City Desk

Washington Post: David Weigel’s Comments Aren’t Cool—But Praying For A Source Is OK

By now, we all know the Washington Post pushed out David Weigel late last week. Weigel had worked at the paper as a blogger covering conservatives. He took the job seriously. He never took cheap shots at the Tea Party, the Birthers, or John McCain's latest lapse into un-mavericky GOP dogma. He worked damn hard explaining a movement that reporters either ignore or treat as some kind of Discovery Channel anthropological phenomena (look at all these angry, ill-informed white people!). But Weigel got pushed out because some of his personal e-mails to a listserv of other journalists leaked. In those e-mails, he dissed a few conservative pundits and politicians.

Which was, as far as the Post brass was concerned, a violation of an ethical rule against expressing an opinion in private e-mails. "Weigel’s e-mails showed strikingly poor judgment and revealed a bias," Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote explaining the whole thing. (A few days ago, Slate's Tom Scocca, a former editor at Washington City Paper, deconstructed the whole mess better than anyone else, concluding: "Still, there was nothing in this episode that an editor with guts and integrity couldn't have weathered in 72 hours. Maybe someday Weigel will be lucky enough to work for one.")

But the Post's editors aren't totally against personal e-mails. In fact, they seem to like when their reporters suck up to sources via e-mail—even if that means telling their sources that they are praying for them.

On January 11, 2006, the Post broke a big local story: Councilmember Marion Barry had tested positive for cocaine use. Two days later, WaPo Metro reporter Hamil Harris e-mailed Barry's chief of staff Linda Greene. Here's what he wrote, according to records City Paper obtained via the Freedom of Information Act not long afterwards:

"Tell Marion

I am praying for him and you

These are trying times but God has not changed"

And Greene's response:

"Amen, it’s good to hear from you.…"

Harris is a veteran journalist, and one of the sweetest guys ever to report out  a Wilson Building press conference or a tragic crime scene. But if what he wrote was OK, why shouldn't Weigel be allowed to privately mock his subjects to his friends? The reason is simple: In journalism, sucking up to sources is considered just part of the job. Thinking critical thoughts about them, though, seems to be verboten.

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  • http://www.davidcayjohnston.com David Cay Johnston

    An extra two words at the end of this piece would have made it perfect: these days.

    Reporters used to be free to talk tough when sources when in their judgment it was appropriate. Sometimes top editors even lauded them in the newsroom for getting in the face of generals, senators, police chiefs and thugs.

    A first-rate deskmate at the LATimes 30 years ago shouted into the phone "senator, stop lying....." followed by telling details, a rising volume and a few expletives deleted. These days that would probably get you fired. The result is that many official lies (and dumb actions) now go uncontested, the readers (and listeners and viewers) left ill-informed.

    Managing sources is an art. Sometimes expressing sympathy works best, sometimes cross examination is best. But reporters used to be left to their own judgements on this, the copy they produced being the measure of performance, not fear of what some anonymous critic will post on the Internet.

  • S. Gardner

    Johnston, as usual, hits the nail squarely.

    And never mind Nostradamus; Jefferson's words echo through history:

    "The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers... [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper." --Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, Oct. 13, 1785. (*) ME 5:181, Papers 8:632

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