Trash Drudge, Bash Rush and Get a Career Boost?

The case of Mr. David Weigel, a reporter who was hired by The Washington Post to blog about conservatives and who resigned from his job on June 25, exposed the inner workings of journalism in America.

But what has been most telling about the case since then hasn't just been Weigel's actions or the revelations of other journalists on "Journolist," -- which is described by The Post as "an off-the-record listserv for several hundred independent to left-leaning commentators and journalists that was founded in 2007" -- but how other journalists have reacted to the news.

Although it has long been well-known that journalists overwhelmingly have liberal leanings, they have typically claimed that it doesn't affect their reporting. But the boost given Weigel’s career by the revelations that he advocated shaping news coverage to help President Obama pass his legislative agenda was extremely surprising.

How Weigel advocated that news be tilted to help Obama ought to be have been the main story in the scandal. But, of course, that has not been the take coming from journalists. Instead, they portrayed Weigel's foul language and attacks on Newt Gingrich, Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, and “PaulTards” (a derogatory term for Ron Paul’s libertarian supporters) as simply a personality quirk. Thus, Ross Douthat at The New York Times dismissed the scandal as just "some off-color vents about his beat." Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post and CNN said that Weigel's "vituperative language against Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives had embarrassed the [Washington Post] that hired him three months earlier to cover the right."

Despite the criticism, his fellow journalists agreed on one thing, that Weigel was a great or an extraordinary reporter. Politico referred to "the enthusiastic endorsements of his reporting skills after he left The Post last."

And all this has helped his journalism career. Politico ran this headline: "Losing a job to get ahead.After leaving The Washington Post, Weigel was immediately signed on as a contributor for MSNBC. Just last week he was officially hired back by The Washington Post to write for Two weekends ago Politico listed him first on its short list of five "media stars."
But what all of these media outlets ignore is that Weigel not only held strong political views, he crossed the line to actively plot with other reporters on how to best mold news coverage.

Thus, after Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts, Weigel expressed worries that the victory could derail Obamacare and recommended that other journalists emphasize in their stories that Mr. Brown's opponent State Attorney General Martha Coakley was a horrible candidate. He argued that doing this would diminish the significance of Mr. Brown's surprise victory. “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,” Weigel told the other journalists. This went beyond offering friendly advice and was something that Weigel considered "vital . . . because . . . it is doing more damage to the Democrats."

In another attempt to shape the news, Weigel worried that Sarah Palin's discussion of "death panels" was making it difficult to pass Obamacare. Americans were rightly fearful of Obamacare rationing the medical care Americans can receive.

President Obama's recess appointment of rationing advocate, Dr. Donald Berwick, to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services certainly exacerbated these fears, with his expressed admiration for the British system and the need for rationing care.

So what was Weigel's advice on how to handle this? Rather than debate the facts, he wanted reporters to ignore the story: "as long as the top liberal-leaning news site talks about [death panels] every single hour of every day, I’m sure that [poll] number [for the health care legislation] will go down.”Weigel emphasized the point in his typical way: "Let's move the f*** on already."

In an e-mail exchange with Weigel, I asked him about these biases, but he attributes the phrase "vital . . . because . . . it is doing more damage to the Democrats" to his being "overheated as I argue my case." No response to his advice for journalists to stop discussing the "death panels," though he did make the general comment: "On J-List, I didn't really think I was influencing the way liberals would write or what they would say on TV." His defense is thus either he didn't mean what he said or that what he said didn't matter anyway because no one was really paying attention.

He says that "I'm angry at myself for the cruel things I said about people," but it hasn't stopped him from lashing out at others, including me in his tweets after I asked him these questions. Yet, at the same time he was attacking me to those who follow his tweets he was privately writing me that he was contrite for those same previous attacks: "I take you on your word that you had a legitimate issue and I failed to fully answer it, so I apologize if that was the case."

It is no wonder that liberal reporters love David Weigel. But one would hope that they wouldn't want to make their praise public for a journalist who so explicitly talked about tilting the news to influence getting legislation passed. Possibly other journalists just want to forgive him for his transgressions but to forgive him, they must first acknowledge what he did that was wrong. The career boost that Weigel has received tells us a lot about the current state of journalism.

John R. Lott, Jr. is a contributor. He is an economist and author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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