Why Octavia Nasr and Dave Weigel shouldn't have lost their jobs.

Media criticism.
July 8 2010 7:03 PM

Speak Your Mind. Lose Your Job.

Why Octavia Nasr and Dave Weigel shouldn't have lost their jobs.

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When the concept originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary. The term began to appear as part of journalism early in the last century, particularly in the 1920s, out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and culture biases would not undermine their work.

The journalistic method was the thing that was supposed to be objective, not the journalist, a method that depended on verification of results and findings. Rosenstiel and Kovach complain about how the old journalism of verification has been "overrun" by the new journalism of assertion that we consume on TV and radio. They also bellyache about the neutral voice adopted by unscrupulous journalists who want to appear objective when they're completely in the tank for somebody. This, they write, is a "form of deception." In my book, this kind of deception—and not shooting off your mouth—should be a firing offense.

Which brings us back to Weigel and Nasr. To the best of my knowledge, neither journalist has been criticized for producing substandard or otherwise shoddy work for their network or newspaper. Both appear to be committed to the journalism of verification, although I'm more confident about vouching for Weigel's work, which I know well, than Nasr's, which I don't. Weigel's jerkiness on a private listserv doesn't bother me much at all. If you were to purge the Post newsroom of every reporter who had been a jerk sometime in his career, you'd be facing an acre of empty desks. In fact, jerkiness was one of the attributes that I used to look for in a candidate when I was on the management side of the editorial divide.

That Weigel's bad manners bothered his Post bosses so much that they felt compelled to accept his resignation speaks poorly for the paper. That CNN walked Nasr off the plank because she expressed a smidgeon of "respect" for a Hezbollah-supporting cleric in a tweet speaks of cowardice.

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The work is the thing. Until somebody can show me shoddy journalism by Weigel and Nasr, I'll defend them. Nobody should be sacked to pacify the nitpickers.

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While we're on the subject of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, see this nuanced piece about him in Foreign Policy by David Kenner, who writes what I believe Nasr was thinking. And while we're on the subject of sacking people who speak their minds, let's revisit the Helen Thomas affair. Nobody who read my 2003 piece about her should have been surprised by her comments about Jews and Israel. Should she have been shown the door? Seeing as her views couldn't have been a surprise to her employers at the Hearst News Service, I'd say "nah" because the work is the thing. Should I be fired for my impudence? Of course. Send letters of recommendation that I can use in future job applications to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Monitor my Twitter for my compensation demands. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.