Controversial exits of McChrystal and Weigel show downside of transparency

In the crosshairs: Former Post blogger David Weigel, center, with former U.S. senator Mike Gravel, left, and 2008 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr.
In the crosshairs: Former Post blogger David Weigel, center, with former U.S. senator Mike Gravel, left, and 2008 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr. (Noel St. John)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

Everything is supposed to be "transparent" these days, but is every word you utter -- or e-mail, or text, or tweet, or mutter within earshot of a reporter -- now fair game?

And couldn't that drive our discourse toward the pathologically cautious and mind-numbingly banal?

Two days after the Afghan war commander was dismissed for saying things he undoubtedly thought would remain private, a Washington Post blogger lost his job for a series of profanity-laced insults, made before he joined The Post, that he never expected to become public.

It's hard to fathom why anyone would think that messages sent to a group of 400 journalists would remain off the record, but David Weigel's departure sparked a backlash -- not so much against him as the newspaper that employed him. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann gave The Post's management one of his "Worst Persons" awards, saying Weigel was "ousted for having an opinion."

That misses the mark. Weigel's resignation was accepted 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. "I was stupid and arrogant, and needlessly mean," Weigel wrote last week on the conservative site Big Government. 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.

Weigel says in an interview that, upon finding himself with hundreds of new contacts, "my mistake was trying to impress them by swinging elbows and showing how much I know and what a big man I am." Weigel, hired last week as an MSNBC contributor, says he was operating under the assumption that "you're allowed to roughhouse on your own. Maybe we're breaking down walls and gossip sites will start writing about these things."

Julian Sanchez, a former housemate and onetime colleague of Weigel's at Reason, writes that "lots of folks seem oddly resigned to living in a culture where anyone who is even remotely a public figure must expect to be defined by the least flattering thing they've ever said or done. Let the public mask slip for a moment . . . and you've only yourself to blame when, predictably, it becomes the focus of today's Two Minute Hate. Is this a culture anyone actually wants to live in?"

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has a different target: "The sad truth is that The Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training." While he later acknowledged that Weigel is a real reporter, Goldberg has a point: Weigel himself says he displayed the "hubris" of someone who rose "a bit too fast."

But the argument over whether Weigel was unfairly hosed has gotten conflated with another debate, over his role at the paper. The Post has tried to step into the future by hiring young bloggers from opinion magazines, breaking the traditional mold of straight-arrow reporters who come up through the newspaper ranks, working cops and courts before getting a shot at national affairs. In this case, the detractors say, the paper cut and ran at the first sign of controversy.

The truth is that it's hard 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.

Weigel says he quit because "I didn't want to be a political football and hurt the ability of other reporters at The Post to do their jobs." Referring to the paper's executive editor, he says: "I didn't want to put Marcus Brauchli in the position of defending me."

During his brief tenure, Weigel maintains, he had no problem accumulating sources on the right: "They realized, 'This guy is acidic, but he's not a member of what Rush Limbaugh calls the drive-by media.' People realized that because I had opinions about what a better conservative movement might look like, I'm going to engage with them more than some reporters."

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