It's been a while since I managed to get out in front of a developing story, but apparently, Twitter is my friend: my post on Dave Weigel beat out a lot of Washington journo types, even if it didn't break far and wide. My own desire to see other reactions, though, was frustratingly delayed, and it's only in the last few hours that I got a good survey in as well as some examination of more of Weigel's work.
I think there's a couple of lingering lessons to Weigel's departure from the Washington Post, though it's anyone's guess if there can be a sustained discussion on them - indeed, given that one place where that conversation was probably essential, the JournoList itself, is no more.
There's been a lot of handwringing and soul searching about the List and about what did or didn't happen on it. I think it's clear, however one wants to play this, that David Frum's hyperbolic take on the JournoList as a dangerous subversive force is decidedly overblown (Frum, in his usually bright way of having it all ways at once, even smartly posts his own corrective, but doesn't retract anything in his own piece).
Is/Was the JournoList, or the idea of it harmless? Is it just, as defenders suggest, a nifty way to get a conversation going and lively debate, or is it, as others suggest, a more dangerous invitation to groupthink and exclusion? Pardon me if I think the answer is both; I have no doubt it served a purpose and probably a useful one for a number of people (just as I suspect that Ezra is right that, in some form, it will sneak back, probably smaller, and more closed). I think a lot of people bandy the word "groupthink" around, but don't entirely understand how it works or why, ultimately, it's problematic. And while I'm sure there was lively debate and dissent among a collection of writers and thinkers, the substantive problem is exclusion and secretiveness. What Ezra has never entirely explained, or revealed, is who was on the List, and why; or who wasn't and why not. Vaguely, he's written that the Listserv was left leaning/liberal and designed to avoid the kind of "food fight" dimensions of left/right debate as it currently plays out. That's fine... but you can't talk about a "lively debate" where all sides get aired... and leave out a side. And just as pointedly, you can't make obvious points about self selection, exclusivity and elitism... and argue how open the litserv or its ideas were. A closed loop is defined by being... well, closed.
I don't think this kind classist, elitist, exclusionary debate is going to just go away; and in many ways, and on many levels, the divisions within elite circles - as well as the large numbers excluded from them - is central to our politics, our culture and our blogosphere, just now. As much as I think JournoList was benign and not all that crucial to the political discourse... I think the sense of "in or out", of whether you were in on it or out of it, was what brought JournoList into prominence, what made it problematic (as many outsiders are now pointing out), and in its way, made the Weigel incidents all too likely to occur. As I concluded in snarky, but serious, manner the last time: the promise of the web, really, lies in the possibilities of broadening our conversations and exposing more people to more ideas and information. Yes, there are problems, but in general, I tend to favor what the web has wrought: more transparency, less ability to hide, and less ability for message controlling elements to entirely succeed.
Just as tantalizing, though, I think, is that Weigel's dismissal from WaPo underscores the question of what is journalism just now, and what constitutes "doing it well". It's telling, I think, that so many posts about Weigel, admiring his brilliance, offer no real examples or links to his work. Having scanned through a good bit of writing, I don't think what Weigel's been doing is all that remarkable, passing along observations and some insights into the conservative side of the political spectrum just now, usually for more left-ish outlets. Much is made, and has been of Weigel's personal politics... but this is one case where the personal and the political are beside the point: finding out what's driving "tea party anger" and energy on the right isn't hard; discovering that the appeal of Sarah Palin is real and speaks to a disaffected audience is hardly a stretch. But the reality is... many liberals/ progressives don't want to know and can't be bothered to find out. Weigel's work, then, becomes easy shorthand for doing the actual work: here's what they're saying, here's why they say it... and usually, here's why they're wrong.
Is it any wonder, then, that many conservatives were getting progressively more steamed at suggestions that Weigel was some sort of brilliant "reporter" of the right wing?
I'll go further: I don't think this is journalism. And in a week where Michael Hastings reminded us, brutally and brilliantly, what real journalism is and what it can do, it's perhaps instructive and related that both Weigel and McChrystal were forced to resign, and in many ways, over the same thing: supposedly "private "comments, aired in public, that reflected badly on their professional responsibilities.
As much as anyone, I share the sense that newspapers and newsgathering organizations are floundering in this new web driven age for a couple of reasons: advertising revenue has been decimated by the web, especially in turning classified ads into Craigslist. And also because from a content standpoint, new organizations are still struggling to integrate what's useful about blogs into their overall structure without losing sight of the need for "old fashioned" skills like reporting and fact checking and editing. As I've said, I like Ezra Klein, and in no small way, he's been a personally important guiding light for me in figuring out how I could, in fact, blog for myself. But I have no idea, none, what his blog contributes to the Washington Post that isn't better served by actual reporters and more fully developed news stories. Because the thing is, Ezra's not that great at many things, and doesn't necessarily know all that much... like many of us. What made his blog so intriguing that what he did know was well presented, and that the conversations he generated were, in themselves, productive and revealing. I suspect that was as true in his Journo List. But that's not journalism, either.
And none of this is to single out Ezra; I could say, and have said, similar things about Matt Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman (though Ackerman, oddly, has I think become a solid military and national security reporter) or a bunch of others, including most of the "obvious names" of the "Progressive Blogosphere." The value of blogs, I'm convinced, and live out, lies in the sharing of information and ideas... but it's not reporting, and it's not, usually, what journalism is or should be. That's not good, bad, better or worse... it's just different. And I think, as Americans, we're at once amazingly innovative and creative... and at the same time... we struggle with different. A lot.
Finally, just an observation: the real lesson of Weigel - and of McChrystal - is that many of the notions which define "public" and "private" are social conventions and illusions. It's one reason why, most liberally... I don't necessarily believe in an expansive notion of "privacy" per se. I do believe in the right to be left alone, but I think arguments, especially legal ones, built on notions that we have some "privacy zone" are shaky, at best (One day, I'll share my long argument that Roe v. Wade actually works because it says a woman has a right to consult her doctor and make decisions about her own medical condition, not because she has a right to privacy). And brings us back around: the trouble with a "JournoList" is that, ultimately, it equates exclusion with privacy. One's wrong, and the other is illusory... and our web instincts fly in the face of both: do it in the open, and invite everyone in.