We’ve been arguing in a thread below about the morality of a Minnesota gay reporter infilitrating a support group for gay Catholics and other gay Christians seeking help living chastely, and outing a closeted Lutheran pastor who attended the group. The pastor had spoken out against homosexuality before, so the reporter apparently felt morally justified in lying to get into the confidential support group, then exposing the secrets he learned there. I find this an absolutely reprehensible act, and would feel exactly the same way if a right-wing vigilante journalist infiltrated a pro-gay support group and exposed anyone within it, and their secrets. It infuriates me that there are people who believe their cause — in the case at issue, a reporter for a gay newspaper advocating for gay rights — gives them the right to destroy by any means necessary the characters and careers of people who get in their way. It’s a matter of fundamental decency that the privacy and confidentiality of those groups be respected, unless they are used to commit criminal acts. When people lose the ability to trust the confidentiality of such groups, it diminishes our social capital, which depends greatly on trust.
I’ve never been part of a support group, but if I ever had a personal problem, addiction or some other challenge, unless I was “out” with my problem, there’s no way I would go to one, no matter how much I thought it might help. It’s too risky.
Now we’ve seen another egregious violation of privacy: the publication of the private e-mail messages of journalist Dave Weigel, a libertarian who covered the conservative movement for the Washington Post. Someone within a private e-mail list to which Weigel contributed leaked to hostile conservatives his bitchy comments about some of them. As a result, Weigel, who apologized for some of it, is no longer working for the Post. It’s understandable that the Post would think him incapable of covering the conservative movement after these private comments went public, but as Ross Douthat notes, it tells you something about the quality of Weigel’s writing and reporting that a number of conservative bloggers are defending him. National Review’s John J. Miller, for example, says that Weigel’s reporting was so thoughtful and serious that it surprised him (Miller) to learn that Weigel’s private opinions about many conservatives were so hostile.
Which raises an interesting moral question: If Weigel’s public journalism work was so good that even some thoughtful conservatives had no idea he was so hostile to certain conservatives and conservative ideas, why are his private views of conservatives relevant? I ask this in response to those who think exposing liberal bias in the news media is such an important cause that it justifies making public things said within a group setting that’s supposed to be private and confidential. That e-mail list is supposed to be for elite liberal journalists, and I assume it’s an invitation-only thing, making it so it’s probably not the case that a conservative joined it secretly, or under false pretenses. Somebody on that list betrayed Weigel accidentally or on purpose. But somebody else received that information, and made a decision to publish it. I think it was an immoral decision — not because I agree with Weigel’s views, but because I think it’s a shame that a man has now lost his job because someone took it on themselves to violate his privacy. The list has now been shut down. After this, there’s no way a journalist would be foolish enough to share his private views on a list like that. Whom can you trust? N.B., Dan McCarthy, who generally defends Weigel, says nobody who posts on a listserv to which a number of journalists subscribe has any reasonable expectation of privacy.
You can say that Weigel ought to have more sense than to mouth off like that on a listserv, but do we really want to live in a world in which people have to watch every single word they say, for fear that somebody is lying in wait to use those words to destroy that person? Because that’s the kind of world we’re making for ourselves.
There’s one time in my professional life when something like this came up. Read on if you want to know more [plus, I’ve added more commentary about the Weigel situation, based on a blog post by the WaPo ombudsman…]
I once joined an e-mail list for Dallas Muslims, and was on it for about a day before they found out I had subscribed and kicked me off. I read comments on there in which subscribers discussed a plan they were trying to hatch to start a whispering campaign against me, with the hope of getting me fired. I publicized all of this. The thing is, that list was public — all you had to do to join it was sign up, which I did — and the thing those guys were discussing was potentially illegal, and would have cost me my job had they succeeded. Had that been a private list, and had I been leaked those e-mails by someone who subscribed to it who was disturbed by what he had read, I don’t think I would have published the e-mails — but I would have shown them to my editor and the newspaper’s publisher, to protect myself. And if a media lawyer had told me definitively that what that group was talking about was legally actionable by me, had they carried out the whispering campaign, I would probably have published them.
UPDATE: The Washington Post’s ombudsman has a blog post up about this affair, in which he writes:
Weigel’s exit, and the events that prompted it, have further damaged The Post among conservatives who believe it is not properly attuned to their ideology or activities. Ironically, Weigel was hired to address precisely those concerns.
I wasn’t aware that it was possible to damage the Post’s standing with conservatives any further. Anyway, like I said, once these ill-considered comments by Weigel became public, he clearly was too compromised to do his job effectively. That said, I don’t like the idea that newspapers should pick people to cover political groups, or any group, based on whether or not they are “properly attuned to their ideology or activities.” If by “properly attuned,” you mean “takes them seriously,” well, fine. The longtime complaint by conservatives has been that the MSM doesn’t understand conservatives, and doesn’t want to understand them, but rather simply seeks to condemn them. If conservatives think the lack of fairness they perceive in MSM coverage is properly addressed by hiring an open conservative partisan to cover the movement, they’re badly mistaken. Rare is the partisan conservative journalist who has the capability of standing outside the movement with which he identifies, and criticize it. Robert Novak was that kind of writer, but he was a columnist who reported, not a reporter who opined. Big difference.
I feel the same way about religion coverage, frankly. I don’t expect a religion reporter to be personally religious. I just expect him to be able to report empathetically on religious people, even if his reports are critical. By “empathetically,” I mean that he’s able to take religious people and their concerns seriously, and get inside their heads to imagine what the world looks like from their point of view. This weekend I talked to an Episcopal priest who said he once ran into David O’Reilly, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s religion reporter, and he complimented O’Reilly for his fair and balanced coverage of the nasty dispute between conservative Episcopalians in Philly (as this priest was) and liberals. He said O’Reilly told him, “Your opposition said the same thing to me.” This priest related that story in praise of O’Reilly’s skills and ethic.
I think one of the big problems with journalism, political and religious, is that reporters are biased one way or another, and don’t recognize it. I’ve got no problem at all with a journalist like Dave Weigel who understands his bias, but who works to keep it out of his reporting and writing.