Weigel, the ‘off-the-record’ listserv and Club Journolist

One of the main critiques of journalists over the years is the notion that we are insular; that we play by our own rules and that we are clubby and enjoy fraternizing.

The recent debacle involving former Washington Post blogger David Weigel and “Journolist” certainly seems to indicate that the airs of clubbiness continues with professional journalists claiming their privacy was violated when discussions on their listserv were outed.   If you missed it, Weigel resigned his position at The Post after opinions he voiced on the Journolist — opinions bashing Republicans and conservatives — made it into the public sphere.  This caused a bit of a conundrum for the folks at The Post since Weigel authored a blog called “Right Now: Inside the conservative movement with David Weigel.”

This is the second time a conservative blogger at The Post has come under fire and resigned.  In 2006, when I was still working at washingtonpost.com, Ben Domenech, the author of The Post’s Red America blog, resigned his post after a short stint after allegations of plagiarism were aired in the public sphere.  With Domenech, there were some serious questions about the thoroughness of the background search conducted before hiring such a high-profile blogger.

One would think that the execs over at The Post would be extra vigilant these days about those involved with their operation.  Yet, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli seems to want have it both ways.  On the one hand, he tells The Post’s Howard Kurtz:

“….we can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work. . . . There’s abundant room on our Web site for a wide range of viewpoints, and we should be transparent about everybody’s viewpoint.”

Then when questioned about the apparent contradiction of having a conservative blogger bashing conservatives, Brauchli gets into a defensive crouch, telling Kurtz:

“We don’t have the resources or ability to do Supreme Court justice-type investigations into people’s backgrounds. We will have to be more careful in the future.”

We expect more from one of the premier political reporting organizations in the nation.

The Post’s Howard Kurtz describes Journolist as an “off-the-record listserv for several hundred independent to left-leaning commentators and journalists that was founded in 2007 by Ezra Klein, now a liberal blogger for The Post’s Web site.” The premise — an off-the-record listserv for journalists — seems almost laughable, especially in the context of Katharine Weymouth’s failed dream for off-the-record dinners.

A  number of journalists, as well as Klein and Weigel themselves, seem irked because some of Weigel’s comments were “leaked.”   Klein, upset that his little private club has now exploded into the public eye, has decided to kill the “off-the-record listserv.”

Part of the reason Klein says he started the club was to create:

“An insulated space where the lure of a smart, ongoing conversation would encourage journalists, policy experts and assorted other observers to share their insights with one another.”

There’s that word again:  Insulated.  And if you look at a roster of who was in the club, it reads like a Who’s Who of print reporters who just don’t get it.  And, in the end, that’s the feeling you really get from this whole debacle:  Out of touch print dinosaurs creating a little club where they thought they could hold private electronic discussions.  Of course, is that if such a club were being conducted by a group of politicians, I doubt Klein or Weigel would hesitate to report on some “leaked” e-mails containing similar comments. The claims to privacy ring a bit hollow.

Klein attempts to understand the world of transparency and the Web, but doesn’t quite get it:

“There’s a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it’s dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It’s public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It’s easy to talk as if it’s private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public, and that some ambitious gossip reporters will dig through it for an exposure story. And because that possibility doesn’t feel fully real, people still talk like it’s private and then get burned if it goes public.”

Weigel goes further in his version of events, saying:

“No serious journalist has defended the leak of my private e-mails; no one who works in politics or journalism would accept a situation where the things they said off the record could immediately become public.”

Welcome to 2010, Mr. Weigel, Mr. Klein.  Assume that anything and everything is public.  Get used to it.

Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander takes the “it only takes one bad apple to run it for us all approach”  while a rather cogent argument for outing the emails comes from FishBowl DC.

In answering the question on whether or not the e-mails from the “off-the-records listserv” should have been published, Besty Rothstein cuts through all the nonsense pretty quickly:

“It’s not a reporter’s job to worry about the outcome of a genuine news story in that it may upset some people.”

End of story.

Much of what has been written in the wake of this debacle has focused on ideology.  Not many are writing about the privacy issues and the silly presumption of an off-the-record listserv for journalists.  As most of my students know, creating and maintaining a respectable digital footprint takes work.  It means acting responsibly on Twitter and Facebook.

It also means taking care in e-mails and all electronic communication.  You never know where your e-mail is being forwarded or where it will end up.

Weigel and Klein should know this.  If they didn’t know it before, they do now.


About journalismprof

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum. Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed three courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages -- using video, audio and photos to tell stories. He is also working with students on developing amherstwire.com, a news Web site staffed completely by students. Steve has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at washingtonpost.com. He also edits part-time for espn.com with the NFL and college football network.
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