Debate continues over The Washington Post’s forcing out of blogger Dave Weigel for writing uncomplimentary things about the conservatives he covered in a Washington Post blog. This is unfortunate since not only did Weigel get the short end of the stick, but the incident raises myriad issues simultaneously. I addressed a few of these in my last Nation column, but the discussion has continued and this column by the Washington Post’s conflict-of-interest-king, Howard Kurtz, among others, raise new questions about the Post’s behavior and its meaning for the future of journalism.
Kurtz notes that “Weigel’s departure sparked a backlash—not so much against him as the newspaper that employed him.” Kurtz rejects all such criticism as he defends the institution that provides one of his paychecks. “Weigel’s resignation was accepted,” he insists, “because, as he quickly recognized, his vituperative language against Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives had embarrassed the paper that hired him three months earlier to cover the right…. Whoever leaked those messages from Journolist, an off-the-record group founded by Post blogger Ezra Klein, was out to torpedo Weigel, and it worked.”
He goes on to add that “the truth is it’s difficult for a mainstream organization to stand behind someone who wishes, however jokingly, for Drudge to set himself on fire, Limbaugh to die of a heart attack and other things (including an epithet beginning with "rat") that can’t be reprinted here. Sure, Weigel was hired for his viewpoint (and reporting), but the MSM have certain boundaries, and always will.” Kurtz says he wishes “The Post‘s Web site had managed to find a real conservative voice in recent years.”
In Kurtz’s haste to defend his employer he misses more than a few points of note, though his views are consistent with those expressed by his boss Marcus Branculi, Weigel’s editor Raju Narisetti, and the paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, all of whom worried about the reaction of readers to the revelation that a) reporters have private opinions and b) conservatives complain when they don’t get what they want.
Here are some comments from the Post brass:
“Dave did excellent work for us,” the executive editor of The Post, Marcus Brauchli, told Kurtz, the paper’s media columnist. But then he added, “We can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work.”
Later on Branchuli added that The Post needed to be “completely transparent about what people do … and completely transparent about where people stand.” And those in "traditional reporting positions," he said, should remain "nonpartisan, unbiased and free from slant in their presentation in the paper and in any other public forum. There should be no appearance of conflict."
Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti also added that one need not be a conservative to cover conservatives. “But you do need to be impartial,” he said, adding, “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?’”
Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander worried, “Weigel’s exit, and the events that prompted it, have further damaged The Post among conservatives who believe it is not properly attuned to their ideology or activities,” he wrote. “Ironically, Weigel was hired to address precisely those concerns.”
Add all this up and what do you have? Well, it depends where you look.
The New York Times’s David Carr did a pretty decent job of summing at least some of it up in a column entitled, “Outspoken Is Great, Till It’s Not,” which appeared the same morning as Kurtz’s spirited defense of his employers. In it, he published this faux “help-wanted” advertisement:
Wanted: Political blogger covering the conservative movement. Must be provocative and write with a strong point of view although not in a way that would reveal bias or offend any of your potential subjects. Social media a plus until it’s not. Must be completely transparent, unless that proves embarrassing to the newspaper. Send sanitized résumé, innocuous clips and nonpartisan references to The Washington Post.
In the body of Carr’s column he notes that despite what the Post brass say above, the problem was not that Weigel semiprivately expressed opinions, but rather they were opinions that made the Post brass uncomfortable. Weigel, he points out, would likely have survived had he “slammed Rachel Maddow or had some fun at Al Franken’s expense, but his willingness to train his guns inside the conservative movement was a bit much…”
He recalls a recent event in which Post writer Dana Milbank mocked Hillary Clinton on the Post website itself, showing a picture of her while touting “Mad Bitch beer.” Not only was he not “resigned,” but he did not even apologize to the subject of his childish, puerile “humor.”
The Nation’s Ari Melber picks up on this point that only certain opinions in the mainstream media are considered objectionable: “The fact is that modern news organizations give reporters plenty of room to say positive things about the sources and subjects on their beat. Bias is workable when it tilts towards power.” Among the examples he offers are the fact that journalists frequently “praise the troops and laud presidential appointees and root for the government to succeed against terrorists, recessions and oil spills.”
AP’s Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fournier experienced no negative feedback whatsoever when, addressing the issue of Pat Tillman’s death, he wrote to Karl Rove under the subject line "H-E-R-O." He noted, "The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight."
We cannot help but observe that he did this despite the fact that he represented the news organization that is supposed to be the most unopinionated news source available. (Fournier was later hired by Atlantic Media Company as editor in chief of the National Journal Group.) And note, finally, that the story that so excited Fournier to send his best wishes to the Bush White House political honcho was a lie. Tillman, sadly, was killed in a “friendly fire” incident covered up by the military at the time with the active participation of then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
History proves, moreover, that negative opinions are more problematic than suck-ups, though I would add they are particularly so when the subject is a conservative—so sensitive are mainstream media organizations to conservative complaints of bias, that is, “working the refs.” Melber employs the example of John Green, who was suspended from his producer’s job at “Good Morning America,” where he never even appeared on the air to a friend reading, “Bush makes me sick.”
Meanwhile, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli posits that the issue here is not a desire on the part of the Post to suck up to conservatives by ridding themselves of Weigel, but the potential confusion on the part of readers because writers, bloggers, and columnists “wear more than one hat” when they “opine in one forum and appear to report in another forum.”
Ombudsman Andrew Alexander reinforced this notion by musing about whether Ezra Klein’s business page readers are “told that he’s a well-established liberal.” Klein, who founded “Journolist” and ended it after the takedown of Weigel, joked about adding a warning to his business page column that read, "WARNING: This column may contain liberal thinking, which has been shown to lead to universal health-care coverage in most industrialized countries."
Again, the problem with Klein’s identification is less that he has opinions than the fact that those opinions are unapologetically liberal. Take for instance the career of David Broder, who is, together with Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward, undoubtedly among the most admired figures in the entire history of The Washington Post. For most of his career Broder has been both reporting inside the paper (and on its front page) and expressing his strong opinion on its editorial pages, on television, on radio, and undoubtedly on social occasions to his friends. He was paid both by the paper as a reporter and by the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicated his column.
Apparently, all Broder’s different “hats” never raised any “confusion” on the part of the readers in the minds of Post editors because his opinions were almost perfectly consistent with the Washington establishment’s views.
Since I have spent the past 20 years or so studying and writing about Washington pundits’ views, I have extensive files on these views. Here are a few on Broder:
- On Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy: Broder had little patience for antiwar Democrats who challenged Lyndon Johnson in 1967. The antiwar activities of the likes of Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy, he believed, were “degrading … to those involved.”
- On Ronald Reagan: When the president decided to bomb Libya in 1986 to try to kill Muamar Khaddafi, Broder assured readers that "Reagan has been insistent that every possible step be taken to spare the innocent.”
- Broder repeatedly lauded Reagan on his “presidential” qualities and “national leadership of a high order,” and was impressed by “the grace with which he functions as chief of state in moments of national tragedy and triumph."
- Reagan’s opponents, however, tended to receive the back of Broder’s hand, like the "quick-lipped liberals" who "pop off in opposition” to the Supreme Court nomination of right-wing extremist Robert Bork.
- Here’s one of my favorites: Broder published an excerpt from this new book, Beyond the Front Page, on page one of the Washington Post Outlook section of March 22, 1987, in which he explained:
The White House propaganda machine has … enhanced the power of the communicator-in-chief. And it has raised to even greater importance the unmet challenge for the press to provide an alternative, non-propagandistic view of the presidency. This is a challenge we in the Washington press corps—and our editors and bosses—cannot afford to ignore.
Yet on the last page of the same section Broder apparently found himself helpless before the very same phenomenon. During Reagan’s speech earlier that week the president continued to adhere to his preposterous notion that he had not intended to trade arms for hostages or encourage his administration to contravene any laws on behalf of the contras. Broder spins himself silly on this lying:
The White House has repaired the damage from the Iran affair explosion and reopened for business. President Reagan’s news conference on Thursday night provided the strongest evidence yet that the proprietor of the shop has regained a good measure of his emotional balance and is ready to reclaim his role at the center of government. The president did not change his story—or add much to it. But he showed the steadfastness and confidence that had been so conspicuously missing in the final months of 1986. Now Reagan can begin refocusing the nation’s attention on his policy agenda without being accused of trying to avoid That Painful Subject.
Note that in the above example, Broder did not actually claim that Reagan offered any coherent explanation for the Iran-contra or for his own role in it. And he didn’t explain what had changed inside the White House to prevent such occurrences from taking place in the future. Instead he merely embraced the narrative put forth by the propaganda machine to enhance the power of the communicator-in-chief.
- On Bill Clinton: Despite having been elected twice to the presidency, Broder considered Clinton to be something of a Pretender to the Throne: "He came in here," Broder told The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, "and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place."
- Broder grew so enraged when he learned of Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he argued that the consensual sex and subsequent denials were somehow "worse" than Richard Nixon police state tactics during Watergate. "Nixon’s actions," he reasoned, "however neurotic and criminal, were motivated and connected to the exercise of presidential power. He knew the place he occupied and he was determined not to give it up to those he regarded as ‘enemies.’”
- On Al Gore: “At the personal level, it was clear in 2000 that more Americans liked Bush than his opponent, Al Gore.”
- On Harry Reid: “Democrats by and large wish that Harry Reid would learn to engage mind before mouth opens. This has become kind of a pattern for him. I think at some point down the road the Democrats are going to have to have a little caucus to decide how much further they want to carry Harry Reid. They’ve got able people on the Senate side and they don’t have to put up with this kind of bumbling performance forever.”
- On George W. Bush: Broder mocked his colleagues following the 2004 election for writing that "the forces of darkness" were taking over the country, chortling that America did not face "another dark age." By 2009, however, he had admitted that America had passed through "one of the darkest chapters of American history." Still, he insisted, George W. Bush was a "man of honor."
- On Democrats generally: “One of the losers in the weekend oratorical marathon was retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who repeatedly invoked the West Point motto of ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ forgetting that few in this particular audience have much experience with, or sympathy for, the military.”
- On Sarah Palin: “Take Sarah Palin seriously. Her lengthy Saturday night keynote address to the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville and her debut on the Sunday morning talk show circuit with Fox News’ Chris Wallace showed off a public figure at the top of her game—a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself, even with notes on her palm. This was not the first time that Palin has impressed me. I gave her high marks for her vice presidential acceptance speech in St. Paul. But then, and always throughout that campaign, she was laboring to do more than establish her own place. She was selling a ticket headed by John McCain against formidable Democratic opposition and burdened by the legacy of the Bush administration.”
To be fair, some of these comments appeared inside the Post news pages, and others on the op-ed pages. Some were spoken on television, some on radio, and one appeared in a Washington Post news story by another reporter. And of course, everybody, even reporters cannot help but having an opinion, and occasionally expressing it in a semipublic place.
As Greg Marx wrote on CJR.com, “If there is any reporter anywhere who has not expressed views in private, or on a bar stool, that might make it difficult for him to do his job were they made public—and I doubt that there is—he is barely a sentient human being, let alone a good journalist.”
But I ask you, dear reader, how is a Post reader to avoid the confusion of trying to figure out how to understand these (and so many other of Broder’s angry and deeply biased comments) when he “wear[s] more than one hat” and “opine[s] in one forum and appear[s] to report in another forum?”
Inquiring minds want to know.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.