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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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Weigel made no secret of the fact that he was a libertarian with left-leaning tendencies (especially after he tweeted about "anti-gay marriage bigots"). He was never hired as a conservative who would cover other conservatives. But the fact that many deemed him a counterweight to Klein's liberal blog put him in that box -- one that could have been avoided if The Post's Web site had managed to find a real conservative voice in recent years. (Washingtonpost.com and the newspaper are run separately from the op-ed page, which does include the likes of George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Kathleen Parker.)

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And yes, Virginia, journalists have opinions. Straight-news reporters usually do their best to keep their biases out of their work (although story selection, language and tone are invariably affected). The new hybrids -- bloggers who work for mainstream newspapers -- can serve up analysis and attitude, a welcome flavor infusion for the often bland ingredients of daily journalism. But trash-talking -- at least if it becomes public -- is another matter.

The debate that erupted after President Obama dismissed Gen. Stanley McChrystal also pivoted on whether his team's dismissive views of White House officials were intended to be cited for publication. Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone freelancer who reported them, says there were no ground rules against his using the comments. A "senior military official" told The Post that "many of the sessions were off-the-record" -- criticizing Hastings, ironically, from behind a curtain of anonymity.

Military beat reporters, from CBS's Lara Logan to Jamie McIntyre, formerly of CNN, say there is an unspoken agreement against reporting off-color banter in war zones, which detractors see as sacrificing independence for access. But just as hurling insults on an Internet mailing list hardly guaranteed confidentiality, McChrystal was playing with nitroglycerin by indulging such talk in a reporter's presence.

Journalists who once saved their candid chatter for after-work drinks now have innumerable ways to self-destruct, sometimes in as little as 140 characters. The Twitter age has brought more openness just as media types are being encouraged to share more of themselves. But the latest clashes provide a reminder that you're never really off duty in these digital times.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."


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