Patterico's Pontifications

7/22/2010

Weigel/JournoList: Another reply to Conor Friedersdorf

Filed under: General — Karl @ 8:00 pm



[Posted by Karl]

I suspect this is the last round, as we are probably past the point of diminishing returns. To briefly recap, I wrote that most people who covered Dave Weigel’s departure from the WaPo over his writings on the now-defunct JournoList missed the point that Weigel used a professional forum to encourage journalists to starve coverage of certain stories or outlets, and to frame coverage of the Massachusetts Senate election in a manner to help Democrats. That post also suggested that the bloggers that spent a decent chunk of this year complaining about “epistemic closure” — including Conor Friedersdorf — defended him without addressing Weigel’s own attempts to encorage epistemic closure via the J-List.

Friedersdorf complained that my post did not fully reflect his opinion of the J-List, and argued that journalists should be judged solely by what appears on the screen or page. I replied, arguing that questions of journalistic ethics routinely involve issues outside what appears on the screen or page. Friedersdorf responded over the weekend. I urge everyone to read the whole thing, as I am going to attempt to both summarize and reply. I would categorize the major disputes this way:

1. Did Weigel encourage epistemic closure via the JournoList? My position is that the plain text of what Weigel wrote (as quoted in my original post, as well as his suggestion that journalists deny links to The Washington Examiner) show that Weigel did. Moreover, in my last reply, I noted that Weigel’s own attempt to explain what he wrote about the Massachusetts Senate election is not supported by the text of that message. Friedersdorf initially (on Twitter) joined me in objecting to those Weigel quotes, then claimed that neither he nor Weigel’s critics have seen the context in which Weigel made his comments (though we had seen Weigel attempt to explain one) and now writes that the claim “doesn’t seem true” (though we supposedly do not have the context). Friedersdorf has made no attempt to show that my reading of the plain text of Weigel’s messages is incorrect. He has made no attempt to refute my explanation of why Weigel’s account of the Coakley message is disingenuous. He has made no attempt to hypothesize any reasonable scanario under which Weigel’s messages had some meaning other than that communicated by the plain text (and I strongly suspect Weigel would have come up with better explanations if he had them).

2. Do questions of journalistic ethics arise outside what appears on the screen or page? Friedersdorf does not like the “raises questions” formulation, but we are fortunate to live in a country where there is no official or quasi-governmental adjudication of ethics cases in journalism (I presume Friedersdorf agrees with that), so generally we are left with discussion and debate. One of the primary ways in which these questions get discussed is by the ombudspeople at media outlets. Friedersdorf disagrees with NYT public editor Clark Hoyt on one of the examples I gave, as is his right, but it underscores the lack of finality in this area.

After quibbling with some of my examples, Friedersdorf concedes in theory that a reporter must be held responsible not only for what he or she publishes, but also for ignored stories, withheld facts, etc. However, as previously noted, groups like the Society of Profpessional Journalists and institutions like the New York Times have codes and guidelines that cover a much broader scope of conduct than that, e.g. conflicts of interest, political activism and donations, steering clear of advice roles, personal blogging, etc. It is not clear whether Friedersdorf agrees with that scope. In fairness, I did not expressly identify the entire scope of these issues, although it is apparent at the links I provided. On the other hand, Friedersdorf still adheres to the notion that attempting to organize a link boycott is objectionable, but separable from the quality of the journalism itself. Friedersdorf never addresses — other than by mere contradiction — the argument that if the profession and its constituent media outlets go to the trouble of formulating wide-reaching codes of conduct for their employees off the page or screen, employees may be held accountable for behavior off the page or screen.

Moreover, even on the narrow point of agreement about selective reporting, Friedersdorf would require proof on the level of an e-mail stating, “I’m not going to cover this Tea Party speech because I think it makes the movement look too good, and I want them to fail” to prove the case. Here, my reply is twofold. First, people get convicted of crimes every day in American courts on less evidence than a signed confession. Second, even by that high standard, what we do have in this case is e-mail from Weigel suggesting that other journalists boycott the Washington Examiner, stop reporting on Sarah Palin’s “death panels” comment, and spin the Massachusetts Senate election — in each case for the political benefit of the Left. That Weigel is encouraging others to engage in the behavior is not exonerating. To the contrary, it feeds epistemic closure.

3. Does Weigel paint a fair portrait of the Republican Party and conservative movement? As Friedersdorf focuses on the text of Weigel’s blogging and raised the hypothetical about tea party speeches, note that Teri Christoph of Smart Girl Politics has accused Weigel of: (1) excluding material that didn’t advance his preferred narrative that tea parties were an exercise in “astroturfing” by well-connected Republican types; and (2) tailoring his coverage of the National Tea Party Convention to hype fringe elements of the movement. Christoph is an interested party, so also read Jonathan Raban’s piece for The New York Review of Books on the NTPC, which quotes some of Weigel’s Punch-and-Judy coverage, but is considerably more nuanced and fair to tea partiers than Weigel is. For example, Raban reported that Tom Tancredo’s speech got no more than “a ripple of cheers and applause,” and that after Joseph Farah went birther, Raban “saw as many glum and unresponsive faces in the crowd as people standing up to cheer.” Weigel’s approach to the Tancredo speech was to suggest it was not considered contoversial. Similarly, Weigel’s account of Farah’s birtherism carries no suggestion that half the audience was turned off by it. Weigel readers were left with the impression that Andrew Breitbart was one a few grumblers on the margin. And (of course) Weigel covered “Queen of the Birthers” Orly Taitz, although there’s no suggestion she had anything to do with the NTPC itself.

However, my main criticism of Weigel’s blogging (as opposed to his activism on the J-List) has been his disproportionate focus on the fringe of the Right. Friedersdorf’s first response was that he didn’t really have a strong or informed opinion on the matter. His second response defends Weigel’s work on the ground that “every story he covered (or at least every story I saw) is clearly justifiable as a news item.”

Consider the following hypothetical: After the 9/11 attacks, the WaPo decides that the paper lacks sufficient coverage of the Middle East and the Muslim world. The WaPo decides to devote one of these new-fangled “web logs” to these subjects. They hire a blogger who produces a collection of clearly justifiable news items, heavily weighted to coverage of Islamic extremists and terrorists. (Not-so-hypothetically, anyone familiar with the blogosphere can think of at least one blogger who did this, and perhaps others still doing it. These bloggers caught a ton of grief for this approach at the time. They were accused of running hate sites, called Islamophobes, etc.; perhaps some of these still draw those sorts of complaints.)

I daresay the WaPo would have faced a firestorm of criticism for hosting such a blog and touting it as going “Inside the Middle East and the Muslim world,” as opposed to “one-stop shopping for stories about extremists.” I doubt those complaining would be satisfied with the defense that the posts, taken individually, were factually accurate. I doubt those complaining would be satisfied with the defense that other reporters and other outlets might be covering other, more benign, aspects of these topics. The blogger was hired to cover a particular beat precisely because the WaPo felt it was not providing adequate coverage. The blogger was not hired to cover just part of a particular beat, and not hired to warp the beat to fit the blogger’s political agenda. (At least, the WaPo would never admit to hiring the blogger for that purpose.)

Friedersdorf also defends Weigel on the ground that he is covering those who get play in the movement press, but who are ignored in the mainstream media. Friedersdorf gives no examples of who these subjects are. Let’s take one of Weigel’s favorites, Orly Taitz. Did she “get play” in the movement press? Was she otherwise ignored?

If you check links, as I write this, National Review has mentioned Taitz twice (negatively both times). The Weekly Standard mentioned her once (negatively). Human Events never mentioned her. At the American Spectator, commenters mocked her in threads that have nothing to do with her. Indeed, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. notes that (a) AmSpec investigated the initial rumor and found it without merit; and (b) a well-known cable news show declined to book him after learning his stance on the issue. On Fox News Channel, Ann Coulter made a point of noting that the movement press thinks the birthers are a bunch of cranks, and tore into CNN’s Lou Dobbs for promoting the story. Taitz protested FNC because Bill O’Reilly dismissed birthers’ concerns and called Taitz herself a “nut.” Glenn Beck has called the birther issue “the dumbest thing he’s ever heard.” Rush Limbaugh has not mentioned Taitz. On birthers generally, Limbaugh has said that Obama’s decision not authorize release of the full record is of a part of a broader lack of transparency, but that birthers are like “global warmers,” whom Limbaugh considers “wackos.” The Washington Examiner gave Taitz nine mentions (all negative). If not for Joseph Farah’s birther-friendly WorldNetDaily, there would be a strong case of epistemic closure in the movement press holding that Taitz is a fringe character, barely worthy of mention.

Conversely, Taitz is not a figure ignored by the establishment press. As just noted, CNN’s Lou Dobbs was sympathetic, while MSNBC (like Weigel) loved to give her a platform and make her a target. She also got coverage from CBS, Politico, and the NYT — both in a story about birthers and coverage of her quixotic run in the Republican primary for secretary of state in California. And she was profiled by the WaPo outside Weigel’s blog. This is not the portrait of someone taken seriously on the Right, but ignored by the establishment media.

As to Friedersdorf’s general claim for the high quality of Weigel’s reportage, I will quote Jonathan V. Last:

Really? Maybe by the standards of blogging. I can’t claim intimacy with his entire oeuvre, but I can’t think of a single, blockbuster piece of Weigel’s. David Grann? Great reporter. Matt Labash? Great reporter. Mark Bowden? Great reporter. On the next level down you have guys like Ryan Lizza and Tom Edsall. Below that, guys like the Politico crew and the platoon that does NYT and WSJ work. (Go read Brooks Barnes some time to see what great, every-day reporting looks like.) Below that I’d put a class of writers who deal with numbers and theory, as opposed to personalities and palace intrigue–people like Michael Barone and Jay Cost. They don’t pound the shoe leather, but they spend a lot of time researching what they write.

It seems safe to say that Weigel would be so far down the list that it’s not even worth doing the math. What people mean, I suppose, is that compared to other 20-something bloggers, Weigel makes more than the average number of phone calls and goes on more than the average number of field trips. And hey, that’s great. We’d rather have more of that in the blog world. But let’s not re-touch this in post to make him into Bob Woodward. Or Jeff Toobin. Or even Adam Nagourney, for that matter.

I take at face value Friedersdorf’s general claim that he tries to avoid epistemic closure. However, I think that our exchange shows that his defense of Weigel is more assertion than argument. Aside from a half-sentence about the link boycott, he did not address the known evidence. He moved the goalposts. He applied a standard for judging journalistic ethics far narrower than the standards accepted by the profession. He demanded an absurd burden of proof for his invented standard. At the risk of seeming epistemically closed (after thousands and thousands of words on the subject), he strikes me someone who has no interest in being persuaded on the issue. I am fairly certain Friedersdorf will disagree with that conclusion, so perhaps we can agree that we are now simply talking past each other.

–Karl

28 Responses to “Weigel/JournoList: Another reply to Conor Friedersdorf”

  1. KKKarl and Fred Barnes are racists.

    JD (d9621c)

  2. Not to worry, folks. Jon Healey from the Dog Trainer tells us that there is nothing to be concerned about. JournoList may not have been the greatest idea ever, but there wasn’t anything untoward about it.

    JVW (6425b3)

  3. ISTR that NBC deliberately spiked Juanita Broadderick’s interview with Katie Couric until after Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings were over and he was safe.

    Technomad (e2c0f2)

  4. I too wonder about where’s the great journalism from Weigel. He wrote some good stories about how Ron Paul’s staff appealed to racism years ago, writing racist stuff in Paul’s name, but that’s about it.

    And Weigel’s thin-skinned, immature personality, as well as his record of deception regarding his political views doesn’t remind me of the second coming of Edward R. Murrow. What stands out is how protective Weigel’s peers like like Friedersdorf and Ross Douthat are about him. The tribe protects its own.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (fb9e90)

  5. Note Healey’s present-tense formulation in denying JournoList membership: “From what I can tell as a nonmember . . .”

    Since JournoList has been shut down, nobody is a member. But was Healey ever a member?

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (fb9e90)

  6. Conor is one of those guys who seems nice and reasonable when you meet him — but then you read his writing and he seems less reasonable on the printed page (or screen).

    Patterico (c218bd)

  7. I fully understand the need to respond to spurious counter-arguments, but all this does is enhance Conor’s presence. This is how he stays in the public eye. Can anyone remember a notable Friedersdorf column, a memorable line, a story broke or advanced? Of course not, there are none. He gets attention by punching up, attacking established conservatives and starting fights which get his name mentioned. Have you ever heard of the supposedly conservative Friedersdorf getting into it with a liberal blogger? Nah, they just ignore him . . . as we should.

    Adjoran (ec6a4b)

  8. The Spike.

    EW1(SG) (edc268)

  9. Pat,

    I can only assume he wants to be judged solely by his writing. 😉

    Karl (12dcea)

  10. Adjoran,

    I get your point, which is why I’ve never been big into blogger wars/debates. There are always bigger fish to fry. However, I felt it was worth noting that the group defending Weigel the most was the same group that complains about the tribal nature of conservative media/movement. On one level, it exposes the double-standard at work. On another level, the defenses tell us about their concept of journalistic ethics. And the latter is significant when you consider that the members of TeamWeigel — and a fair number of the J-Listers — are young, and look to be the next iteration of the establishment commentariat.

    Karl (12dcea)

  11. I looked up “epistemic closure”, found this definition: “The principle that, where P and Q are propositions, if we know that P, and know that P logically entails Q, we know that Q”. See:
    http://factsandotherstubbornthings.blogspot.com/2010/04/will-real-epistemic-closure-please.html.
    Could this be expressed in plain English, for the sake of the peasants?

    P. Kenny (aaa535)

  12. P.K.

    Good question.

    Here is what I found from Patricia Cohen:

    The phrase is being used as shorthand by some prominent conservatives for a kind of closed-mindedness in the movement, a development they see as debasing modern conservatism’s proud intellectual history. First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, the phrase “epistemic closure” has been ricocheting among conservative publications and blogs as a high-toned abbreviation for ideological intolerance and misinformation.

    Closed minded seems to be the needle in the accusation.

    quasimodo (4af144)

  13. Chesterton said:

    The purpose of an open mind is like that of an open mouth, which is to close it down on something solid

    quasimodo (4af144)

  14. I think someone should throw him through glass window, then laugh and point at him as he lays dying on the ground after suffering a heart attack.

    Dmac (d61c0d)

  15. The more accurate phrase would probably be epistemological closed-mindedness, to use the phrase suggested by the link in comment 11. Not quite on the level of closed mind,but on the way to it. A closed mind is one that has reached a conclusion and refuses to consider any additional evidence that might lead to a change in that conclusion. What’s meant here is a mind that refuses to consider additional sources of information without evaluating their worth as sources of information, and is content with a limited pool of data.

    I don’t think the Journolist was, by itself, evidence of epistemological closed-mindedness–which may be blameworthy but is not usually an ethical matter (unless you’re dealing with a researcher). I think it’s evidence of something more blatant and more obviously unethical: a group of reporters co-ordinating among themselves what facts to report and what facts to suppress: instead of reporting all the facts and letting their audience evaluate those facts and reach their own conclusions, they edited the reports so their audience only received data supporting one side of the argument.

    PK–think of it this way. If Q is a logical result of P, and if we know that P is true, than we automatically know that Q is also true, without having to give any further proof.

    kishnevi (3721d8)

  16. No, they were partisan hacks, but they were engendering ‘epistemic closure’ while projecting it on others

    ian cormac (d407d8)

  17. If “closed mind” is what they mean, why don’t they just say so? It’s a perfectly good phrase. There’s no need to hijack a technical term from Logic.

    Switching to “journalist ethics”, what any form of “professional ethics” means is; “what behaviors must the practitioners of the profession engage in, or avoid, in order for the profession to be viable?” This usually boils down to trust issues, in what matters do the professions customers need to be able to trust the practitioners, so that they will be customers?

    I would say, that for journalists, this comes down to credibility, so the questions are:

    Has the JournoList had an effect on journalism’s credibility, if so, has that effect been positive or negative?

    Has Weigel’s actions damaged his credibility, or not?

    LarryD (f22286)

  18. It seems every piece of evidence they trot out from Warren’s medical expense related bankruptcy study
    (yes she will much more diligent as consumer agency
    chief) to AGW to any reasonable recount of Palin’s
    record, is tainted, so they have to project, because
    they have seized ‘the commanding heights’ or media
    and academe

    ian cormac (d407d8)

  19. When did Julian Sanchez become a conservative?

    What other White House officials other than Orszag and Biden’s econ guy were on JournoList?

    JD (d9926c)

  20. The phrase is being used as shorthand by some prominent squishy conservatives who seek approbation from the left for a kind of imagined closed-mindedness in the movement, a development they see as debasing modern conservatism’s proud intellectual history are too fearful to confront.

    FIFY

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C. O.R. (a18ddc)

  21. Sanchez, who coined “epistemic closure,” admits it’s a bit of a misnomer. Here, he also discusses the various meanings assigned to it by people debating it earlier this year. Ironically, Conor’s first response to me on Twitter was that I didn’t understand the concept, when in fact, I was using Sanchez’s definition from the post I just linked.

    Karl (f07e38)

  22. I would also note that Sanchez’s formulation in the post I just linked is essentially a reformulation of the classic “Vast Right Wing Conspiracy” described in the now infamous memo from the Clinton White House’s Office of Legal Council. “Epistemic closure” may be a misnomer, but at least Sanchez was smart enough to frame the issue in terms of an ecosystem, instead of a conspiracy.

    Karl (f07e38)

  23. So, according to Conor Friedersforf, OJ Simpson should only be judged by his performance on the football field? Did I get it right?

    ropelight (715332)

  24. #20 Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C. O.R.:

    FIFY

    Ah, much more better.

    EW1(SG) (edc268)

  25. Has Weigel’s actions damaged his credibility, or not?

    What credibility?

    Dmac (d61c0d)

  26. Friedersforf:

    the New York Times was absolutely right to react slowly to the ACORN story considering the factually misleading presentation that turned out to be given on Andrew Breitbart’s sites

    It’s a free country, and I think that Friedersforf is entitled to his silly lefty views. He’s not entitled to try to package those silly lefty views as coming from somebody who is “on the right” though. If he’d just admit that he’s a run-of-the-mill liberal there would be no story here.

    But then, I suppose that’s why he does not admit it.

    Subotai (fadb4b)

  27. Friedersdorf complained that my post did not fully reflect his opinion of the J-List, and argued that journalists should be judged solely by what appears on the screen or page.

    So does that mean that Friedersdorf is on the JournoList as well and is preemptively discounting his words there before they appear?

    Subotai (fadb4b)

  28. Weigel’s approach to the Tancredo speech was to suggest it was not considered contoversial.

    It wasn’t considered controversial by anybody to the right of the Daily Kos. Or Little Green Footballs, same thing.

    Subotai (fadb4b)


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