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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.

Second Amendment applied to the states in Supreme Court decision

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my Chicago-area readers! You can take the gats out of hiding and sport them openly. Well, openly around the apartment, anyway. (Oh, c’mon. I know you windy city types are armed to the teeth, no matter what the law says.) The United States Supreme Court knocked down (by implication, anyway) Chicago’s handgun ban while reaffirming that the Second Amendment is “incorporated” by the Fourteenth Amendment, and applies to state governments as much as it does to the federal government.

Writing for the five-member majority in the case of McDonald v. Chicago (PDF), Justice Samuel Alito pointed out:

Self-defense is a basic right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present day, and in Heller, we held that individual self-defense is “the central component” of the Second Amendment right.

Moreover:

[I]t is clear that the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty.

As a result:

In Heller, we held that the Second Amendment protects the right to possess a handgun in the home for the purpose of self-defense. Unless considerations of stare decisis counsel otherwise, a provision of the Bill of Rights that protects a right that is fundamental from an American perspective applies equally to the Federal Government and the States. See Duncan, 391 U. S., at 149, and n. 14. We therefore hold that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amend-ment right recognized in Heller.

That’s a major decision, reaffirming the right to bear arms as an individual right which no government entity in the United States may infringe (precise boundaries of that right to be determined later, of course, so don’t get too excited) — and also continuing the incorporation of constitutionally protected rights so that they apply against state governments. However, as you can see from the above, Alito followed the Supreme Court’s unfortunate track record of torturing the Hell out of the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in order to make it do the job originally intended for the Privileges or Immunities clause, which is a more logical vehicle for protecting individual rights. He knows this, too, acknowledging that “many legal scholars dispute the correctness of the narrow Slaughter-House interpretation” of the Privileges or Immunities clause.

However, he doesn’t change course.

… For many decades, the question of the rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against state infringement has been analyzed under the Due Process Clause of that Amendment and not under the Privileges or Immunities Clause. We therefore decline to disturb the Slaughter-House holding. …

Justice Clarence Thomas, while concurring in the case’s result, objects to the court’s ongoing abuse of the Constitution.

Applying what is now a well-settled test, the plurality opinion concludes that the right to keep and bear arms applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause because it is “fundamental” to the American “scheme of ordered liberty,” ante, at 19 (citing Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 149 (1968)), and “‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,’” ante, at 19 (quoting Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U. S. 702, 721 (1997)). I agree with that description of the right. But I cannot agree that it is enforceable against the States through a clause that speaks only to “process.”Instead, the right to keep and bear arms is a privilege of American citizenship that applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause.

Good for Thomas. At least somebody is keeping alive a respect for proper reading of the Constitution. Maybe next time …

But the means matters less to most people than the ends. And in this case, that means yet another decision protecting the individual right to keep and bear arms.

Pass DISCLOSE so Republicans don’t get elected

Admittedly, Rep. Hank Johnson is … ummm … a moron. But it’s not often that you see a politician openly advocating restrictions on political speech as a means of choking off the opposition’s electoral prospects.

My apologies for posting anything from Eric Cantor’s YouTube channel (among other failings, the Republican Whip supports the PATRIOT Act and voted for TARP — twice), but this is priceless.

New piece on self-reliance at When Falls the Coliseum

I’m on a bit of a roll this week, so here’s my latest post for When Falls The Coliseum: “Don’t mind me, I’ll just die here in the dark.”

No, really, communists are adorable!

Compare and contrast:

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby’s still-true observation that unrepentant communists are treated differently than unrepentant nazis, despite a remarkably similar track record on life, liberty and mass graves.

IF JOSÉ Saramago, the Portuguese writer who died on Friday at 87, had been an unrepentant Nazi for the last four decades, he would never have won international acclaim or received the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. Leading publishers would never have brought out his books, his works would not have been translated into more than 20 languages, and the head of Portugal’s government would never have said on his death — as Prime Minister José Sócrates did say last week — that he was “one of our great cultural figures and his disappearance has left our culture poorer.’’

But Saramago wasn’t a Nazi, he was a communist. And not just a nominal communist, as his obituaries pointed out, but an “unabashed’’ (Washington Post), “unflinching’’ (AP), “unfaltering’’ (New York Times) true believer. …

With the Boston-area readers’ furious insistence in the comments that communists really mean well, but seem to have been led astray a few times.

Communism is a textbook example of a concept good at heart corrupted by the sociopaths who put it into practice. Marx would not have imagined leaders such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot murdering millions of their own citizens to achieve a dictatorship of the proletariat. …

None of the regime Jacoby mentions are actually communist, they are perversions of the ideology. Communism is not supposed to have a dictator, it is supposed to be rule by the masses. …

You have based your argument on two demonstrably false propositions: 1) I have known good and decent people who were and are a credit to their communities yet who happened to be Marxists. I only need to have known one, and that countermands your entire thesis. 2) One could argue that religion and empire, each or together, have resulted in more homicides than any other “cause”. I’m not sure it’s much of a sporting contest, and indeed one could weakly argue that Marxism is both a religion and empire. Nevertheless, neither capitalism nor free enterprise have proven to be social panaceas …

I lived in Boston for five years, and the area really is overrun with totalitarian dipshits who think that communism deserves another try, but this time with feeling. Most of them are Cambridge-based, of course, giving me yet another reason to resist ever springing for Harvard tuition for my kid (you, too, can fork over fifty grand a year so your kid can learn to pine for a properly regimented society).

Jacoby’s piece reminds me of a misty-eyed April 12, 1990, New York Times laugh riot, titled, “Political Idealists Trying to Hold Back the Night,” about a failing retirement home populated by aging communists with a lingering nostalgia for Lenin. Oddly, the Times piece, while still appearing as a search engine result, has apparently been scrubbed from the site.

Note: MetaThought points out that the Times piece on a retirement home full of old reds is available here, so my inability to pull it up may have been a temporary glitch (or personal incompetence).

New: My mildly amusing musings about parenthood

At the risk of mixing oil and water, let me announce here the creation of my new stay-at-home-dad blog, King of the Kitchen (any evocations of Oliver Hardy are purely intentional). With my son about to embark on a new phase of life, in kindergarten, it seems like a good time to start a new forum for unleashing my animal howls of frustration at parenthood, marriage and the non-political aspects of the modern world. My political howls will continue to be found here, and I’ll also still write for When Falls the Coliseum.

Conservatives are doomed because they’re … ditching theocratic nuttiness?

I have my fair share of doubts about the tea party movement. Ideally, I’d like it to be a consistently pro-liberty movement, suffused by tolerance, devoid of craziness and respectful of intellectual arguments. Unfortunately, it’s not. As with all grassroots movements, the energy for the movement bubbles up from the base, and brings with it not just a gratifyingly crowd-pleasing push for personal freedom, but also conspiracy theories, the occasional hater and a grab-bag of populist bugaboos — specifically immigration, among Arizona tea partiers. Frankly, that’s the way real political movements that aren’t custom-designed for my convenience work.

But I have to admit, among the concerns that have led to my hesitation to fully embrace the tea party movement, it never occurred to me that partially replacing the religion-fueled nuttiness of conservatism with an impure strain of individualistic, small-government libertarianism would be its greatest liability.

At least, that’s the argument of E.J. Dionne, a once perceptive political journalist who seems to have been replaced by a computer program designed to simulate all the worst stereotypes about the out-of-touch Eastern media elite.

In a recent syndicated column, Dionne claims that the tea party movement’s rise constitutes “a revolution on the American right in which older, more secular forms of politics displace religious activism.” This is good for Obama and company because:

The rise of the tea-party movement is a throwback to an old form of libertarianism that sees most of the domestic policies that government has undertaken since the New Deal as unconstitutional. It typically perceives the most dangerous threats to freedom as the design of well-educated elitists out of touch with “American values.”

In its extreme antipathy to the power of the federal government, this movement may prove to be threatening to the Republicans in what should otherwise be a good year for the party.

As evidence that the return of concerns about secular politics to the conservative movement is damaging to the political right, Dionne points out that “The language of the new anti-statists, like the language of the 1950s’ right, regularly harks back to the U.S. Constitution and the Founders in calling attention to perceived threats to liberty” and “As the scrutiny of the movement has increased, its critics (most recently Chris Matthews in an MSNBC documentary and Jason Zengerle in the New Republic) have noticed how much of this is very old American stuff.”

Nowhere to be found in the piece is any recognition of what may have sparked such a revival in interest — however inconsistent — in individual liberty and limited government. Dionne makes no reference to the massive increases in government spending in the past decade, or the enormously extended role the federal government has acquired in the economy, due to TARP and the resulting leverage over the finance industry, the nationalization of two automobile companies and the massive health care bill. And there’s no discussion of the growth in executive power, the far-reaching surveillance state, or the authority gained by government officials from the seemingly permanent state of emergency (although, granted, these are lesser concerns for many tea partiers). Nor any mention that all of this has coincided with a massive economic downturn, which many people — including well-educated people — consider to be closely linked to those policies.

Somehow, says Dionne, conservatives just dropped the Jesus talk and started sounding like the Founders again. “What’s remarkable is the extent to which the tea-party movement has displaced the religious right as the dominant voice of conservative militancy.”

And this is bad for conservatives.

The key to the Washington Post scribe‘s assertions (and, amazingly in a nationally syndicated column, that’s all they are) are found in his last two sentences:

Thus has Obama brought back to life a venerable if disturbing style of conservative thinking. In the short run, the new movement’s energy threatens him. In the long run, its extremism may be his salvation.

That’s right. Dionne finds the tea party’s views disturbing and extreme, so of course they spell doom for conservatism.

Holy shit. How suffocatingly insular must the world a writer lives in be for him to simply conclude that an ideology that makes him and his friends uncomfortable as they chat over dinner and cocktails must necessarily be a dead-end?

It’s one thing to pen a column saying that you disagree with the general thrust of a grassroots political movement. For my part, I like the pro-liberty activism and anti-government rhetoric and dislike the nativism, and anti-intellectualism of the tea party movement. But whether Dionne and I love or hate the tea party movement’s ideas,  they’re clearly very popular and likely to play a major role in politics for some time to come.

Maybe it’s time to feed the ability to remove his head from his ass into Dionne’s software.

Congressman assaults questioner

Don’t get above yourself and think you can pose questions to your rulers — not unless you want a smackdown. See Congressman Bob Etheridge in action on the streets of Washington, D.C., grabbing a young interviewer by the arm and then by the neck.

In which I quit The Examiner

I expect that the farewell piece I posted over at The Examiner will be yanked pronto, so here it is in all its wonderful wordiness:

When I first started writing for The Examiner, almost two years ago, I had high hopes. With traditional newspapers across the country failing because of long (for the information age) lead times, high overhead and dwindling readership, The Examiner seemed to offer an interesting model for allowing grassroots journalists to cover and comment on their areas of interest — and get paid for their efforts.

My early experience was encouraging. Not only were my writing samples vetted before I was brought on board, but I was also subjected to a criminal background check. The company seemed to want competent writers and a credible image. Right out of the gate I started building decent traffic, which translated into fairly impressive compensation. I wasn’t pulling anything equivalent to the salary of a full-time job, but I was earning enough to make my work for The Examiner a viable part-time gig — just the sort of thing that writers have long cobbled together with other projects in order to make a living.

But there were early warning signs. The Examiner encouraged its writers, strongly, to use social networks like Digg and Reddit to their advantage by promoting their own and their colleagues’ material. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those clique-ridden services, but the strategy mimicked About.com’s doomed ’90s-era efforts to have its writers game the old Web search engines (I’m a jaded old man, in Internet years). About.com’s scheme pretty much ended the days of Internet users voting on the placement of sites in Web searches, and The Examiner‘s modern plan ultimately got the site’s content booted from many social networks.

Then Google News began to turn up its nose at Examiner content — understandably, considering how much low-quality junk was now turning up in the results as The Examiner went into a quantity-over-quality hiring frenzy. It’s not that there are no good writers at The Examiner — there are, in fact, a lot of good writers working for the company. But their efforts have increasingly been lost in a sea of dreck.

For the first time in any of my writing jobs, my readership (and pay) began to decline instead of increase. For the past few months I’ve been making about 7% (yes, seven percent) of what I consistently earned during the good times.

Some other Examiner writers are still doing well, and I give them full credit for their success. And many writers don’t seem to mind the content-mill aspect of the site, since they have a platform for doing something that they love. To a certain extent, I think that’s a manifestation of the partial transformation of writing from a profession into a social activity — a phenomenon I’ve covered elsewhere.

It’s not like I haven’t written for peanuts — or free. I’m not paid for my work at the excellent group blog When Falls the Coliseum and I make almost nothing through my personal blog, Disloyal Opposition. But The Examiner is a for-profit institution, and if I’m going to help somebody else turn a buck, I’d like to see some reward for my efforts.

Besides, given the low esteem in which The Examiner is now all too often held, I’m gaining no professional benefit from my continued efforts. And as for readership … Disloyal Opposition pulls about ten times as much traffic as my Examiner columns.

So it’s time for me to move on.

I wish my fellow writers who continue with The Examiner the best of luck. Many of them are very good, and I hope their efforts lead to success, however they may define that elusive goal. I also wish profitability to The Examiner; while the company’s evolved model doesn’t work for me, it violates nobody’s rights, and I sincerely root for everybody who makes the attempt to earn honest profits.

And to my readers: Thank you. I hope to see you elsewhere.

Climate science under fire in new paper

Who wrote this?:

A review of the peer-edited literature reveals a systematic tendency of the climate establishment to engage in a variety of stylized rhetorical techniques that seem to oversell what is actually known about climate change while concealing fundamental uncertainties and open questions regarding many of the key processes involved in climate change.

Was it a cranky skeptic grinding away on his personal blog? Or was it a prominent professor at a major university?

OK. I telegraphed that one. In fact, the author of those words is Jason Scott Johnston, Director of the Program on Law, Environment and Economy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, in a paper published by The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Law and Economics: Global Warming Advocacy Science: a Cross Examination (PDF).

Johnston also writes:

Fundamental open questions include not only the size but the direction of feedback effects that are responsible for the bulk of the temperature increase predicted to result from atmospheric greenhouse gas increases: while climate models all presume that such feedback effects are on balance strongly positive, more and more peer-edited scientific papers seem to suggest that feedback effects may be small or even negative. The cross-examination conducted in this paper reveals many additional areas where the peer-edited literature seems to conflict with the picture painted by establishment climate science, ranging from the magnitude of 20th century surface temperature increases and their relation to past temperatures; the possibility that inherent variability in the earth’s non-linear climate system, and not increases in CO2, may explain observed late 20th century warming; the ability of climate models to actually explain past temperatures; and, finally, substantial doubt about the methodological validity of models used to make highly publicized predictions of global warming impacts such as species loss.

Johnston says that establishment climate scientists have taken to cherry-picking data, dismissing information that would bring their models into question and then hunting up evidence that supports their premises. He criticizes this tendency as resulting in a “faith-based climate policy.”

I’ll note here that Johnston isn’t questioning assertions that the climate is changing; he’s challenging the certainty that many climate scientists express in dismissing possible natural factors, such as solar variation, and their enthusiasm for the supposed accuracy of computer models intended to describe what the climate is doing now and will do in the future. He also points to overtly bad science and the substitution of opinion for inquiry in the claims made by many climate scientists.

All of this matters because the bad science and dismissal of contrary evidence and dissenting opinions is useful only for “conveying a very scary and also very simple picture of the state of the science. Such coarse understanding leads to a very coarse policy prescription: ‘Do something, anything, now!’ Such a policy prescription justifies virtually any policy, however costly or inefficient…”

Interestingly, even though the latest version of the paper was published in May, the only mainstream media mention I can find is in Canada’s Financial Post.