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June, 25th 2010

In defense of Dave Weigel

– Liz Mair

Dave Weigel is my friend.  Not one of my best friends.  But he is a friend. 

So when I see stories erupt involving him, like the one in which he is currently engulfed, I take an interest-- and find myself prepared, and arguably well-placed, to say some things that may not prove popular but which I think deserve an airing.  And with that, here goes nothing.

Earlier in the week, Dave caught fire, proverbially, when comments he made in a supposedly off-the-record email listserv populated by prominent liberal bloggers and reporters (the famed "JournoList") were leaked.  It turns out they weren't the kind of comments that conservatives were going to love.  Matt Drudge “should set himself on fire” is the one that got the most attention.

This morning, the Daily Caller ran a separate story detailing further Weigel comments made on the listserv which appear to have conservatives even more pissed off.  At the risk of drawing further attention to something that Dave may want to disappear, I'm going to list some of these right here so I can discuss them below (note: profanity follows): [intro]

“I hope he fails" (said in the context of Rush Limbaugh's hospitalization)

“Honestly, it’s been tough to find fresh angles sometimes–how many times can I report that these [tea party] activists are joyfully signing up with the agenda of discredited right-winger X and discredited right-wing group Y?”

“this need to give equal/extra time to ‘real American’ views, no matter how fucking moronic, which just so happen to be the views of the conglomerates that run the media and/or buy up ads." (said in discussing what's wrong with the mainstream media)

“a picture of Sarah Palin, linking to a poll that suggests 45 percent of Americans believe her death panel lie. But as long as the top liberal-leaning news site talks about it every single hour of every day, I’m sure that number will go down." (said in criticizing Huffington Post's coverage of the health care fight)

“I think pointing out Coakley’s awfulness is vital, because it’s 1) true and 2) unreasonable panic about it is doing more damage to the Democrats." (said in critiquing reporting surrounding Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts)

“Tangentially related: Betsy McCaughey showed up at Grover Norquist’s conservative meeting today, massive spiral-bound health care bill in hand, and shook with rage as she promised that the ‘war’ was not over... I’m still smiling.” (said in discussing conservative responses to the passage of Democratic health care reform)

Dave also repeatedly used the term "ratfucker" or "ratfucking" in reference to various conservative personalities, apparently, including Sarah Palin (in reference to her involvement in the NY-23 Scozzafava/Hoffman fight).  He also makes comments accusing Glenn Beck of racism for running footage of Van Jones next to footage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and makes disparaging comments about James O'Keefe, the infamous ACORN buster.

And conservatives are pissed off, because they see in this evidence a) that Dave is not a conservative and b) that Dave actually holds conservatives in contempt, something that indicates to them that c) Dave cannot properly cover their movement because of his personal views.

It's important to concede upfront that Dave isn't a conservative.  He's a libertarian-- perhaps even a left-leaning libertarian by some people's mark.  But this is not news, and the fact that it is being treated as such is one reason why I have a hard time not rolling my eyes at some of the responses to the revelations about Dave's commentary.  Dave used to work for Reason, he's been clear in publicly saying he's voted for Democrats, and anyone who has ever met Dave knows he is not a gay marriage foe or a big-time pro-lifer (though it bears mentioning that he has a lot more sympathy for pro-lifers and sees their side of the argument much better than frankly some pro-choice moderates do, in my opinion).  He's also a civil libertarian, and let's be fair-- a lot of them have had a bone to pick with conservatives in recent years as a result of things like surveillance policy (I was about to write Bush-era, but frankly Obama hasn't changed course here), Guantanamo, and so on and so forth.  Again, though, this is all consistent with libertarianism, and with Dave having worked for Reason Magazine and very prominently so, I am therefore again left scratching my head with regard to the fresh bubbling at outrage at the "discovery" that Dave Weigel is not a conservative.  Will the next round of shock and horror involve revelations that the CATO Institute has social liberals working there, or that the editor of Reason magazine is not a conservative, or that I am in favor of allowing gay marriage?  If this is what passes for news inspiring outrage, maybe we need another fight like that involving health care so people can focus on some stuff that actually is shocking, horrific and outrageous like the government using its power to force people to buy a product it admits is crappy from a bunch of people our leaders think are borderline criminal.  How about that?

But I digress. 

I also find fault with the second charge, though this time, not on the relevance or "freshness" of it, but rather on the substance grounds.  Clearly, if you read the above cited comments, Dave holds some conservatives in contempt.  But I'd hasten to point out that "some" does not equal "all"-- and it turns out that regardless of the shock and outrage being expressed at Dave's comments by some prominent conservatives on Twitter, not a few of those same people will privately concede that some of the figures Dave criticizes are indeed unserious/objectionable people, and some of the arguments he makes are indeed valid. 

Take the Betsy McCaughey comment first.  Let me say straight off that there are a wide array of people who cover health care policy who are not liberals who do not view her as a credible individual and relish moments where she is discredited or undercut in some way, even if they disagree with a particular policy outcome or proposition.  Let me tell you how I know this.  When I worked at the RNC in 2008, I sent something out that cited McCaughey, and I directed it to a whole slew of bloggers who write on health care and health care policy, including many from actual medical and medically-oriented publications such as Web MD, and many who had expressed private and public support for much of what John McCain was advocating in terms of health care reform.  Surprise, surprise, I got several emails back, including from two people who, if I disclosed their names (and I won't because their comments were made off-the-record, and unlike JournoList members, I respect that), would be immediately recognized as conservative, about McCaughey and how she was not a credible source who should be quoted by X, Y, Z publication, and how health care debates would be better if she lost and/or disappeared. 

Now, I don't know Betsy McCaughey and I don't scrutinize everything she writes or says, so I'm not personally commenting here.  My point, however, is this: If Dave's point was that there was some sense of joy he could derive from Betsy McCaughey having lost a major health care fight, there are people in this town, including at least two who are recognisably conservative, who I bet share his views.  That does not, in my opinion, mean that either of them, or Dave, were jumping up and down with joy when health care reform passed.  It means they think Betsy McCaughey is a joke.  Are they mean-spirited?  Yes, probably.  Are they contemptuous of conservatives?  I'm unconvinced.  Are the contemptuous of what they see as "dumb" or "not credible?"  Absolutely.

Contemptuous of what he sees as "dumb" or "not credible" is actually the appropriate label, I think, to apply to Dave if you look at virtually every other comment cited above, also.  Was it "dumb," as a strategy, in hindsight for Huffington Post, an avowedly liberal publication, to inadvertently lend credence to the "death panels" talking point by covering Palin's comments as they did?  Yes, I think it was.  I also thought so then, for whatever that is worth.  Ultimately, "death panels" did more to bring down health care reform than any other message point-- and those employing it won a moral victory by virtue of liberal outlets like Huffington Post and MSNBC covering them so extensively.

Dave's "fucking moronic" comment is of course likely to be read by conservatives as referring to wall-to-wall cable TV coverage of Tea Partiers/Joe the Plumber/whatever-random-political-celebrity/high-volume-grouping-du-jour.  But the tail end of that comment is arguably the tip-off here.  We all know that more liberalpolicy-oriented corporations have vested interests in certain media outlets (remember "Green is Universal") just as Rupert Murdoch has vested interests in those entities he owns.  Guess what?  A number of those outlets are the ones that line up opposition liberal/conservative bloggers or liberal/conservative columnists to duke it out, either live on air, or on their pages, daily.

I'm not a critic of that (hell, I get booked on TV because of it-- though I'll cop to preferring doing MSNBC with Ryan Grim from Huffington Post who I think of as more a left-libertarian and a good counterpart to my right-libertarian viewpoint, and therefore someone I can have a more rational, thoughtful discussion with than I would with certain liberal bloggers I won't mention).  But a lot of libertarians, like Weigel, are.  You know why?  "Real American views," when distilled for the purposes of cable news political theater, tend to mean talking-points-heavy hard-left and hard-right.  That leaves little time for libertarians (or thought perceived as more highbrow, which most political pundits think they're expert at, even when they're not), who are also, conveniently, consistently more critical than any other group I know of, of the establishment, whether it be corporate or political, or corporate-political.

Let's turn to the Scott Brown comment now quickly.  Is there really anyone out there that thinks that reporting surrounding Scott Brown's victory didn't underplay just how dreadful Martha Coakley was as a candidate, while over-playing the role that health care reform played in the race?  I know it was astonishing to me at the time how little consideration was given to Scott Brown's vote for RomneyCare while outlets reported on his supposed hard-core conservatism and opposition to big government health care "reform."  Dave's comment suggests that he holds the same view.  I guess that makes both of us contemptuous of conservatives (who, by the way, also stubbornly failed to note how moderate Brown really was, only for a bunch of them to now be disenchanted with someone they dub a RINO, predictably-- while I remain happy that no matter how moderate Brown is or is not, he's in the US Senate).  As far as the "bad for Democrats" comment goes, I think it's also worth considering two points.  First, that is objectively the case.  Second, Dave blurs the line between reporter and blogger, but to the extent he's got the reporter hat on, he wouldn't be the first reporter I know (including some conservatives) to imply that actually, avoiding over-amplification of certain points is important in order to ensure coverage that is not biased-- that being at least ostensibly the objective of, you know, journalism.  Ultimately, the "bad for Democrats" line is the harder part of this comment to defend, but the point still stands, I think: Dave's contempt is less for conservatives, and more for "dumb" and "unserious."

As for comments like the Rush Limbaugh one, all I will say there is that Dave, like myself, has a pretty dry and pretty black sense of humor at times.  But like everyone, he also says things that are inappropriate and mean-spirited from time to time.  I'm on a bunch of conservative listservs.  I won't violate their off-the-record policies by publishing specific comments here, but I will say upfront that there are things I see daily on most of them that, if the comments ever appeared in public, would result in a lot of egg on face and a lot of accusations from both the right and the left directed at folks making the comments that would come close to what Dave is experiencing now.  It's worth noting that just as Dave's comments have proved attention-grabbing precisely because they were not publicly aired before now, these people have also tended not to make public comments that correspond with their private ones-- and I think that's one reason why I'm confident as to everyone's ability to keep their personal views from affecting what they write, more often than not (Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck together with a few others being notable exceptions).

There are a couple of real stories that are being missed in all the coverage of Dave and his various remarks that range from stupid to snarky to sensible, but in some cases badly stated, but the big one is this: The Left, whether as an army or an army of one, has a problem with Dave, and a big one at that.  A lot of leaking has been done with the clear objective (I believe) of ruining Dave's career, and forcing his ouster by the Washington Post.  I suspect it is happening because dave committed the cardinal sin of defending Rand Paul, a figure who has become so reviled by many on the Left that it's hard to draw a bright-line distinction between him and Saddam Hussein, by their standards (in fact, for some of them, I believe Saddam Hussein is held in less contempt).  That's a bad place for Dave to be, but he got there because he had the courage of his convictions and defending a man who many on the Right consider almost indefensible-- and he did it at the Washington Post, not Reason Magazine.

The follow-on from that is that there are conservatives who are equally determined to shut Dave down because (pick your reason) a) he disagrees with them on gay marriage and other social issues b) he is friends with liberals c) he sees a lot of snake-oil salesmen involved in conservative politics and thinks they stink d) he's been prepared to report on some aspects of the conservative "movement" that occasionally appear more akin to a racket than an outgrowth of deeply-held philosophical conviction, and depict them as such and/or e) they would infinitely prefer for the Washington Post to host Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent, but no one who is even several houses away from a conservative, because it aids and abets their ability to wage a cultural war in which the media, and media bias, is target #1.  By no means should this suggest that even 90% of the people who are expressing outrage at Dave have cynical motivations for doing so, or aren't entitled to their views regarding his actions (and indeed, I'm not discounting the existence of media bias, though I don't see it as extensively as some others).  But that fact is, some of the people who hate Dave the most and want to see him fail do not have pure intentions.  Whichever liberal(s) leaked Dave's comments were counting on a general outcry from conservatives who feel like Dave isn't one of them and craps on people they may like and admire in private, but even more so on those who have something to gain by trashing Dave and seeking to oust him doing just that.

Clearly, my view is that the Washington Post should keep Dave around.  Dave is not a conservative, and he is not of the conservative movement.  But he writes interesting stuff, a lot of conservatives do read him, and frankly, he's good for business-- as are Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent. The Post has done something interesting and innovative, by bringing in bloggers like the three of them and giving them a bigger and better seat at the table.  Frankly, I'd like to see more of that.  For those who see bias at the Post, if they're serious about combating it, the answer should be not to call for Dave's ouster, but perhaps to call for the Post to also hire some other bright, conservative (or relatively conservative) reporter/blogger to balance things out further.  Since Dave is arguably the correllary to Greg Sargent (who, incidentally, a lot of people on the Left that I know complain about in terms not dissimilar to how conservatives complain about Dave), and Ezra Klein is the odd man out, perhaps the Post could pursue someone like Phil Klein or Eli Lake or Jim Antle.  It would demonstrate good faith towards conservatives, and help the Post continue to drive in a direction that seems to be benefiting it, in terms of audience.

But for now, I hope people get off Dave Weigel's back a little bit.  I'm confident he's learned his lesson that nothing is ever really off-the-record, and he'll be extra-vigilant in future about anything that could even smack of him allowing his personal views to affect his reporting.  Frankly, conservatives' bigger concern should be the other journalists out there who are less focused on that objective day-to-day than Dave, anyway (and I'm sure everyone can name at least ten of them, straight off the bat).

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