Andrew Breitbart has found a simple remedy to at least some of the problems that ail contemporary journalism: cold, hard cash. Yesterday he offered $100,000 to anyone who will supply him with the full archive of JournoList, the email listserve that brought down Dave Weigel.
"$100,000 is not a lot to spend on the Holy Grail of media bias when there is a country to save, " Breitbart wrote yesterday. Americans "deserve to know who was colluding against them," he added, "so that in the future they can better understand how the once-objective media has come to be so corrupted and despised."
And there's the rub: Breitbart is attempting to out liberal journalists as just that: liberal. His tactics and his objectives have been dubbed by some on the left as "digital McCarthyism," in the words of Michael Roston, "in which any of us could become the next Dave Weigel based not on the public output of our journalism, but based on our private sentiments."
Roston seems less upset about Breitbart's $100,000 offer than he is about the notion that JournoList emails would be leaked at all. Ezra Klein echoed this misguided outrage when he dubbed the Weigel controversy "dedicated character assassination."
Let's be clear: Weigel resigned from the Washington Post, he was not fired. Maybe he thought he would no longer be able to cover conservatives effectively after earning their disdain (rightfully, in my mind). Or maybe the Post felt that he had violated their professional standards, and encouraged him to leave.
Those were both internal decisions -- there was no McCarthyite witch hunt. Indeed, you'll be hard-pressed to find conservatives who called for Weigel's resignation, and some of his most vehement defenders were on the right.
The outrage over Weigel's statements was less directed at his personal political views, than at the Post's decision to hire him to cover the right. As I have written, the issue for most conservatives is not Weigel's lack of objectivity, but rather the Post's lack of balance. Weigel was not a counterweight to Ezra Klein. Not even close.
There is, however, a group of journalists griping about Weigel's lack of objectivity, and using it as an occasion to decry the ascendency of opinion journalism.
Of the ongoing battle between the self-proclaimed "objective" journalists and opinion reporters such as Klein and Weigel, Ned Resnikoff writes at Salon,
It’s not hard to see the implications of this argument for journalism in general. Weigelgate has instigated a long-overdue fight within the bowels of a major newspaper over the relative merits of traditional, self-consciously impartial reporting and opinionated coverage. It’s an old skirmish, but not one that has ever been fought with this level of intensity, before such a wide audience. And perhaps now that it’s out in the open, we can expose the misguided, antiquated ideology its supporters have dubbed "objective journalism" for what it really is.
Because, make no mistake, it is an ideology -- one predicated on the notion that human beings can educate one another on complex, hotly contested issues without using any sort of subjective or ideology-based language or ordering principle. Maybe this isn’t an unreasonable argument to make a priori, but by now, experience should have taught us that the opposite is true. Human language is too complex, too subjective, and too ambiguous to express non-mathematical propositions in wholly mathematical, objective terms. Human perception is too impressionable and susceptible to self-editing for it to capture, much less perfectly reproduce, a completely unslanted cluster of objective facts. And when journalists behave as if these things are untrue, it distorts their coverage in curious, frequently unacknowledged ways…
The solution is to follow the example set by Weigel, Klein, Sargent and countless others: acknowledge your own biases. Disclose them to your audience. Never shy away from advancing an argument that is open to contradictory interpretation, but be prepared to defend it and, when necessary, admit error and adjust your beliefs accordingly.
Roston and others on the left have dubbed "McCarthyism" Breitbart's offer, and the potential that other "objective" journalists could have their biases exposed to the world. But that label seems to assume that a journalist who is outed as a liberal faces any meaningful threat to his or her career. That notion is nothing short of silly.
Weigel did not leave the post because he is a liberal. And conservatives did not force him out. Think about those two assertions for a minute. Do some commentators actually believe that a blogger's lefty views could get him fired from one of the most liberal papers in the nation? Do they actually believe that righty commentators have any say in or sway over the Post's employment decisions?
Did Weigel's statements offend a great number of conservatives? Absolutely. But since when is offending conservatives a fireable offense at the paper that helped bring down Nixon? This is the same paper that employed extremely liberal reporters such as Carl Bernstein and Dana Milbank. Bernstein is venerated, and Milbank was made a columnist. Liberalism is hardly taboo at the Post.
Roston is terribly concerned that "any of us could become the next Dave Weigel based not on the public output of our journalism, but based on our private sentiments." But that is just the problem, as Breitbart and so many others see it: the 20th century model of journalism promotes a mythical separation between a reporter's work and his or her private sentiments. As explained above, it is near impossible to avoid injecting one's own biases into that reporting.
Are there journalists who manage it? Of course. But a journalistic model that assumes reporters can do what few actually manage -- remain objective, that is -- is a dysfunctional model. Decades of stilted journalism have demonstrated that fact. Breitbart is simply exposing that model for the sham that it is.