Weigel and gotcha discourse

Once upon a time, writers and pols gathered in physical places nominally devoted to consumption of ethanol and chemicals with names ending in -ine, including but not limited to caff- and nicot- , and engaged in social capital formation, sharpening of wits, and exchange of information that made them all smarter and happier.  Some of the things people said in these environments were so pithy and entertaining that they got picked up and circulated widely; some were so unkind that they put friendships at risk.

The participants observed, imperfectly, rules about what could be properly repeated outside the coffee shop or bar and what not.  Since most of this discourse was face-to-face, and the numbers small, people breaking the rules would almost always be known to do so, and participants could give their right brains more leeway than they would at a podium or before their editors, readers, the king, etc.

A direct descendant of these institutions, that just closed up shop owing to the despicable behavior of one of its members or, importantly, someone else who hacked into the list or just spent some low quality time with a member’s computer while the member had gone to get some coffee, was the very lamented journolist email group whose den mother was Ezra Klein.  I considered it a significant compliment to have been invited, along with several other RBCers, and enjoyed meeting (virtually, and occasionally physically) people I would not have otherwise encountered if only because they are in Chicago, NY, DC, LA, Austin, etc.  The age range of the group was quite wide, and as I consider it both the main advantage of my day job that I am constantly around very smart young people, and a drawback that they are mostly pre- rather than early-career, this was a big plus for me and, I think, my coevals. It was also full of women and LGBT voices (of and for), another good thing.

What happened on jlist was a lot of serious exploration of half-baked ideas (the most interesting kind to be able to put an oar into), a lot of huffing about big and not-so-big world steps toward doom, some personal meises, and the usual stuff like sports and music that people use to build and maintain little sub-societies.  What happened off jlist was some amount of personal jealousy that always surrounds a group with constrained membership, and the inevitable result of (properly) allowing people with weak morals, modest abilities, and an enormous ambition/abilities ratio, on the internet, perhaps muddled with the present-day right-wingers’  confusion of victory, fear, greed, and narrow-mindedness with principle and social value.

Everyone says things orally that don’t represent his values, or his considered views, or what will motivate him when he’s thoughtfully doing his job, and things in metaphoric or hyperbolic form that can be interpreted literally by the stupid or mean-spirited to be disreputable.  We easily use new informal media like a listserv assuming the rules of conversation apply, but of course when everything is cached by Google forever, as sexting kids discover, the facts are different and it doesn’t matter that almost everyone has a conscience and good judgment if one or two don’t.

More generally, gotcha politics and discourse, that attempt to convict someone of being a bad person (racist, reactionary, communist, whatever) at heart by finding a remark made when someone thought a mike was off or a camera not running, has had a very costly collision with the new technical facts of life (this is so much bigger than the Weigel episode).  No good comes of this  revision of balanced evaluation into an all-or-nothing evaluation: it is simply not the case that a politician who shtupps women he or she is not married to, or utters a racial slur, is incapable of creating value in public service no matter what else he or she has actually done, or does upon reflection.  In fact, it does not even follow that merely because a pol (i) expresses conservative values and publicly deplores things a lot of voters deplore and (ii) violates those rules in personal life, he or she should be landfilled, any more than a politician advocating morning-after contraceptive accessibility for teenagers is obligated to sleep around.

The irony of the journolist episode is almost cosmic.  On the one hand, the viability of the listserve depends on every single member obeying the rules and being a mensch all the time, rather than the long-term average good behavior of all. This is obviously a suboptimal arrangement, but it’s not clear what could be done about it, because the viability of a career now depends on doing and saying the right thing every moment since forever, which is equally suboptimal and unrealistic.  Bad discourse driving out good à la Gresham, with information technology playing the role of the counterfeiter’s backyard foundry.

Weigel traded quips and insults about public figures among friends, just as I do and as you, dear reader, do. Weigel is not a tape recorder but a reporter with personal political views, just like any human reporter. Neither of these ever affected his reporting and no-one has even tried to show that it has.  Now Weigel is going to find another channel through which to deliver value, perhaps to fewer people; he’s been personally injured by the treachery of someone he trusted directly or at second hand; and a useful forum of exchange and idea-sharpening, that also enriched the lives of its members with mostly harmless fun and the occasional barb friends and grownups take as the price of a life worth living will be lost or have to be reconstituted (inshallah) with an aroma of mistrust and fear in the air.

Time to revisit the immortal fable of the most amazing thing, but every time one of these episodes comes along, I’m less and less amazed at a pointless act of destruction, or the willingness of some to win a cheap point to no long-term purpose except maybe a few bucks, at the cost of social capital that takes a long time to build.

And now for an intra-RBC dispute (wherein I also disagree with Weigel’s counsel): No, Jonathan, Drudge should do no such thing.  In doing so he would dissemble having the moral strength, and will to sacrifice self for a larger good, of a Buddhist monk desperate to end the rape of his country.  This would be one more profoundly dishonest act for Drudge, though only modestly increasing his index thereof, and it would mislead the world about his real nature.  In any case, I do not counsel sinners and liars to have another go, but instead to reform and repent.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

16 thoughts on “Weigel and gotcha discourse”

  1. It might help if the archives were restricted (say, beyond two week prior) and that any sleuthing around is clearly logged and maybe even visible to all.

  2. It might help if the list weren't explicitly restricted to one end of the political spectrum, so that people wouldn't participate in it assuming that everybody shared their hatreds. I'm fairly sure Weigel wouldn't have made such comments in public. He made them on Journolist because he knew he was talking to fellow liberals, who shared the sentiment, even if most of them weren't tacky enough to say it.

    And, yes, some of the leaked comments demonstrate that he was using the list for exactly what other members claim it wasn't for; Organizing a party line on stories of the day. Easier to do if you're all of the same party…

  3. Mike, you know a whole lot more than I do because you've been seeing the discussion on the list. The most persuasive bashing of Weigel I've seen is this post from the rightist blog Hot Air: http://hotair.com/archives/2010/06/25/the-overloo… in which he quotes a couple of statements which look as though he is trying to do news management, to turn the news searchlight away from stories which he thought harmful to the direction public opinion would take. Brett Bellmore says above 'organizing a party line on stories of the day'. Is that an okay thing for a reporter to do? McChrystal has just gone down because he revealed his disdain for the office holders for whom he worked – this seems appropriate to me. Weigel seems to have disdain for (at least some of) those he covered, and to have maintained a public front of, at least, respect for them. The northeastern reporters who went to Mississippi in the early 60s – and at real physical risk to themselves – had little respect for the Klansmen they covered, but did not pretend to have it.

    I think if you have views which are incompatible with your public presentation, you kind of have to be self-censoring all the time, and Weigel failed to do that.

  4. "… a politician who shtupps women he or she is not married to…"

    Incomplete enumeration here. Use "people". I'm still thinking about the octopuses. And stand by for the first gay adultery scandal.

    Gresham's law is about debasement of the currency by the government, in the form of official clipping: reducing the bullion content of a coin of declared face value. Backyard counterfeiters don't operate on a big enough scale to create macro Gresham effects. In fact the reverse, if bogus currency is rare it will be detected and removed from circulation.

  5. PS. A bad joke in German, not worth a post of its own, has just occurred to me:

    Liberals used to have a Stammtisch. Conservatives still have their Schlammtisch.

  6. It seems to me that Weigel defenders characterize the list as 'private email' and his attackers characterize the list as 'public statements', while neither do much to look at it.

    I clearly wasn't on the list, but here is what I've gleaned about it (factual corrections welcome).

    1) It had more than 400 members

    2) It was distributed via email

    3) Its members were all journalists or opinion writers

    4) Its members were broadly from the center left to left side of politics.

    It has been compared to a bar-room bull session. But the numbers alone suggest otherwise. With a list of 400 or more people, at the very least it would have to be compared to a trade association meeting.

    It is distributed via email, but that doesn't make it a strict "email" by analysis. It seems to be something in between. It isn't as if it is a list of friends all chosen by you. They were all chosen by Ezra, many of the people not knowing each other. Again it seems to function like an informal trade association.

    But analyzed like that, the defenses don't look as exciting. If a journalist could get to a list serv of oil executives, mostly consisting of benign griping and grousing but occasionally showing intense loathing of government regulators, or intense indifference to the worries of Louisiana environmentalists, is there any doubt that it would be published without complaining about 'off the record' presumptions and the need to be able to 'vent'?

    Would we have bloggers all over the place complaining about the unfairness of violating the sacred privacy of the oil trade association list serv?

  7. (1) If it had 400 members, 3/4 of them were lurkers or inactive

    (2) I don't consider myself a journalist or an opinion writer; I'm an academic who blogs. Many members were such.

    (3) Off the record was an explicit, repeated (in the automatic footers) condition of participation.

  8. Seb: I think the members weren't exactly chosen by Ezra so much as asked if someone wrote him saying that X would be good, and if they weren't excluded for some reason (i.e., no one in government.) I seem to recall hearing that it had 300-some-odd members, but could be wrong. Most were lurkers. Not all (by a long ways) were journalists or bloggers; a decent number were academics, and of those, not all were "academics who blog". And, as Michael said, off the record was very explicit, and very hard to miss.

  9. And really, there was nothing about "organizing the story of the day". Or anything remotely resembling that. I think I once said that I wished more people would write about transgender issues (because, you know, more people *should* write about transgender issues), but no one took me up on it. That plaintive little comment of mine was about as close to an attempt to organize anything as I recall — which is to say, not close at all.

  10. Hilzoy: this is one of the quotes from Hot Air, which the writer described as organizing: "After Sarah Palin claimed Obama’s health care legislation included “death panels” that would ration health care, for instance, the Huffington Post reported that many Americans believed the claim was true. Weigel suggested that reporting on the subject might be counter-productive to liberal policy aims. The Huffington Post, Weigel pointed out, ran “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.”

    “Let’s move the f*** on already,” Weigel wrote."

    Looks like it to me – but again, I wasn't there, and this may have been a very small part of what was going on. I think maybe the model here, which Weigel could have profitably followed, is Elena Kagan, who famously gave a speech at a Federalist meeting at Harvard and said "You are NOT my people!" and they loved her for it. Weigel looks to have been sneering at these folks while maintaining a pretense, and that's not viable when found out.

  11. Those in exclusive clubs always defend the admission policies that keep out the riff-raff.

  12. Actually I think "I’d politely encourage everyone to think twice about rewarding the Examiner with any traffic or links for a while." looks even worse. It was an attempt to use the listserv in a personal grudge.

  13. I agree with Seb that the 'not rewarding the Examiner' thing is worse than the HuffPo quote, which reads, to me, like straight media criticism. That said, I'd be amazed if anyone actually acted on his 'don't reward them' thingo.

    If the question is, Did anyone on the list ever say anything that can be read that way? then the answer is: yes, of course, though not often, and I don't see any evidence that anyone ever did anything about it. As I noted, I once said that I wished people would write more about trans issues; I didn't mean it as an attempt to coordinate a party line, but I suppose it could be read that way. And it would be amazing if, in a group as large and active as JList, no one but me had ever said such a thing.

    What separates this from "Organizing a party line on stories of the day" is (are?) two things. First, whether or not anyone understands themselves to be doing such a thing — i.e., are remarks like mine about trans issues understood by anyone to be "attempts to organize a party line", as opposed to me opining? And do people participate in JList in order to let themselves be organized in such a way? Second, whether it actually had the effect of organizing a party line. The answer to both questions is "no".

  14. I suspect the imagery Weigel was going for wasn't that of Buddhist monks dousing themselves with gasoline and igniting themselves, rather that of an accidental conflagration, a consequence of cheap alcohol and cheaper cigars.

  15. "The answer to both questions is “no”."

    Excuse me if I wait for the expose comparing the listserve archives to the work output of members of the list, before accepting that.

  16. How many people here (or at the POST) actually read the original Weigel posts for the Washington INDEPENDENT that got him the job. I read him pretty regularly, and there was never any doubt what he thought of most conservatives. He never claimed to be a conservative, and, at least at first, he never was a liberal. he was a 'left-libertarian' but in the model of Ed Brayton — who many of you may read.

    But the most important thing about Weigel — who, for those of you who haven't heard, has a new gig on MSNBC — was that he was a reporter who kept to the credo of 'going where the facts led him.' He never tried to fit the facts to his basic philosophy — though his philosophy caused him to defend many conservatives we might have questioned — and when his basic philosophy didn't fit the facts, he tried to stretch it, then may have abandoned it.

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