Weigel, The Washington Post, and The Conservative Beat

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Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel, who was hired three months ago to cover the conservative movement, resigned from the paper earlier today after some of his private emails mocking conservatives were leaked. Weigel previously sparked an uproar in May when he called gay marriage opponents “bigots.” Reaction to Weigel’s resignation is already breaking down along predictable ideological lines, with conservatives exulting over the downfall of a member of the biased liberal media and liberals portraying Weigel as the victim of a conservative witch hunt.

In fact, Weigel’s departure is a good thing for journalism. Not because he was biased against the subjects of his beat but because for someone who often seemed obsessed with conservatives, Weigel was surprisingly incurious about them. To my mind, Weigel’s most damning comment in the past few months was not calling gay marriage opponents “bigots” or suggesting that Matt Drudge set himself on fire, but this response to a Politics Daily reporter as he tried to clarify the “bigots” remark: “I do not understand or respect the motivation of anti-gay marriage campaigners.”

Now, you can’t fault a journalist for not respecting those with whom he personally disagrees (although it’s hard to see how someone can decide to respect or disrespect motivations that he doesn’t understand.) But you could argue that an essential part of Weigel’s job was trying to understand the motivations of conservative activists, including anti-gay marriage campaigners. What good is it to have a reporter on the conservative beat if he’s not digging into what animates different conservative factions and then trying to explain those motivations to readers?

Instead, the way I read it, Weigel’s response was a flat statement of uninterest in figuring out why some people believe gay marriage should be illegal. That makes it difficult for him to distinguish for readers between those conservatives who use gay marriage opposition for political purposes and those grassroots activists who have objections based in their religious tradition. Or between those whose opposition lessens when they’re assured that houses of worship cannot be forced to perform gay marriages and those who will never moderate their position.

Some of Weigel’s other comments suggest that he was at times not only dismissive of but also bored by his subjects. In one February email (before Weigel started at the Post) reprinted by the Daily Caller, Weigel complained: “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?” Seriously? Look, it’s certainly not necessary–or even preferable–to hire a conservative to cover conservatives. (Though in one of the stranger aspects of this story, Ben Smith reports that that’s exactly what the Post thought it was doing by bringing on Weigel.) Nor does the job require an ultra-skeptical liberal journalist. But a reporter on any beat should at the very least find his or her subjects interesting. That’s how you come up with stories that other people are missing.

Take this week’s Republican Senate primary in Utah. Mike Lee’s victory was widely portrayed by conservatives and liberals alike as a triumph for the Tea Party movement. But over at Religion Dispatches, religion writer Joanna Brooks looked into Lee’s pedigree as part of a storied Mormon family in Utah and argues that it was this identification that gave him the edge with Utah voters. Brooks makes a convincing case and produces an article that’s a heck of a lot more interesting to read than yet another “Is the Tea Party Movement Sweeping the Country?” piece.

It would be a shame if the Post simply dropped the conservative beat after this short-lived experiment with Weigel. Hopefully, his resignation will give the paper a chance to start over again, this time with someone who approaches the conservative beat with slightly more curiosity and critical enthusiasm for the subject.

Update: Not all liberals are calling Weigel a victim of conservative mau-mauing. Greg Sargent offers an alternative and likely reason for Weigel’s resignation.