Dave Weigel and the rise of young libertarian journalists in DC

In the wake of Dave Weigel’s resignation from the Washington Post after a number of his emails were leaked to online news outlets, dozens of bloggers and journalists penned posts honoring and defending Weigel’s journalistic integrity. One suchdefense was written by Julian Sanchez for The Atlantic’s website and is notable not because it’s different from all the other posts but because of its similarity. Like many of his colleagues, Sanchez began with a disclosure that he knew Weigel personally. “Like [Atlantic writer Megan McArdle] and most of my fellow guestbloggers, I’m fortunate to count Dave Weigel–until this morning a blogger covering the conservative movement for the Washington Post–as a friend,” he wrote. Sanchez, like Weigel, is relatively young at 31. As with many of the other writers who covered the debacle, the Atlantic blogger noted that Weigel is a new manifestation of journalist who melds traditional reporting practices with opinion, arguing that “there was something sterile and counterproductive in a set of professional norms that conflated fairness and objectivity with the sort of personal paucity of opinions that could never be expected of any engaged observer with a functioning brainstem.” But what I found to be most interesting is the fact that both Sanchez and Weigel are alums of Reason Magazine, a libertarian publication with writers based in California and DC. Sanchez, who previously wrote about tech public policy for Ars Technica, is currently a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and Weigel has consistently admitted to having libertarian leanings both before and after his hiring at the Post.

Perhaps I’m grasping at straws here but in the weeks leading up to Weigel’s resignation and afterward I’ve noticed a growing cadre of these libertarian journalists in DC who graduated from places like Reason or Cato, write for right-leaning publications that don’t exactly fit their social ideology, or report for traditional DC publications like The Hill or National Journal. The one time I met Weigel personally (only a few days before his emails were leaked, coincidentally) it was through a libertarian journalist friend and many of the public blog posts and private emails I’ve had with other reporters reflect this trend. Without devolving into vast conspiracy theories about libertarian plots to infiltrate our media, I couldn’t help but wonder if there is a rising force of young libertarian journalists in DC, a trend that would be interesting considering recent polls on Americans’ views on the word “libertarian.”

When I spoke to Sanchez, he wasn’t exactly convinced that my idea had any merit. Before I even had a chance to call he wrote that he wasn’t “sure there’s a real there there” in an email. “What you’re actually mapping here is not so much a specifically libertarian thing, it’s that all these people — Ezra [Klein], [Reason editor Matt Welch], me, and Dave — I think it’s almost secondary to the fact that we’re all friends and in that sense ideology is almost irrelevant,” he told me in a phone interview.

For Sanchez, the trend in DC journalism circles is less a story of political ideology and more about the meteoric rise of young reporters who are building their own personal brands. “It used to be you had to put someone through the paces, and you had to cover dog shows and town council meetings,” he said. “You figure out who through this laborious vetting process should be writing for the Post or whatever. And what you’ve got now are a bunch of people who were able to start writing and it turned out they could build a huge audience just writing stuff. You didn’t have to go through this whole rigmarole to figure out who was going to be able to build that audience. They just did it.”

Still, he thought that perhaps the growing number of public figures who identify as libertarian is rooted in a “generational divide” that represents a maturation in the ideology. “I think anyone who self identifies as a libertarian who came up in the Reagan era has a residual sense of identification with the right while young 30 something libertarians whose political thoughts were formed under Bush don’t have an iota of that feeling,” Sanchez explained. “If you look at libertarian columnists from the 80s and 90s, it’s all kind of libertarianism 101. The focus is on having an elaborately consistent set of views, and there’s a kind of siege mentality. The mission was to be conscious of what it was. Now there’s a sense that we can just talk about it as recognized members of the conversation. There’s a kind of engagement with a mainstream political dialog in a way that there wasn’t in the 80s. Back then libertarians were sort of sniping from the outside.”

Timothy Lee also felt that there wasn’t much to my libertarian dot connecting. Lee is a former writer for Cato who went on to freelance for different news outlets before embarking on a grad degree at Princeton. Unsurprisingly, he joined the chorus of Weigel supporters after the resignation and included the obligatory friendship disclosure with his blog post.

“I think what’s happening is that they’re part of a broader movement of young journalists,” he said in a phone interview. “They’re just part of that community that includes people of different ideological persuasions. Their personal relationships lead to linking and reading each other’s works and cause them to drive the conversation among a certain part of the blogosphere.”

But if Weigel leaned libertarian, an ideology that is sometimes more closely aligned to the right than the left (at least on non-social issues), why was his hiring to the Post met with so much suspicion from the right? After his hiring, the conservative media watchdog blog Newsbusters published a piece questioning Weigel’s conservative credentials and many conservative blogs danced on his grave when he announced his resignation.

My friend Eric Pfeiffer, a libertarian who has had staff writing positions everywhere from the National Review to the Washington Times, said this distrust stems from an oversensitivity of conservatives to how the media covers them. “Weigel copped to that in the Big Government piece” — a kind of mea culpa post published after his resignation — “saying he was guilty of trying to play strategist often times when he was doing those interviews,” Pfeiffer told me. “In fairness to him, that’s to some degree what I had to do when I would talk to people because the best way to get a source to cooperate is to kind of bond with them, to make them think you’re sympathetic, or at least understanding of their cause. I don’t know how true it is on the left because I’ve covered them a lot less, but it’s so true on the right, because they — and you can quote me on this — when you cover the right, your role is just as much playing the role of therapist as reporter. They want you to like them. They want you to understand them. And it really gets old fast. I think that probably caused a lot of his frustration. It’s not what all reporters think when they signed up. I think Capitol Hill Republicans are more savvy, but movement conservatives I dealt with basically wanted to be held and coddled more than they wanted to be actually challenged or pressed.”

But in the end, it was Weigel’s political malleability that helped his career, even if it led to his departure from the Post.

“I think part of what hurt Dave is that he’s more ideologically flexible, whereas if he was more rigid he wouldn’t be looking for a job right now,” Pfeiffer said. “But then again he wouldn’t have really risen to the prominence he has and gotten the job in the first place without that flexibility. I think his ability to criticize the same people he’s covering should be seen as an asset, not as a liability. But that’s not what the DC media establishment wants.”