In my world, the trending story of the minute is the departure of blogger Dave Weigel from the Washington Post this past weekend. If this doesn’t ring any bells for you, here’s a quick-hit summary courtesy of Howie Kurtz:
David Weigel, who was hired by The Washington Post to blog about conservatives, resigned Friday after leaked online messages showed him disparaging some Republicans and commentators in highly personal terms. [...]
Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti said Weigel had called and offered to resign Thursday evening and he accepted on Friday.
“Dave did excellent work for us,” Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said. But, he 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.”
The Washington Post has been well out in front of other newspapers in hiring bloggers who blur the line between reporter and columnist. Dave Weigel was one of these hires. They’ve mostly held off on attaching any label besides “blogger” to the growing roster of WaPo bloggers that includes Weigel, Greg Sargent and Ezra Klein. In this case, Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander says the fuzziness of that role has damaged their standing in the eyes of readers. Moreover, the incident threatens to bring the Objectivity Wars back into the forefront of the discussion over the future of journalism.
I’m going to sidestep the Objectivity Wars for now and highlight one response to Weigel’s departure that I found particularly astute:
I want to push back just a little on the idea [...] that some kind of blog-reporter ethos is dumbfounding institutions like the Post because it’s such an unpredecedented challenge to traditional newspaper ideals of objectivity, while at the same time confuting the stereotype of blogging as mere pontificating about other people’s work. Blog-reporter ethos appears to consist of
* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject
I submit that this is just magazine-journalism ethos with the addition of cat pictures. If you think about what good long and short-form journalism looks like at a decent magazine, it looks like the bullet-points above. I’m not just talking about ideological organs. The writer who sells to Harper’s or The National Geographic or even Runner’s World is going to tend to show a personality and take a definite perspective, while at the same time doing fresh reporting from primary sources, whether human, documentary or physical. The writer will make sure to include a substantial account of challenges to her perspective, if only to knock it down later.
I think Jim Manzi – the author of this passage – is spot-on. As I’ve suggested before on at least a couple of occasions, great journo-blogging shares an awful lot of characteristics with great long-form journalism. I think that’s why magazines such as the New Republic, Time, Wired, and the Atlantic Monthly have been way out ahead of newspapers like the Washington Post in developing high-profile voices in this arena. We grant long-form journalists more leeway to draw conclusions and adopt perspectives, partly because they have more space with which to sound out a variety of views and present nuance, and partly because it becomes harder to maintain the appearance of neutrality with every word one writes.
What the Weigel story makes very clear is that we haven’t yet settled on our expectations for journalists in this new environment. Are they Sewell Chan or Seymour Hersh? Do we treat them, in other words, like magazine reporters or like newspaper reporters?
The pat answer, of course, is that we treat them like bloggers. But I think that unwillingness to discuss boundaries or set expectations is what got the WaPo into this mess in this case. This is something I want to discuss with each of the Argo editors, with one guideline front-and-center: There are a number of overlapping concepts here - ideology, fairness, snark, neutrality, partisanship, bias, objectivity, analysis, perspective – and it’s important to keep in mind that all of these things are related, but each of them is distinct.
Tomorrow I’m going to participate in an event at the Newseum with one of my favorite journalism ethicists, Poynter’s Kelly McBride. I suspect Kelly’s got some terrific thoughts about how Weigelgate might shape our thinking. If I’m right, I’ll try to capture some of those thoughts to share with you.