News & Politics

Who’s Afraid of Dave Weigel?

A Washington Post reporter is under attack. But are stories about him asking the wrong questions?

Update: After this post was published, Weigel offered his resignation, and the Post accepted it.

It's been an awful 24 hours for Washington Post conservative movement reporter Dave Weigel, but a good one for the traffic statistics of the publications who are writing about him. After someone made public emails Weigel sent to JournoList, an off-the-record email list of about 400 mostly liberal journalists (of which I am a relatively boring member), criticizing figures like Matt Drudge Fishbowl DC published some excerpts of recent emails; Politico wrote a story about whether the list was convulsed by fear over the breach in confidentiality; and the Daily Caller, founded by conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, crashed after running a story based on more extensive leaks of Weigel's correspondence. The stories may be good for those publications' bottom line, but they're a perfect illustration of the weaknesses of Washington media criticism. And they're missing the most interesting part of the story, namely, who has it in for Dave Weigel? And why?

From a purely business perspective it's not surprising that these publications have gone after Weigel with such a vengeance. As the person assigned to cover the Tea Party movement, criticism of him generates lots of hits. But more than that, Politico, at least, is aimed squarely at the Washington Post. Any action the paper can take to hit at the Post's credibility is a strategic investment in the political and policy news war under way between the Post, Politico, National Journal, and soon, a new Bloomberg product.

But the actual news value of Weigel's leaked emails is low. Anyone who follows his very public Twitter feed knows that Weigel has a sharp, funny tongue and some policy disagreements with the people he covers, two conditions not exceptionally uncommon among journalists everywhere. Betsy Rothstein, defending Fishbowl's decision to print the leaked emails, wrote on the site's Twitter feed "Weigel's probably a very nice person. But readers deserve to know what he's saying on the liberal listserv."But why, if what he's saying on that email list doesn't reveal anything new about Weigel's style, temperment, or most importantly, his integrity as a reporter?

There are, of course, times when a reporter's private conduct has implications for their public work. Jezebel, the Gawker Media women's blog, has done an excellent job of exploring whether reporter Derek Blasberg's consulting contracts with some of the companies he covers constitute pay-for-play, and has reported on sexual harassment allegations against fashion photographer Terry Richardson that place his work in new and disturbing context, and reveal more about employment conditions for young models. This does not appear to be one of those cases. 

The much more interesting and important story, the one with the potential to reveal new information about both individuals and group dynamics, is the story of who is leaking Weigel's emails in the first place. If the leaker is a member of JournoList, they're someone who either came to despise Weigel enough to break a promise of confidentiality they initially intended to keep, or they're an impostor, a person who deceived one or many people about their intentions, perhaps for quite some time. That level of deception is not simply intriguing, it's genuinely revealing of a person's character and the evolution of their beliefs.

And if the emails weren't given to news outlets by a member of the list, and they were obtained either through a deliberate hack or exploitation of an error—a lost password, an email account left open on an unattended computer—the level of coordinated work that went into getting the emails was substantial and considerable. Learning the identity of a person or persons who would spend that time and attention searching for the emails and designing a coordinated campaign to release them would say a lot about who feels threatened by Weigel's reporting.

That's a story that's too good to miss out on. And not just for the pageviews.

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