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How Do You Explain Gene Weingarten?
Comments () | Published December 5, 2011

Weingarten is the only person who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Photograph courtesy of the Pulitzer Prizes

I traveled to Dallas this summer to hear Weingarten speak at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, one of those events where journalists gather to commiserate, encourage, and envy.

Weingarten had told organizers he wanted to do a Q&A session rather than give a speech. But he changed his mind, e-mailing the Mayborn folks a few days before that he had something to say after all. What he did was tell two stories, both of them about times when he’d acted in an ethically questionable manner.

The first instance occurred in 2004 when he was reporting the article “None of the Above.” In that story, Weingarten locates a guy who never votes and tries to figure out why. When he pitched the story, Post higher-ups wanted to do a survey-based, big-picture investigation. Weingarten wanted to write about one person. He prefers the microcosm.

After he spent two days with the nonvoter he chose to follow, the story wasn’t working out. Not a bust, but not a barnburner either. So he’s standing around with the nonvoter and the nonvoter’s friends when somebody pulls out a marijuana pipe. The nonvoter lights it and passes it to Weingarten.

“I was not at that point in my life taking drugs,” Weingarten tells the conference audience, “but I had in the past—no more so than your average touring funk reggae band.”

He knows that taking the pipe would violate Post policy, that he might even be fired. But he believes that turning it down would brand him as an outsider and end whatever chance he has of establishing a rapport with the nonvoter in whom he has already invested a lot of time and energy.

He takes the pipe. He smokes the pot. He gets the story—a portrait of a guy who has “willed himself into a certain protective ignorance about the way life works.”

But he doesn’t tell the Post what he’s done. He waits until years later, just before the Mayborn speech, to call Leonard Downie, former executive editor of the Post. Downie doesn’t say for sure what he would have done if he’d known at the time, but dismissal would apparently not have been out of the question.

In the second instance, Weingarten is a 23-year-old reporter working for the Albany Knickerbocker News. There’s a bribery scandal brewing, and the businessman at the center of an allegation is in the hospital. The man is ill, probably not long for this world. During the official investigation of the possible bribery, a notebook emerged with the names of city officials alongside cryptic markings. What do the markings mean?

Weingarten goes to the hospital room of the sick, perhaps crooked businessman. The man is only semi-lucid. Weingarten gets him to reveal that the markings are actually an old retailer’s code. Officials have been bribed. The paper runs a front-page story about breaking the code—Weingarten’s first big scoop.

The kicker is that, before Weingarten introduced himself, the semi-lucid man said “Doctor?” and Weingarten—rather than saying, “I’m a reporter, not your doctor”—walked over and took the man’s pulse. He did identify himself as a reporter after that, though whether the man ever understood whom he was talking to remained uncertain.

Driving home after that speech, I wondered why Weingarten chose to tell these two stories. They were funny, but some people might get the wrong idea. And some people did: There was a mini-furor among news-media types, including this from a Dallas Morning News editorial writer: “So two-time Pulitzer winner Gene Weingarten thinks it might sometimes be OK to violate those pesky ethics if it means getting a good story.”

That’s an unfair summary of Weingarten’s talk from someone who wasn’t there. For his part, Weingarten offered a vigorous defense of his actions, except for taking the guy’s pulse. That, he says, was without a doubt the most unethical thing he ever did.

But why go there? Why risk besmirching your own reputation? My theory is that this is consistent with his tendency toward self-flagellation. He reveals his faults in his columns. He writes stories about people whose mistakes and quirks mirror his own. So it makes sense that when he gives a speech in front of admiring journalists, he admits to bending the rules. It seems like a meaningful trend to me, perhaps even a profound insight.

I test this theory out on Weingarten. He doesn’t buy it. He was, he says, just trying to entertain the audience.

This article appears in the December 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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Posted at 02:15 AM/ET, 12/05/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles