Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reflections on the David Weigel Affair

David Weigel is a journalist who used to cover the conservative movement on behalf of the Washington Post. He also participated in a "private" listserve populated mostly by liberal journalists. Someone leaked some at least mildly offensive comments in his listserve posts—he referred to Ron Paul supporters as "Paultards" and suggested that Matt Drudge should set himself on fire—to the media, and he ended up resigning from the Post, how voluntarily is not entirely clear.

While some commenters viewed Weigel as a liberal pretending to be a conservative in order to infiltrate, and pan, the conservative movement, it seems clear from the more informed comments that he was, and was known to be, a libertarian, having worked for Reason Magazine for some years before going to the Post. I am very bad at remembering the names of people I meet, but so far as I know I never met Weigel, and I don't read the Post. But the story involves two worlds I am a part of—libertarianism and cyberspace.

One interesting question is why Weigel was let go by Reason. Accounts by both the current (Matt Welch) and previous (Nick Gillespie) editors make it sound as though Weigel is claiming that he was fired for being too hostile to Republicans and too friendly to open borders and gay marriage—not a very plausible claim given Reason's policies. What Weigel actually wrote, however, was:
"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. But could I do the same work if I jumped to a left-leaning web magazine? I figured that I could, largely because I wouldn’t change at all."
The references to being less favorable to Republicans, pro-gay marriage and pro-open borders are not offered as explanations of why Welch fired him but as considerations in his decision about where to go next. Welch's account obscures this by leaving off the last two sentences of what I have quoted above. Gillespie does him one better by also eliding out a sentence from the middle of the quote; his version is:
"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….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."
By eliminating all mention of the job offer Weigel was considering, Gillespie makes it look as though the final comments refer to leaving Reason. He then writes: "Similarly, the implication that Reason would be bothered by a staffer’s attacks on Republicans or support for gay marriage and open borders makes about as much sense and holds as much value as fiat currency."

Which is entirely true—but, since Weigel offered no such implication, also irrelevant. First editing down what he said to make it look as though he implied something that isn't true and then attacking him for doing so is either incompetent or dishonest.

Welch is a little better, writing "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.'" Which suggests that Weigel implied the contrary but stops short of saying so.

After writing the above, I described the situation to my wife. Her response was that both editors were viewing Weigel's comment through their own filters, assuming it was all about his firing and editing out of what he wrote everything irrelevant to that.

"Never attribute to malice ... ."

When I started this post, before coming across three different versions of why Weigel left Reason, I was planning to comment on the fact that for a lot of people (although perhaps not the editors of the Post) "libertarian" is now a clearly recognized category, so that "he wasn't a conservative or a liberal, he was a libertarian" is immediately comprehensible to them. I don't think that would have been true twenty years ago.

For the second half of this (already long) post, we have cyperspace and privacy. Weigel, in his explanation of the affair, quotes David Brooks at some length about the amount of confidential griping in the world of Washington politics:
So every few weeks I find myself on the receiving end of little burst of off-the-record trash talk. Senators privately moan about other senators. Administration officials gripe about other administration officials. People in the White House complain about the idiots in Congress, and the idiots in Congress complain about the idiots in the White House — especially if they’re in the same party. Washington floats on a river of aspersion.
This suggests that he may have viewed his comments to Journolist as in the same category as that sort of "off-the-record trash talk." If so, he was making a fairly serious error. One on one griping preserves the possibility of confidentiality—if the journalist quotes his off the record source, he may find sources less willing to talk to him in the future. Posts to a listserve with a hundred participants are a very different matter.

I was reminded of an even stupider mistake along similar lines that I made a few years back. In the course of a Usenet discussion, I offered my view of someone with whom I had reasonably friendly relations but of whose work I had a not very high opinion. Some time later I received an email from him asking if I had really said that, and had to confess that I had. It should have been obvious at the time that, since I was posting to a public forum, what I said was likely to eventually reach the person I said it about. But to me at the time it felt like a conversation, not a publication, so the problem simply didn't occur to me.

I have tried to be more careful since.

5 Comments:

At 10:44 AM, June 30, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"While some commenters viewed Weigel as a liberal pretending to be a conservative in order to infiltrate, and pan, the conservative movement, it seems clear from the more informed comments that he was, and was known to be, a libertarian, having worked for Reason Magazine for some years before going to the Post."

It's true he worked for Reason, and the Post probably thought they were hiring a libertarian, but it's clear from his semi-private comments (assuming they are his true views) that he isn't a libertarian.

Most of his work at Reason was critical of Republicans, which is consistent with being a libertarian, but also consistent with being a partisan Democrat.

 
At 10:50 AM, June 30, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

If Anonymous is referring to the leaked emails, I disagree that they show him not to be a libertarian. He says very hostile things about some conservatives--but even a conservative might do so in private, let alone a libertarian. I've said some pretty critical things about particular libertarians from time to time.

He apparently voted for Ron Paul in the primaries, but coauthored a Reason piece on the controversial material in newsletters that had gone out under Paul's name. The reference to "Paultards" implies a low opinion of some Ron Paul supporters, not of Ron Paul's views.

Do you have other evidence that he wasn't a libertarian? Reading the piece of his I linked to, the question that occurred to me was whether he was a libertarian or a conservative, not whether he was a partisan Democrat--and I can see no evidence in that piece or the leaked emails I've seen that he was the latter.

 
At 11:19 AM, June 30, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The leaks came in two batches and perhaps you didn't see the second (and much more damning):

http://dailycaller.com/2010/06/25/emails-reveal-post-reporter-savaging-conservatives-rooting-for-democrats/print/

 
At 11:56 AM, June 30, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

To Anonymous:

I think I had seen all of those. There is some evidence in them that he supported the health care bill, but even that isn't clear-in a conversation with people who do support it, it's natural enough for him to point at mistakes they are making or problems within their coalition. Most of it simply shows a low opinion of some conservatives--which some conservatives probably deserve.

To take one example ... . Years ago, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh when there was a caller who obviously was a libertarian--and didn't know there was such a category. Rush did nothing to enlighten her.

Have you read the piece of Weigel's that I linked to? I think it gives a somewhat clearer picture than selective excerpts from email. As I think I demonstrate in the post wrt the Reason editors' pieces, once can do quite a lot by selective quoting.

A relevant quote from his piece:

"Did I suggest which strategies might and might not work for liberals, Democrats, and the president? Yes, although I do the same to conservatives — in February, for example, I told many of them that Scott Brown’s election hadn’t killed health care reform, and they needed to avoid dancing in the endzone, because I was aware of what liberals were saying about how to come back."

 
At 10:16 AM, July 02, 2010, Blogger Bradley J. Fikes said...

I am a Libertarian, and think Weigel's real offense was duplicity. He cultivated a public image about his views regarding conservatives that was contradicted by what he said privately. And he revealed a depth of animus against large swathes of the conservative movement.

When Weigel complained that all he could find to write about in the conservative movement are wacko groups, it called his whole reason for hiring into question. Did Weigel tell his editors that he had such strong negative feelings about the people he was assigned to write about? He certainly didn't disclose it publicly.

Regarding Limbaugh, I am a current listener. Today, Limbaugh certainly talks a fair amount of Libertarian ideas and those that have influenced Libertarian thought, such as Ayn Rand, favorably.

And Weigel saying that when Limbaugh was hospitalized, "I hope he fails," is more than mildly offensive. Wishing death upon your political foes is disgusting and immature. And it's interesting that Weigel felt free to say such a thing on JournoList.

The best defense against such a backlash is to speak your mind publicly. Then everyone knows where you're coming from.

BTW, I read The Machinery of Freedom in college, and greatly admired it. Thank you for writing it.

 

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