic Voting Records, and the Washington Post's "Perception" Problems

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For a magazine called REASON…

I don't have any real desire to throw my spit in the ocean of commentary on L'Affaire Weigel, but since Reason was Dave's longest-tenured home, we have inevitably come up enough in discussion to warrant a couple of clarifications. First this, from Weigel's own account of his career, published at Big Journalism:

After the 2008 election, I drove up from Atlanta to D.C. and was greeted by my editor, Matt Welch, with surprising news. It would be better, he said, if I worked somewhere else. I'd voted for the Obama-Biden ticket (having joked, semi-seriously, that I was honor-bound to vote for a ticket with a fellow Delawarean on it) and wasn't fully on board with the magazine's upcoming, wonky focus on picking apart the new administration. My friend, Spencer Ackerman, immediately bought me Ethiopian food and suggested I come to work at his magazine, The Washington Independent. I was dicey about the suggestion, partly because I was already doing some work for The Economist. At Reason, I'd become a little less favorable to Republicans, and I'd never been shy about the fact that I was pro-gay marriage and pro-open borders.

Our first post-TARP cover

To the extent that this gives the impression that Dave's job was in any way tied to him voting for Obama, I need to shout from the rooftops that this is emphatically not the case. If it were, Ronald Bailey would no longer be our Science Correspondent and Tim Cavanaugh would not be our back-of-the-book columnist. If preference for Obama over John McCain in November 2008 was any kind of litmus, then I would be disqualified to work here, even if I wouldn't have pulled the lever for the guy had I bothered to get my D.C. voting registration in order. Having been on the losing end of political litmus tests in the past, and having refused to sand down the edges of my own ideological quirkiness in the pursuit of various journalism jobs, I am hyper-sensitive to even the whiff of an implication here. We are a libertarian magazine, yes, but not an enforcer of political or philosophical purity. This has been true, and will continue being true, for decades.

There were multiple factors at play in the Weigel/Reason separation, none of them having to do with voting records, and many (though not all) pointing to what Dave alludes to in his post: What he wanted to write about, and what we needed him to write about, were two different things. As I think the subsequent track record makes abundantly clear, both parties benefited from that realization.

We like immigration

Another clarification, especially for people unfamiliar with Reason: There is, to put it mildly, zero professional sanction at this magazine for being "a little less favorable to Republicans," or being "pro-gay marriage and pro-open borders." I have decorated this post with examples of why.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, has given off a couple of misleading impressions of its own. Particularly this:

[Raju Narisetti, the managing editor who oversees The Post's Web site] 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."

Seconded here:

Asked about Weigel's strong views about some conservatives, Brauchli said: "We don't have the resources or ability to do Supreme Court justice-type investigations into people's backgrounds. We will have to be more careful in the future."

We like to criticize presidents, turns out

This makes it seem like it's just so dang hard to do background checks in the hyper-cyber-fangled 21st century! But consider this: The Post never spoke with Weigel's longest employer before hiring him. That's considerably less than even a Circuit Court justice-type investigation.

Getting back to the issue of voting records and transparency, the Post, typically, gets a couple of key points wrong (IMO):

"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."

And:

[Brauchli said] "we can't have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work…. There's abundant room on our Web site for a wide range of viewpoints, and we should be transparent about everybody's viewpoint."

You don't need to be impartial in your views at the Post, or else Ezra Klein (among many, many others) wouldn't have a job. Nor do you need to be impartial in your views to do perfectly good journalism. What you need is to not get caught. If the Post was even remotely interested in viewpoint-transparency, it would follow Reason's (and Dave Weigel's!) lead in, at bare bloody minimum, showing us who their editorial staffers–particularly in the newsroom–have voted for in presidential elections. Three chances of that happening, either at the Post or any other major newspaper: Slim, none, and fat.