Slate political reporter David Weigel responded to questions Friday during an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
liquidcalories: Campaign journalism—or “horserace” journalism—is routinely degraded by the smart-snark sect of D.C. journalists. You actually do a lot of it, though, and you do it well. How would you distinguish the way you approach a campaign beat from how, say, a campaign beat reporter at the New York Times would? And is it entirely about the latitude you’re granted by Slate to inject your own views on some of the subjects?
Dave Weigel: You’re talking about “who’s up who’s down” analysis? I think you just need to see it up close, to see if it’s real, get inside the head of the campaigners, and then rely on data. By “get inside the head,” I mean you need to quickly recognize when and why you’re being spooned bullshit. That happens very often, but it happens for a reason.
Any good after-action report on a campaign will reveal what it did to snow the media; you go back, read that, and swear “never again.” This is why I’m such a “gaffe” skeptic. It reads like I’m defending the candidates from their mistakes, but it’s usually because we know most “gaffes” don’t penetrate at all. I think it’s more fun to figure out what a pol meant to say, and where his/her thinking developed, than to expose a “gaffe” that might not even hurt them. Case in point: I knew the Joe Wilson “you lie” “gaffe” was great for him, and he meant it, but it was initially covered like some huge career misstep.
gotroot801: So when do we get a follow-up on your prog rock piece from last year?
Dave Weigel: I’m working on a book about it, taking a couple weeks at the end of this month to do research and interviews in the U.K. Right now I’m hacking away at it in early mornings and on weekends—try that sometime, interviewing the drummer from Nektar then running to stick your recorder into a scrum with Rand Paul.
xCAPEDCRUSADERx: One media or political figure from right and left who many consider to be a horrible person, but in your interactions you’ve found to be approachable and courteous?
Dave Weigel: Steve King and Rick Scott are both very warm personally—people who worked for Scott in his 2010 campaign loved the guy. You wanted someone from the left? I profiled Alan Grayson a couple weeks ago, because the online right definitely hates him, and he’s definitely raw when he talks about what he sees as political stupidity, but he’s an approachable guy who has become very good at bringing Republicans onto his team for various causes, usually libertarian causes.
Hey, here’s a good opportunity to make a point: If you wonder why Lindsey Graham or John McCain end up quoted so frequently, it’s because they are genuinely funny guys who will spar with reporters and stick around to answer your questions. The main bias of the political press is toward drama—quotes, fights, etc., made possible with access.
JeremyLittau: One reason I like your work is you have access to people in power without writing like an elite insider. Do you ever catch yourself falling into insider mode when you’re writing or speaking on TV, or does being David Brooks require a conscious choice? How do you avoid the trap?
Dave Weigel: That’s nice of you to say! My friend Spencer Ackerman has a question/aphorism that he borrowed (with permission) from some mentor: “What is your journalism FOR?” I think my journalism is for readers who are smart and know that most people are lying to them, or being patronizing. And I know I’m a better color reporter/history geek than investigative reporter.
If you live and work in D.C. for long enough, the “insider” trope becomes pretty amusing. If you quote a low-level source by name, he’s not interesting. If you quote “a White House aide” or a “Democratic strategist” or something, wow, it sounds like you’re really deep into this! You notice that the really fantastic reporters on the Hill like David Rogers and Jake Sherman (no offense to anyone not named) don’t do that. You’re not doing readers any favors if you give anonymity to “insiders”—you’re getting played.
REdditscks: What are your favorite D.C. bars/hangouts. Also, do you think the fact that many youngish journalists eat, work, and live together creates some kind of groupthink? You see sometimes these stories and scandals that only exist on Twitter (broccoli, Rubio’s thirst, etc.). What effect does this have on journalism?
Dave Weigel: For afternoon drinking, Wonderland. Between 8 and 11, I’d say the Gibson, the Passenger, Kangaroo Boxing Club. After 11, Black Cat.
There’s definitely a congealing of opinion, but you didn’t pick the right examples. Twitter is a much more dangerous cauldron of groupthink than happy hours or dinners. On Twitter the reward comes from agreeing or loudly disagreeing with the joke, or the “smart take.” In person you hash things out.
copernicus2000: Will it ever come down to the crucial Yolo County?
Dave Weigel: No. Yolo County, Calif.,, is safe Democratic turf that voted 2–1 for Obama over Romney. It’s not populous enough for higher Republican turnout to really cut into the statewide Dem margin.
Echoey: You know who else did an AMA …
Dave Weigel: This is a standard misuse of the “you know who else” formulation. Look: You’ve got to lead with something Hitler actually did. “You know who else spoke German?” Hitler did. “You know who else gave long speeches that were criticized by many?” Hitler did. And so on. Jokes don’t work if they’re just a reference to Hitler in the abstract.
Wait, did Hitler actually do an AMA? If so I apologize.
asheinin: What about your gaffes?
Dave Weigel: They are less impactful than the media would lead you to believe, according to research from political scientists.
Fartsly: Is recent “Washington gridlock” really new or unprecedented, or is it just the latest innovation in political maneuvering?
Legislators have jumped out of windows to avoid quorum calls, beaten each other with canes, and I think I remember reading something about several states seceding from the union at one point in the 19th century. Is the increased use of the filibuster, and heightened focus on electoral politics (the constant campaign), as big a deal as people make it out to be?
Dave Weigel: This really is the first time America’s had two 90 percent ideologically coherent parties since, arguably, the age of Jackson. The partisanship is new, now that we’re basically out of moderate Republicans and conservative Southern Dixiecrats. And no other country with ideologically coherent parties has a system with this many veto points—House, Senate cloture, Senate vote, president. So we’re basically doomed.
Mr_Mew: Would you rather have to have a penis for hands for the rest of your life or be blind for 20 years?
Dave Weigel: Oh, that’s easy—blind for 20 years. You’d get a nice memoir out of that, whereas it would be tough to hit the keys with penis hands.
SeaMoe: Hi Dave, two questions about state politics:
- What state has the most functional legislature?
- If you were immediately reassigned to cover a state government of your choosing, what would be your top choice as a political reporter?
Dave Weigel: 1. Texas. 2. Texas
melonheadct: I have a few questions….
1) Best and worst part about the job?
2) Is it possible for some gun control legislation to be passed, comparable to Joe Manchin’s previous bill?
3) Favorite thing you’ve ever written?
4) What do you read?
5) Advice for aspiring journalists?
Dave Weigel: Hi, melonhead.
1) Best part of political reporting, as a day-to-day grind, is the moment when you realize you’ve asked somebody a question he/she has no answer for. That usually informs what you need to ask about. The worst part, which happens more frequently, is knowing that you have worked and others have worked to put you in the right place to ask the right question, and you blow it.
Sorry, that’s grim.
2) Also grim, though Democrats will admit it privately, is that the single most important development that could move a gun bill would be a gruesome shooting. There is no momentum for a bill otherwise. Look at the 2014 map—very few Republicans who’d have to answer to a moderate electorate for a no vote are on the ballot.
3) My 2012 series about progressive rock, which I’d wanted to tackle for a decade and doubted I’d step away from politics to do.
4) Mostly nonfiction, bias toward subjects I’m ignorant about. I just read The Twilight War, about America’s long, dumb conflict with Iran. If I’m mentally stuck and feel like my writing’s boring, I read either a comic or something cockeyed like William Burroughs.
5) Get in front of people, talk to them, write a lot. It’s not complicated!
hanni90: Did you speak to Christopher Hitchens a lot when he was at Slate?
Dave Weigel: Not very much, sadly. I joined right around the time he was diagnosed with cancer, and when we did see each other, it was usually in the context of some large event where people wanted their precious time with him—you know, may never see him again? (If it sounds ghoulish, it was.) The last time I talked to him with a little privacy was at a press screening for Atlas Shrugged: Part I, which he attended wearing a dark fedora, speaking hoarsely. (He didn’t love the movie. Stop looking surprised!) But he didn’t talk much, and a few weeks later he wrote that essay about losing his voice.
After he died there was a sort of backlash to the tributes to Hitchens. Oh, was there any young male reporter or admirer he didn’t have a Moment with? And my answer would be: Look at how much time he spent talking to people who couldn’t do anything for him personally or professionally. That is far too rare, and it shouldn’t be.
Audioheadrays: Are you still sore about the email leaks, and your resignation from the Post?
Dave Weigel: I’m really not. The reporter who worked that story, Jonathan Strong, has gone on to do fantastic reporting on the House for Roll Call and National Review, and we get along. I’m glad I resigned, and that the Post didn’t have to answer for my snotty emails. My job at Slate is 500 percent better than any job I’ve ever had. But I don’t want to dodge this! From time to time, someone will bellow “JOURNOLIST” to discredit whatever I’ve said, and no, that’s not fun, being reminded that you will be associated with a widely misunderstood scandal for years and years. I imagine it’s how, like, Ben Affleck feels when someone heckles him about Reindeer Games.
sovietskaya: You seem to be a busy person. What’s your go-to meal when you have no time?
Dave Weigel: I buy whichever one of those energy bars is on sale in a given week at the Target in Columbia Heights. This week it was Zone—lucky me! If I’m working at Slate’s D.C. office, odds are I’ll go to Chopt with Yglesias or another Slatester (Yglesias is just the most openly pro-Chopt), bring it back, eat it at my desk like a sad person.
MatthewCrawley: Is Cory Booker the worst?
Dave Weigel: If you’re not particularly left-wing, and you like the idea of more people in politics who aren’t white guys, he’s just great. That’s my bias—that and he gave me an interview when I was at Reason. (See? We love access, us hacks.) The New Jersey Senate race is actually pretty predictable, so my main interest has been in pointing out when lazy “narratives” make it from the many circles of anti-Bookerites into the political press. The idea that Booker had damaged himself for all time by not waiting for Lautenberg to retire looks pretty well discredited now; Booker’s alliance with the Norcross machine has been much more useful than whatever he would have gotten from deference to an 89-year-old who we all knew wouldn’t run.
MatthewCrawley: What is it like being a total and absolute hater?
Dave Weigel: Pretty tiring, unless you’re hating on something that needed the haterade. I think my insistence that the Bob Menendez “hooker” scandal was bullshit and would fall apart looks good in retrospect.