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David Weigel and the limits of newspaper political culture

Let me just get this out of the way: David Weigel should have known better. He’s a journalist, for Christ’s sake — a digger-out of that which others intend to be un-dug. As such, he has no right to complain when somebody reveals his “private” correspondence — actually semi-private emails passed among a closed group of liberal-ish scribblers.

And Weigel admits he should have known better, describing the conservative-bashing emails he shared on Journolist while covering the broadly defined political right for the Washington Post as “stupid and arrogant.”

But the real fault lies with the Washington Post, for choosing as its “inside observer” of “the right” a journalist who was, at most, libertarian-leaning (not a recommendation among many conservatives), and never really very ideological at all, to judge by his writing. That choice probably has everything to do with the rather insular culture at many major newspapers — a culture that would be frankly uncomfortable with a committed libertarian or conservative. Because of that culture, the Post probably found the not-so-ideological Weigel a palatable hire, and the young journalist with incompletely formed ideas likely found it easy to get along to go along and adjust to his new home — an accommodation that most of us tend to make when inserted into new surroundings.

I have first-hand, though limited, experience of newsroom culture from my brief tenure as senior editor of the online edition of the New York Daily News. Although my stay there came to an end largely because of a personality clash with one of Mort Zuckerman’s more-obnoxious relations, my politics clearly set me apart. Both in personal discussions and through the exposure provided by a short-lived online column, my views became known and a point of contention among my largely liberal colleagues. To judge by the reaction, I might as well have had horns and a tail — and I’m a pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, pro-drug-legalization libertarian; a conservative would probably have been burned in effigy in the lobby.

After that, I was dropped from consideration for a job at the New Century Network — an early effort to aggregate newspapers on the Web. The editor tossed my resume explicitly because of my “scary” politics, which were on display in the Daily News columns as well as in my civil liberties columns for About.com. (I got the heads-up from a sympathetic junior editor who let me in on the behind-the-scenes discussions in an email exchange.)

You can decide for yourself whether I’m “scary,” but this was a revelation to me after welcoming environments at the tech publisher Ziff-Davis, and at a financial consulting outfit.

I’ve been out of circulation, newsroom-wise, for many years now, but I doubt the nice folks at the Washington Post are much more comfortable with libertarians or conservatives than were the people at the New York Daily News. They needed somebody to cover “the right,” but I’m sure they also wanted that person to be … well … not “scary.”

Weigel has worked for Reason and interned at the Center for Individual Rights, so he had credible credentials for the job (at least from a libertarian perspective). But even in his most recent assertions of right-of-center bona fides, he consistently talks about affiliations rather than ideas.

I chose to go to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. It was there that I became editor of the campus’s weekly conservative paper, and became plugged into the campus conservative journalism network.

Was I really that conservative? Yes.

In his writing for Reason, he struck me not as the stealth liberal that some of his critics claim, but as a very conventional thinker — though one with a strong dose of tolerance and respect for civil liberties. I imagine that the combination of credentials and conventionality sat rather well at the Post.

Of course, it’s not necessary to be a member of a group in order to cover that group — but it is unhelpful to be revealed as despising the people, ideas and organizations on whom you report. It’s no secret that people tend to adjust to their environments. A much-discussed book — The Big Sort — discussed how conservatives tend to move to conservative neighborhoods and then become really conservative, and liberals tend to move to liberal neighborhoods where they become really liberal. I would think that a young journalist without a strong ideology, dropped into the prevailing culture of a major newsroom, would find it easy to go with the flow. That’s especially true if he starts associating on Journolist with big-name writers he respects and wants to impress — and who are overtly hostile to the people Weigel has been hired to cover. It would have been — and apparently was — tempting to join in the slamming.

Add in a little poor judgment, and Weigel was set up for a fall.

I don’t think Weigel is toast — and, in fact, he’s landed a new gig at MSNBC where his recent misadventures may actually count in his favor. He’s young and has time to rebuild his career — though straight journalism may be a tough sell in the future. I wish him luck; he hasn’t done anything terrible enough to wish him otherwise and he’s obviously talented and hard-working. It’ll be interesting to see how or if his political ideas eventually gel.

As for the Washington Post … The people there need to take this as an object lesson in their cultural insularity and learn to venture just a little bit beyond their comfort zone.

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  • Heck, there is only one person even close to being a libertarian working as a newspaper editor, and he’s in Las Vegas. Go figure.

  • I like Vin, too, though he’s more hawkish than me. I’d also add Alan Bock, at the OC Register.

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