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Controversial exits of McChrystal and Weigel show downside of transparency

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; C01

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."

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.)

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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