Dave Weigel and the Tension Between Privacy and Accountability

Journalists have personal opinions. And then they have their work. The journalists I know and work with are fair minded, objective and generally can see all sides of an issue. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have personal opinions. And it doesn’t mean they don’t get passionate or say flippant, funny, crass and sometimes offensive things.

It’s unfortunate that Dave Weigel resigned from the Washington Post after comments he made on a private, off-the-record listserv with other journalists and some of their sources were made public. It’s even more unfortunate that Media Bistro published the leaked emails and thought they were “newsworthy.” Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein has since deleted the list. Weigel’s excellent apology and explanation of his resignation is worth reading.

Media institutions and the public in general need new standards for what is private and truly off the record versus what is public and deserves accountability. If Weigel had sent private messages that showed he was manipulating his reporting to make conservatives look bad, that would deserve accountability. But his personal opinion about Matt Drudge and few other figures doesn’t rise to that level. By all accounts, Weigel is a fair-minded reporter with a strong independent streak.

Philip Klein nails it. Media technology has changed and we need to change our expectations about what is private, semi-private and public:

To start with, it’s important to note that all of the comments at the center of the recent uproar were made on a private email list that was supposed to be off the record. Just for a moment, think of the things that you’d say if you were joking or venting anger among friends, and imagine if they became public with context removed. If everything we said privately were public, I wonder how many of us would be able to maintain jobs or friendships.