Dave Weigel, a blogger for the Washington Post lost his job today. No big story. He was hired as a conservative blogger (increasingly called journalists) because the Post was criticized by conservatives of not understanding their thinking. He was fired because its now quite clear that he didn’t think too much of some of the leading conservatives. A bigger deal, but still not such a big deal. His real attitude toward conservatives was revealed not so much in his official posts, but in private email conversation. Big deal.
Another Post blogger, and the one who set up the private email listserv from which the damaging emails were leaked, Ezra Klein, clearly feels badly for his friend. And in his blog he captures an interesting dilemma about internet communications–the feeling of privacy that belies the complete lack of privacy:
There’s a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it’s dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It’s public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It’s easy to talk as if it’s private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public.
Not long ago the Library of Congress announced it was archiving all Twitter conversations. Perhaps some future sociologist will find gold in the millions of conversations about sandwiches, lattes and bathroom breaks. Twitter, like email, feels private and protected, but it is not. Somehow those little arrangement of bits and bytes can be saved somewhere, shared in unexpected ways and come back to haunt you years later. Career counselors on university campuses have a big job today reminding students that what they put on Facebook may affect their careers in years ahead and in unsuspecting and distressing ways. We can be fully open, transparent and authentic on the Internet, but that may not be a good thing.
Added to this situation, and a critical part of it, is the cultural change in exposure. We hear now of journalists in the days of the Kennedy’s preserving private activities that today would be front page fodder and the subject of tens of thousands of posts and comments. Today, we would consider such a conspiracy of silence to be almost unamerican, a violation of our right to know, and for most a sign of unethical political partisanship on the part of journalists (citizen or professional) who have the info but refuse to share it. This culture of exposure is brilliantly explained in this column today in NYT by David Brooks.
We lost an American hero and perhaps a critical part of our war effort in Afghanistan when the Rolling Stone as a publication and the reporter who wrote the story on General McCrystal fully delivered on our cultural values. The ethos of brutal exposure was taken to new heights, or depths. Clearly the good General didn’t catch what should have been some obvious clues as to what his unthinking staff had gotten him into. But maybe he was too much into the corruption and disease in Afghan culture and politics that he missed the clues to our own corruption and disease.
I hope this sad episode and David Brook’s column help us all to think a little more about the direction we have been taking. This culture of exposure, of fault-finding, of demonizing for the purpose of political gain and attracting audiences is painfully obvious to me and I hope to you each day in the coverage of the Gulf spill. I am saddened by it, frustrated, and angry. We should expect more of our media, our politicians and ourselves.
In the meantime, understanding this culture of exposure, understanding that all discourse online today is permanent and completely shareable, the stories of Weigel and McCrystal should urge us to caution. Perhaps the age of transparency has come and gone. If so, I think I might miss it less than I earlier thought.