Free Dan Weintraub
How blogging the recall brought a Bee pundit into the spotlight
The whole thing started with Charles Bustmont, a figure who is now an obscure but important footnote in the annals of journalism history.
Bustmont owes his sudden fame to Sacramento Bee scribe Daniel Weintraub. The longtime political writer has been in the spotlight, punditing for everyone from National Public Radio to Fox News Channel, since the political story of the year turned sleepy Sacramento into the center of the political universe.
A few days ago, Weintraub sat in the lobby of the downtown Sheraton after taking in a packed, substance-free media availability by a certain Teutonic thespian. In the space of a few minutes, Weintraub pulled a ringing cell phone from his jacket for a quick live interview for a conservative radio talk show broadcast around the country; then he was approached by a Los Angeles TV crew—on a rare visit to the state capital—asking the usual questions: Who’s up? Who’s down?
But Weintraub, now a regular talking head on MSNBC, is also a minor celebrity for another reason: He’s the guy who inspired the Free Dan Weintraub (FDW) movement among bloggers. For the uninitiated and hopelessly behind-the-times, Weblogs, more commonly known as “blogs,” are journal-style Web pages where people post whatever random thoughts run through their heads. Most bloggers are just regular folks, but the medium is being increasingly adopted by journalists, including Weintraub, who’ve found it to be useful when the news moves faster than the machinations of producing a daily newspaper.
Bee brass decided last month to edit Weintraub’s blog before posting it on the Net, and the decision drove other bloggers insane. Their beef was that blogs are supposed to be spontaneous, as Weintraub noted in his first post. For journalism, both print and online, the idea of a columnist blogging was a relative novelty. It’s an untested balancing act that contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of the old world of print journalism, where established media institutions sanction what runs, and the Web’s new frontier, where anyone who can type can publish anything, anytime.
“I’m kind of an experiment to see if the traditional media can use this new technique to add something to what we’ve been offering,” Weintraub said. “It’s more timely and spontaneous; it can be more conversational and chatty.” That’s what newspapers are missing as they transition to a more electronic environment, he said, and it’s what they need to do to keep their readership.
Weintraub said being edited isn’t anything close to the definition of censorship, which is what some of his defenders have labeled it.
“Every column I’ve ever written for the Bee has been reviewed in advance, though almost none of them have been changed in any substantive way,” he said, adding that the blog initially went unedited to make it as spontaneous and immediate as possible. “It wasn’t really about controversial content. It was a logistics issue.”
Weintraub wouldn’t discuss the behind-the-scenes newsroom politics of the decision, or the resulting fallout of being edited, other than to say that he doesn’t like seeing his paper get dragged through the mud and that he doesn’t need liberating.
“I appreciate the Free Dan Weintraub movement,” he said, “but I don’t feel like I’m in bondage.”
Bee Ombudsman Tony Marcano, the paper’s independent ambassador between readers and writers, talked to Weintraub and didn’t get the feeling he was peeved. “I didn’t get that impression,” Marcano said. “He thinks it makes his job more difficult, but he didn’t say to me ‘Boy, this stinks.’ He said it’s not impossible to do a blog this way, but it makes it more difficult.”
Weintraub had been happily blogging away on the Bee Web site since April, when he turned his daily California Insider e-mail dispatch into a blog updated several times a day. At the start, Weintraub noted, “I am hoping that the combination produces the best of both worlds and not the worst.”
As interest in the recall exploded, so did interest in Weintraub’s blog, which had 278,000 page views in September, according to a Bee spokesperson.
Weintraub’s blog was about politics, but not the sober policy-oriented stuff of his print column. Instead, it was a place to run tidbits he dug up in the course of reporting, think-out-loud musings or just links to interesting articles. In keeping with the informal and spontaneous nature of the blogosphere, as the output of bloggers is collectively known, Weintraub posted his thoughts as quickly as they entered his head, without an editor looking over his shoulder. Enter Bustmont.
Last month, in an item on the flap-of-the-day topic of Cruz Bustamante’s one-time membership to MEChA, a Mexican-American student group critics call separatist, Weintraub opined that the gubernatorial wannabe rose to become Assembly speaker because of his ethnicity and support from other Latinos. “If his name had been Charles Bustmont rather than Cruz Bustamante, he would have finished his legislative career as an anonymous back-bencher.” The post went on to criticize the Latino Caucus for putting the politics of ethnicity obsession before the interests of Latino people.
The Latino Caucus fired off an angry letter, and the next thing the blogosphere knew, Weintraub had been placed under the watchful eye of an editor. Marcano, the ombudsman, revealed the new arrangement in a September 21 column, and within hours, the FDW movement was all over, spread most visibly and angrily by uber-blogger Mickey Kaus of MSN’s Slate.com.
“The whole point of blogging,” Kaus wrote, “is that you get someone’s take right now, when it can make a difference. What if Weintraub has a good idea at 7:30 p.m. and the editors have gone home?” Editing Weintraub, he said, was a “large, embarrassing mistake.”
Some bloggers remained neutral, insisting it didn’t matter as long as Weintraub could still write what he wanted. But words like “muzzled” and “silenced” kept getting mentioned by fans of “the most important weblog about the recall.”
“I vehemently oppose this,” wrote one blogger. “It ignores the entire point of blogging.”
“This is ludicrous,” grumbled another.
“They should be ashamed,” complained yet another.
A week later, Marcano corrected the record in another column, saying Weintraub’s boss, Editorial Page Editor David Holwerk, had started editing the Insider blog before the Latino Caucus or anyone else complained about the Bustmont entry.
Holwerk explained the reasoning behind the decision. “I looked at it,” he said, “and thought that had it been a column that had it run in the paper, I would have edited it, talked to him, asked him to recast it in some ways—not because of what he said but because of some of the language and terminology.” Making a point with ethnic names, the editor cautioned, will blow up on you.
Holwerk assured SN&R that he hasn’t changed anything of substance since he started editing Weintraub’s blog and that Weintraub has subsequently taken the powerful Latino Caucus to task for hyper-ethnic politics.
David Jensen, who spent two decades as an editor at the Bee until retiring in 1998 and was inspired by the recall to start his own blog, The Condor, said it remains to be seen if the Bee made the right decision. Jensen said Weintraub can be trusted because he’s one of the best around, but he’d still edit Weintraub if it were Jensen’s call.
Dallas Morning News editorial writer Rod Dreher, one of the pioneers of newspaper blogging, frowned on the policy of editing blogs. “The blog wouldn’t work that way,” he said. “It would be so laborious. It seems to me the essence of blogging is that it relies on the quick hit, the short take, and it’s more like talk radio than the editorial page.”
Dreher started blogging at National Review, where he said the blog was a popular feature. Last year, when he came to the Morning News, Dreher and his boss, Editorial Page Editor Keven Ann Willey, cooked up the idea of an editorial page blog and later became one of the first, if not the first, large daily paper to try something like that. “We just post,” Dreher said. “Keven has told us that she wants us to be as free as possible.” Dreher called the Bee editing policy a mistake. “If we had to submit all of our entries for approval before they got posted, it would cut down greatly on the number of posts we could do,” he said. “It would smother the blog.”
Outsiders still see a muzzling.
“It turns out,” Kaus taunted, “that Weintraub wasn’t saddled with a minder to placate PC forces in the state legislature enraged by this ‘Bustmont’ crack, because he’d already been saddled with a minder to placate PC forces within the Bee’s own newsroom enraged by the ‘Bustmont’ crack!”
Marcano’s second explanation didn’t please the angry bloggers, who’d already clogged his inbox with more than 75 e-mails. “One of the things that is pretty universal in the responses that I’m getting,” Marcano said, “is that there’s this automatic assumption that editing means censorship or muzzling. It can mean that, but I don’t think it does in this case.”
Whatever the Bee does, it doesn’t look like bloggers will be satisfied until Weintraub answers to no one. Kaus continued to twist the knife last week in an item highlighting the disadvantage “of requiring bloggers to obtain editorial pre-clearance” by pointing out that, after they got the same e-mailed tip, Weintraub posted the news four hours later than Kaus.
Meanwhile, Holwerk said the Bee’s going to keep tinkering with how it uses the Net. “I think we’ll continue to experiment with a variety of ways to do things online,” he said. The editorial board recently kicked off its own blog—and it’s getting edited, too. Though The Dallas Morning News was first with a blog by editorial writers, few papers have tried that approach, which remains largely untested.
Dreher, of The Dallas Morning News, said it took a while for editorial writers to get used to blogging. One post about the Ku Klux Klan didn’t go over well, so it was taken down.
“There are newspapers,” said the Bee’s Holwerk, “that are trying this sort of thing, and there’s no uniformity in it, no industry standard of how to do it. People are feeling their way along.”
Including, most notably, the Bee.