Is there any such thing as "off the record"?; Update: Weigel resigns

One of the toughest lessons to learn in business, and in media relations, is that written communications will never be entirely secure or private.  In the corporate world, I had to learn that lesson the hard way — that my e-mails and messages would get forwarded without my knowledge or permission, and that whatever I thought I had said in private could become public at any time.  Over the same period, roughly that of my entire adult life, I have also had to learn the hard way that ill-considered eruptions of anger would also become public eventually, and that angry responses to e-mail and to events around me may prove satisfying in the moment but lead to headaches and regrets in the future, and usually in the near future.

Of course, I didn’t commit my many missteps among colleagues who supposedly understood the concept of “off the record” as a core principle, either, as Dave Weigel believed in his interactions with Journolist, the “secret” liberal listserv conclave.  The participants are supposed to keep the communications private, but someone leaked Weigel’s incendiary entries to the Daily Caller, and they’re not pretty:

Weigel was hired this spring by the Post to cover the conservative movement. Almost from the beginning there have been complaints that his coverage betrays a personal animus toward conservatives.  Emails obtained by the Daily Caller suggest those complaints have merit.

“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?” Weigel lamented in one February email.

In other posts, Weigel describes conservatives as using the media to “violently, angrily divide America.” According to Weigel, their motives include “racism” and protecting “white privilege,” and for some of the top conservatives in D.C., a nihilistic thirst for power. …

Republicans? “Ratfucking [Obama] on every bill.” Palin?  Tried to “ratfuck” a moderate Republican in a contentious primary in New York. Limbaugh? Used “ratfucking tactics” in urging Republican activists to vote for Hillary Clinton in open primaries after Obama had all but beat her for the Democratic nomination.

The term “ratfucking,” for those who don’t know, refers to dirty tricks in a political campaign.  It’s hard to understand its usage here, since opposition to bills in Congress hardly amounts to dirty tricks.  Rush’s “Operation Chaos” may have been an attempt to get an outcome Rush desired, but since New York has open primaries, it’s not a dirty trick to vote in the opposite party’s primary.  If New York didn’t like that, they would vote to close their primaries instead.

This seems more like projection:

Right wing “memes” begin in “ WND/FreeRepublic/talk radio swamps,” Weigel wrote, referring to conservative websites World Net Daily and Free Republic. Sometimes, they spread like a virus into liberal sites, a fact that clearly upsets Weigel.

Given the previous coverage of the JournoList last year, that’s a little bit ironic.  The private association of liberal journalists first came to light when Michael Calderone noted that it had influence over news coverage at traditional media outlets:

But some of the journalists who participate in the online discussion say — off the record, of course — that it has been a great help in their work. On the record, The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin acknowledged that a Talk of the Town piece — he won’t say which one — got its start in part via a conversation on JournoList. And JLister Eric Alterman, The Nation writer and CUNY professor, said he’s seen discussions that start on the list seep into the world beyond.

“I’m very lazy about writing when I’m not getting paid,” Alterman said. “So if I take the trouble to write something in any detail on the list, I tend to cannibalize it. It doesn’t surprise me when I see things on the list on people’s blogs.”

For his part, Weigel has apologized in public (and in private) for his remarks in a blog post yesterday:

I’m a member of an off-the-record list-serv called “Journolist,” founded by my colleague Ezra Klein. Last Monday, I was deluged with angry e-mail after posting a story about Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) that was linked by the Drudge Report with a headline intimating that I defended his roughing-up of a young man with a camera; after this, the Washington Examiner posted a gossip item about my dancing at a friend’s wedding. Unwisely, I lashed out to Journolist, which I’ve come to view as a place to talk bluntly to friends.

Below the fold are quotes from me e-mailing the list that day — quotes that I’m told a gossip Web site will post today. I apologize for much of what I wrote, and apologize to readers.

I should note that Dave and I are on friendly terms, and he appeared on my show this week to talk more about the flap over his Etheridge reporting.  That criticism had a little more merit than his JournoList commentary, since it had to do with his actual reporting and not his conversations among friends and colleagues not intended for public consumption.  Most of these comments are fairly laughable and I’m certain routine in parlor discussions on the Left.  What matters, as Dave says, is his reporting, although it’s fair to say that this kind of exposure of his attitudes towards the Right won’t help build credibility for his reporting on conservative politics, which is his beat for the Washington Post.

That’s why I wonder why someone on JournoList decided to leak Weigel’s commentary.  Dave is hardly the most high-profile contributor on JournoList (well, before today), and he seems a strange choice for someone’s animus.  His incendiary comments certainly are sensational, but that’s about the only thing about them that makes them at all pertinent — unless someone on JournoList doesn’t like the fact that the Washington Post is focusing on conservative issues in any way, shape, or form.  While I don’t think Dave has been unduly hostile in his reporting, he’s not exactly been cuddling up to the Right, either, but that may not be enough for someone on JournoList.  Or, conversely, it could be a JournoList member with more sympathy towards conservatives than his colleagues suspect that has objections to Dave’s coverage of the Right.   Either way, it’s hardly a fair way to go about criticizing the work Dave does.

Perhaps the Post should reconsider this idea anyway.  Having an anthropological study of conservatives, such as Dave provides, would work if the Post had a similar anthropological look at liberals from someone on the outside to balance it.  As it stands, however, Post readers get a Conservatives In The Mist approach that seems to predicate itself on the belief that they can’t figure conservatives and conservatism out for themselves.  That’s not a reflection on Dave, but a criticism of the editorial decision to pursue a one-sided strategy of critical analysis at the Post.

Meanwhile, this is yet another lesson that written communications will only be as “off the record” as one’s antagonists want to leave them.

Update: This is unfortunate:

After WaPo conservative-beat blogger Dave Weigel‘s anti-conservative comments surfaced on FishbowlDC and Daily Caller over the past two days, the Washington Post has confirmed that Weigel offered his resignation this morning.

I’m actually surprised and disappointed that the Post didn’t do more to defend Dave in this instance.  The real problem, as I note above, is the lack of balance in the paper’s approach, and not any of the reporting that Weigel has done.