After the Abortion Ruling, How Will the Media Decide Who's Morally Intolerable?
I’ll get to the “Elephant in Room” news in a moment, but I want to arrive there by a slightly roundabout route, hopefully to elucidate some other notable developments which don’t flow directly from Samuel Alito’s jurisprudence. Earlier this month, a fleeting but funny media controversy erupted: Felicia Sonmez, the Washington Post journalist whom I’d previously identified as a pioneer in the burgeoning field of “therapeutic trauma jargon,” launched her latest flamboyant Twitter crusade. This time, the spark was a mildly amusing joke about the societal prevalence of bipolar/bisexual women, retweeted by her WaPo colleague and “good friend” Dave Weigel. Sonmez apparently found this joke so intolerable, demeaning, and endangering that she felt the need to publicly demand her WaPo supervisors take swift disciplinary action against Weigel — which they subsequently did, suspending him for a month without pay. Yet Sonmez couldn’t stop there. Instead, she stayed on the attack, launching wild Twitter broadsides against additional WaPo journalists for various ancillary reasons. This lasted for around five days, and was about to spill over into the sixth, until suddenly Sonmez herself was fired. Presumably for acting so crazy that even WaPo could no longer justify pretending she was owed eternal deference on account of being a self-described “survivor.”
When I first wrote about Sonmez in March 2021, I only brought her up as the embodiment of a certain kind of prototype that had become ascendant in elite media: the Harvard-grad journalist in their 30s working for one of the most influential newspapers in the world who, despite this astronomically “privileged” pedigree, devotes their time to attaining professional advancement by constantly invoking and leveraging their purported victim status. I actually exercised a fair amount of restraint in what I wrote, and could’ve been considerably harsher given other information about her background that I’d been made privy to. Nonetheless, Sonmez accused me of “silencing trauma survivors,” by which she meant herself, with “silencing” defined as writing about her in a way that didn’t piously affirm her every pretension of righteousness. (As to how I could possibly “silence” a journalist publishing articles at the Washington Post, that wasn’t exactly clarified.)
Point being: if I’d worked for a standard media institution in March 2021 when Sonmez made that allegation about me, I most certainly would’ve been summoned on the spot into some emergency administrative tribunal. The substantive merits or demerits of what I actually wrote would’ve been irrelevant, instantly drowned out by tidal waves of internal drama. A sizable percentage of this drama would have revolved around the inevitable second-order accusation that by “silencing” Felicia, I was by extension also “silencing” (and perhaps physically endangering) my own marginalized/traumatized colleagues — not because I said or did anything to them, or even interacted with them at all, but because my mere existence as a survivor-silencing person at their media organization did them grave harm.
Thankfully I was writing here on Substack at the time and not for some perpetually-in-turmoil media outfit, so none of the above actually happened. But if you have even a smidgeon of knowledge about how media organizations operate nowadays, you know it definitely would have happened.
Fast forward to 15 months later, and Sonmez was still plugging away at the Washington Post. In the interim, she had tried and failed to sue the Washington Post for discriminating against her on the basis of her purported victim status. During this period, the main focus of her journalistic output for the Washington Post appeared to be bringing the most inflammatory possible litigation against the Washington Post. Her suit got dismissed with prejudice this past March, but there she remained, still gainfully employed, and by June still invoking her court-dismissed victim status — this time to exact retribution on colleagues for such shocking conduct as re-tweeting, and then quickly un-retweeting, a mildly amusing but forgettable joke.
As this was happening, you could tell right away that the ground was starting to shift beneath Sonmez. Even though she managed to successfully orchestrate the suspension of Weigel, the reaction among media peers to her antics was noticeably negative, and a quick consensus emerged that it was ridiculous for the Washington Post to have punished Weigel for such a trivial non-infraction. Weigel is seen across the industry, including by me, as a generally affable and inoffensive guy. He spends a lot of time traveling around the country reporting on political events, so if you’re a journalist who’s ever covered a campaign rally or a conference, there’s a good chance you’ve met him in person and found him generally agreeable. The idea that he of all people would randomly be the target of Felicia’s ferocious ire clearly rubbed journos the wrong way, and the idea that he would then be publicly flagellated by the Washington Post at Felicia’s behest was doubly risible.
Whereas a year ago Felicia could expect automated hostage-style capitulation to her increasingly crazy demands, along with tributes to her personal bravery, by this month the tide seemed to be slowly turning. Colleagues who might have been previously paralyzed into “silence” started to cautiously vocalize their aggravation with Felicia, whom they probably always privately thought of as nuts. As her spasmodic attacks against fellow WaPo journalists intensified, whatever goodwill she had retained up until that point got zapped, and she was given the boot. A subtle, but nonetheless significant shift was underway in the insular world of petty media in-group dynamics; no longer could Felicia’s purported survivorship status be indefinitely leveraged to insulate her from ramifications for her insane conduct.
Weigel is still suspended, but he’ll come out of the whole ordeal looking fine, whereas his antagonist looks like a nutcase. Humorously, there’s a parallel to be made with the first time Dave Weigel got into hot water as an employee of the Washington Post. Back in 2009/2010, the newspaper began hiring a bunch of newfangled “bloggers” to demonstrate hipness to the cutting edge of journalistic trends, and one of them was Weigel. “Blogger” really just meant he did journalism in the manner typical of journalists who came of age on the internet, and didn’t arrive at his career position by cycling through the traditional journalistic channels. Having started out in the world of DC libertarianism and Reason magazine, Weigel was hired to cover the conservative movement, even though his own personal political views were somewhat ambiguous.
One day he tweeted the following about opponents of gay marriage, which back in those ancient times was the paramount Culture War issue:
Elon Musk should hire an in-house Twitter historian who can correct me if I’m wrong, but my recollection is that the Weigel tweet was one of the first, if not the first, examples of a journo saying something uncouth on Twitter, and then it turning into a big flareup controversy.
The only other example I can think of is from January 2008, during the genuinely prehistoric days of Twitter, when boy wonder Ezra Klein (now at the New York Times) got busted sharing some intemperate remarks about soon-to-be-deceased Meet the Press anchor Tim Russert. Klein was furious that Russert, moderating a Democratic presidential primary debate, asked a series of questions to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that Klein had found politically unhelpful:
Most websites from that period are barely usable anymore, rotted away by the decrepitude of poor archival maintenance, but the way right-wing media watchdog outfit Newsbusters characterized the situation is worth resurrecting just for nostalgia’s sake. “According to multiple sources,” the website reported, Klein had posted the offending comments “on the short-message blogging service called ‘Twitter’ … Klein has since locked his ‘Twitter’ page such that unregistered members can no longer view his vulgarity-laden threat.”
But back to Weigel. He quickly apologized for that gay marriage tweet, because in 2010 it was considered way over the line for a Washington Post employee to describe opponents of gay marriage as “bigots.” Trying to imagine an equivalent transgression today is a useful window into how media culture has evolved. Do you suppose that a single journalist at any present-day media outlet would face sanction for having labeled opponents of Trans rights “bigots”? Because one gets the impression that they’d probably be more likely to face repercussions for not labeling such people “bigots.”
Which is all just to observe that in the bygone era of 2010, someone in Weigel’s position had to be carefully attentive to the risk that they might say something excessively pejorative about people who hold right-wing cultural views. Does such a risk today exist at the Washington Post? Because it more seems like the Washington Post has simply dropped the pretense of attempting to cater to the sensibilities of conservatives, who are no longer regarded as mere conservatives, but instead as frightening abettors of Literal Fascism and MAGA insurrectionist terrorism. Therefore to cater to their sensibilities would itself be seen as the grievous moral wrong.
Weigel’s foibles continued when some emails of his got leaked from the private listserv “Journolist,” run by none other than Ezra Klein. The Daily Caller got the big scoop:
In other posts, Weigel describes conservatives as using the media to “violently, angrily divide America.” According to Weigel, their motives include “racism” and protecting “white privilege,” and for some of the top conservatives in DC, a nihilistic thirst for power.
In March, Weigel wrote that the problem with the mainstream media is “this need to give equal/extra time to ‘real American’ views, no matter how fucking moronic, which just so happen to be the views of the conglomerates that run the media and/or buy up ads.”
After this came out, a firestorm erupted and Weigel resigned. Do you reckon that anyone would have to resign for expressing these sentiments today? Because it seems more likely that someone would have to resign for not expressing these sentiments.
In some of the leaked emails, Weigel expressed contempt for Sarah Palin, denouncing what he regarded as excessive media amplification of Palin’s “lie” that the then-recently enacted Obamacare law contained “death panels.” So that was the gist of the scandal which led to Weigel’s ouster from the Washington Post the first time around: he shared some garden-variety liberal opinions, which made his continued employment at the Washington Post untenable.
It’s a funny contrast to what would be seen as “untenable” today. There is something quaint about reflecting on what could get a high-profile journalist in trouble back in the prehistoric times of 2010, versus what could get them in trouble in 2022. Because it really does not seem like journalists in 2022 spend a lot of time worrying about the risk that they could get ousted from their jobs for being excessively mean to conservatives. Rather, what’s more likely to get them ousted is if they’re not mean enough to conservatives. The last thing any self-respecting media member wants to be called is an apologist for MAGA insurrectionist GOP fascism, or whatever, which would of course probably also mean that they’re in league with Putin.
Join me in bellowing with laughter at the thought of some Twitter journo risking their career for being overly contemptuous of Donald Trump, or accusing him of having “lied,” like Weigel did with Palin. Again, the riskier proposition would instead be failing to denounce Trump in sufficiently vigorous terms, in honor of Jan. 6 and Alexander Vindman. Say something that could be vaguely construed as overly charitable to Trump, and a journalist can probably expect to be summoned before a Committee Meeting wherein their colleagues will obligatorily claim to have been traumatized.
In the olden days, the Washington Post at least had the pretense of desiring to maintain “standing among conservatives,” as the paper’s managing editor said during the Weigel episode, in order that conservatives would trust the paper’s reporting on conservative issues. After Weigel got ousted, the managing editor additionally stressed the need for journalists “to be impartial” in their views. Do you get the sense nowadays that Washington Post editors are screening journalists for “impartiality” in their views toward, say, Donald J. Trump? Twelve years ago, right-wing beliefs had to be begrudgingly accommodated; today, they must be denounced as an existential threat.
Just like after what happened this month with Felicia, Weigel was ultimately fine after the email episode; the controversy did not prevent him from being christened by uber-insider Politico as one of the “50 Politicos to Watch in 2010.” And a couple years later he was re-hired by the Washington Post, a sign that cheeky jokes about the unpalatability of right-wingers was no longer any kind of fireable offense. Then when Trump became the thing around which the entire US political and media universe revolved, all bets were off. The media’s pre-existing ethos was overthrown, and the new imperative was to aggressively confront “MAGA” — not tip-toe around them, in hopes that they wouldn’t get too upset.
Where this relates to the overruling of Roe vs. Wade, in a very roundabout way, is that the political fallout will be a test of the viability of the new media ethos. Are those who cheer the Supreme Court’s decision, and/or support the enactment of laws that now entirely prohibit abortion — such as in states like Missouri or Louisiana — going to be treated by WaPo and company as people whose sensibilities must not be too egregiously offended, as was the case in 2010 with the gay marriage opponents? Or are they going to be lumped into the new all-purpose category of frightful right-wing aggressors, hellbent not just on outlawing abortion, but Destroying Our Democracy — and against whom no appeasement can be countenanced? We shall see.