Washington Post journalist Dave Weigel resigned today, after Fishbowl DC and Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller published a series of comments that they deemed unprofessional, partisan and inappropriate, all of which Weigel made on a private listserve.
Now, we all know that supposedly “private” lists often aren’t. So what did Weigel say that was so terrible? [Warning: Racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist language ahead!] Was it something like, “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?” or “Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it.” or “They’re 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?” or “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back”?
No, those were all Rush Limbaugh, who Weigel criticized on the list.
Did he refer to gays as “the pederast proletariat”? After a Catholic priest criticized anti-Semitism did he respond with “If U.S. Jewry takes the clucking appeasement of the Catholic cardinalate as indicative of our submission, it is mistaken. When Cardinal O’Connor of New York seeks to soothe the always irate Elie Wiesel by reassuring him ‘there are many Catholics who are anti-Semitic’…he speaks for himself. Be not afraid, Your Eminence; just step aside, there are bishops and priests ready to assume the role of defender of the faith”? Did he say that women are not equipped by nature to succeed in the competitive world of Western capitalism? Did he demonize illegal immigrants?
No, that was Pat Buchanan, who Weigel also criticized on the list.
So what did Dave Weigel do on this private listserve that was so terrible? He made an (admittedly tasteless) joke about Rush Limbaugh’s heart failing. He wrote, about covering the Tea Party, “Honestly, it’s been tough to find fresh angles sometimes–how many times can I report that these [tea party] activists are joyfully signing up with the agenda of discredited right-winger X and discredited right-wing group Y?” He said that the motives behind some Tea Partiers and conservatives were racist and premised on maintaining white privilege. He pointed out that “There’s also the fact that neither the pundits, nor possibly the Republicans, will be punished for their crazy outbursts of racism. Newt Gingrich is an amoral blowhard who resigned in disgrace, and Pat Buchanan is an anti-Semite who was drummed out of the movement by William F. Buckley. Both are now polluting my inbox and TV with their bellowing and minority-bashing. They’re never going to go away or be deprived of their soapboxes.” He said about conservative blow-hard Matt Drudge that “It’s really a disgrace that an amoral shut-in like Drudge maintains the influence he does on the news cycle while gay-baiting, lying, and flubbing facts to this degree.” He pointed out that the mainstream media suffers from “this need to give equal/extra time to ‘real American’ views, no matter how fucking moronic, which just so happen to be the views of the conglomerates that run the media and/or buy up ads.” He said Glenn Beck was racist. He was satisfied and laughing when a right-wing operative who made a career of harassment, intimidation and law-breaking was finally caught breaking into Senator Mary Landrieu’s office. He used the term “ratfuck.”
Someone fetch Republicans the smelling salts.
Now, look. I’m not going to defend all of the language used. I’m not going to defend the sentiments behind all of it — words like “moron” are problematic for reasons we’ve discussed multiple times on this blog, and I’m also not a big fan of hoping that someone dies, no matter how terrible they are. The listserve was specifically created for off-the-record conversations among journalists, and while it’s particularly shitty and unethical that someone leaked these emails, it’s also the reality that things you write online are rarely entirely private. I also understand that Weigel was covering conservatives, and so the argument is that he clearly holds some animus towards them and therefore should be relieved of his duties.
But, all of that said: Why is this a scandal or an issue, exactly? Sure, a lot of what Weigel said isn’t nice. At least some of it is stuff that, had it been left in a comment at Feministe, we would have called out for the language/hoping-people-die stuff. But that’s not what most people are taking issue with here. Rather, the problem seems to be that Weigel had the nerve to use the word “racist” to describe someone who tells a caller he assumes to be black to “take the bone out of your nose and call me back.” The problem seems to be that he had the nerve to use the word “racist” to describe someone like Glenn Beck, who relies on racist dog-whistles to frighten his audience into thinking that President Obama is a “thug” who hates “white culture.” The problem seems to be that he pointed out the fact that the media hones in on right-wing extremists and gives them airtime, because advertisers have an interest in certain positions and so they pony up for O’Reilly and Beck.
What Weigel was doing over that private list was criticizing mainstream media and their presentation of politics. He wasn’t forming some nefarious plot to use his Washington Post column to sneak in a liberal agenda. He wasn’t launching racist attacks on his opponents. Instead, he was calling the right out on their racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. He was calling the mainstream media out on their over-reliance on extreme views to fit the narratives that sell ads. He was questioning the loudest voices, and challenging, even in a private forum, powerful organizations.
He had opinions. Newspaper columnists who write about politics tend to have those.
I mean, Tucker Carlson was one of the people who published Weigel’s emails. TUCKER CARLSON. Not exactly an emblem of journalistic ethics, talent, fairness or objectivity. A dick who is hurting America, if you will. That’s the guy who is pulling the Journalistic Integrity card here? And we’re taking it seriously?
I don’t know Dave Weigel personally. I was not on JournoList. I follow Dave on Twitter, and that’s about the extent of my knowledge of him as a person. But I read his writing — and while I’m a lot more left-leaning than he is (despite all of this coverage, he comes across as a moderate, socially liberal libertarian), I’ve always found him to be fair, to engage in debate in good faith, and to lack the kind of dogmatism that often accompanies the work that political writers do. I don’t always agree with him, but he seems like one of the good ones. He seems like he takes his journalistic obligations seriously. He seems like he treats his ideological opponents fairly (a view that is bolstered, I think, by the numbers of right-of-center writers coming to his defense today). It strikes me as fundamentally unfair that the JournoList comments, which are hardly beyond the pale, led to his resignation. It strikes me as frighteningly poisonous to an open and engaged press to shut out Dave Weigel for (privately even!) calling out racism from white people, while people like Glenn Beck can run around disseminating enormous amounts of misinformation, calling Hillary Clinton a “stereotypical bitch,” promoting racist and anti-Semitic literature and and calling the President a racist mostly because the President is black.
Journalists have opinions. They will have opinions about their beats. Is it a problem to have a super-dogmatic partisan covering certain topics? Sure. But Weigel is a left-ish libertarian. His comments were about specific (and specifically horrific) right-wing commentators, and particularly problematic media practices. For once in my life I actually agree with Ross Douthat, who writes:
The more important point is that no journalistic standard was violated by firing off intemperate e-mails to what’s supposed to be a private e-mail list. Maybe Weigel should have known better than to trust the people on JournoList, and I can certainly understand why once the e-mails were leaked, his ability to cover the conservative movement would be compromised, and a parting of the ways with The Post might seem necessary. But if hitting “send” on pungent e-mails that you assume will be kept private is a breach of journalistic ethics, then there isn’t an ethical journalist in the English-speaking world.
Dave Weigel is a very talented journalist. I have no doubt that he’ll go on to do great things, and that this will hardly be a career-ender. But it’s shameful of the Washington Post, and it’s a shameful commentary on the state of American media.
Good luck, Dave. Don’t let the ratfuckers get you down.
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