Apocalypse 34: Privacy and Publicness

By , 28 June, 2010, 1 Comment

This weekend, I spent some time pondering the recent departure of Dave Weigel from the Washington Post. Weigel made a name for himself at the Washington Independent, where he covered the conservative movement for a liberal audience. This spring, he was hired to blog about American conservatism for the Post.

Like most of the Washington left-of-center reporting pool, Weigel was a member of the controversial JournoList, an off-the-record email listserv managed by the Post’s Ezra Klein. Last week, a number of Weigel’s emails on the list surfaced, showcasing harsh, offensive views about the movement he covers and a desire to influence coverage of that movement at the publications of his peers. On Friday, Weigel resigned.

The political blogosphere, especially the left-o-sphere, has been quick to turn Weigel into a hero, a poster child for the principles of new media, where having an opinion and voicing it is an asset, not a liability, and where the line between news reporter and newsmaker is blurry if it exists at all.

I believe that reporters ought to be transparent about their biases. Not because there is no such thing as unbiased reporting, but because letting readers know where you come from makes it easier for them to trust you on the facts. That is why I blog.

In magazine newsrooms and in journalism school classrooms, I have found myself making the case for blogging unsuccessfully to older colleagues. And crucially, what worries them most is not that abandoning strict objectivity will diminish the quality of their reporting. It’s that without objectivity, they are no longer anonymous. And for public figures, most journalists are used to a lot of privacy.

Readers will know, of course, that I’m an advocate of privacy myself. I reject the argument–so common in the portion of the blogosphere that now idolizes Weigel–that if more information is made public and accessible, information can no longer be used to control and therefore that privacy is an anachronism. This myth about transparency or publicness I see as a fundamental misunderstanding of how power works, and therefore as a recipe for anarchy, not utopian digital democracy. Individuals and institutions need the right to keep things private, and there are benefits–both for them and for society–to be had when they do so. That’s why I make so much noise about protecting personal data.

But I do acknowledge that in certain fields–and journalism is one of them–privacy won’t last. And I think that, until we develop some standards to ensure real privacy (this is a good place to start), people in all fields need to adhere to standards of semi-public discourse, even in private life. And that brings me to Dave Weigel: his emails should not have been leaked, but taking a chance that his peers could be trusted not to leak them was a major error in judgment on his part. A firing offense? I’m not sure. But certainly not something that fellow bloggers should take pride in.

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