The Washington Post’s Descent Into Middle School Antics
And why we're building something new.
Let me tell you a story about the middle-school antics currently playing out at a once-great newspaper. It goes a long way toward explaining why we started Common Sense and why we think it’s so essential.
It began with a joke. Actually, it was a retweet of a joke. The Washington Post’s politics reporter David Weigel retweeted the following joke this past Friday: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.” I know what you’re thinking: Call the police on this man immediately.
I smirked when I read it. Not a full laugh, but a chuckle. Weigel apologized for the “offensive joke” later the same day: “I apologize and did not mean to cause any harm,” he said.
But it was already too late.
His colleague, Felicia Sonmez, had seized on the tweet, starting a public shaming of Weigel as a sexist. She’s spent the past few days reposting others calling her a hero; slamming one colleague who was silly enough to defend Weigel; posting about that colleague and tagging the bosses. Oh, and throwing editors under the bus (repeatedly).
Never mind collegiality or handling minor disputes privately. Never mind that Weigel quickly took down the post and apologized for the poor taste. Never mind that they were friends and he had signed onto a petition in support of her as she geared up to sue the paper for discrimination (that suit was dismissed with prejudice by a D.C. judge in March). It was David Weigel’s time to be punished.
“I have long considered Dave a good friend,” Sonmez wrote. “It’s painful and confusing when friends say and do things that are wrong, and makes it all the more uncomfortable to call them out—even though it’s necessary to do so.”
The Post’s response on Monday was not to chide Sonmez for indiscretion, or to suggest a Twitter time-out, but to suspend David Weigel for a month without pay.
By now we know how this will play out: There will be an investigation announced, or some other social slight from years ago will mysteriously emerge, or the crowd that chooses to spend their days mobbing people online won’t move on to their next target fast enough, and this story will linger. In the end, Weigel will either resign, or his enemies at the paper will find a way to demote him, or his name will be tarnished such that this “scandal” will continue to be used against him whenever it’s convenient.
Amazingly, this story competed with another Post drama from the weekend: The paper issued three corrections to a story by the technology columnist Taylor Lorenz, which still contains at least one obvious falsehood. The paper claims that Lorenz reached out to a source for comment, which the source says she didn’t do, and Lorenz later admitted she didn’t do (but the story still contains the lie). Even a CNN media reporter said it was “weird WaPo can’t get this basic detail straight.” Lorenz freaked out about CNN noting the correction debacle and said that doing so was “irresponsible & dangerous.” Yes: Dangerous!
So let’s get this straight: at the paper that cracked wide open the biggest presidential scandal in history, the paper that has long defined great political reporting, the paper of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee and David Broder, journalists lie and publicly attack their colleagues and remain comfortably in their positions. And a reporter is suspended without pay for a retweet.
I kept feeling that tension even months after I left when I would, among other embarrassing habits, regularly derail dinner party conversations full of good, well-adjusted people by telling stories full of arcane references to internal politics between mid-level reporters they had never heard of.
This was not fun for my friends, as my wife patiently explained. It didn’t make me happy. And it was also, I came to realize, a total mug’s game.
To finally leave old media required me to confront some realities. Among them: The Washington Post is not the same place that broke Watergate, and The New York Times isn’t the same place that got the Pentagon Papers.
It’s not that the excellent, old-school reporters aren’t there. They are. They just don’t—or can’t—control the culture.
Partly that’s because of weakness and cowardice at the top of the masthead. Partly it’s because you can pretty much guarantee the kind of worldview you’re going to get when you hire journalists pedigreed by Harvard and Brown and Yale. They tend to think almost exactly the same way about almost every situation—and Twitter only reinforces the groupthink.
So whether the staffers and editors at places like the Times and the Post ignored the riots of summer 2020 while genuflecting to the lunatic idea that op-eds are violence because they were true believers in the new dogma or because they were careerists or because they were just plain scared only meant that some of them broke your heart more than others.
But knowing that wasn’t enough to untether me, even after I left. The real way I finally left old media is through the thrill of building something new.
The moment I began this publication was the moment everything changed for me. As someone who was used to sitting in the bleachers with the other critics, I finally understood what all that talk about building new things was about. I’m making something that I am proud of with people I admire. People I respect value it enough that they are willing to pay for it to make sure it exists in the world. For me, all of this has been a revelation.
As we’ve been building this new company, we’ve seen the decay of the old institutions accelerate. I look at CNN+, which shut down after just 21 days. The streamer, hyped nonstop by CNN, spent $300 million—or $14,285,714.29 per day. In the end, 150,000 Americans signed up, with an average of 10,000 people watching any content each day. (By comparison, we have more than 180,000 people that receive this newsletter. We did not spend $300 million to achieve this.) Or I look at Spotify, and remember they paid the Obamas $25 million in 2019 to make some podcasts, little of which has had any impact. Or Buzzfeed, which is now basically a penny stock, trading at $2.23 a share.
What’s going on here?
Two key things, as I see it, though there are surely more. One is a problem of over-abundance. The other is a problem of scarcity.
Start with the too-muchness: content overload. Namely, too many subscriptions, too much money, too much time.
When I started my career at the Wall Street Journal, the question every op-ed editor would ask before we published a piece was: Is this worth printing several hundred thousand times (literally)? Is it worth it?
I’m not sure that question is asked so much anymore.
The first and most important thing newspapers and other serious news organizations do is curate. They decide what's newsworthy. They decide what is worth the readers’ time, what they should see first and above-the-fold, what can be relegated to the B section, which plays and movies and books are worth reviewing.
But the round-the-clock news cycle has undermined that discipline. It’s expanded the time available for broadcasting (from a set hour every night to 24/7 plus digital), while the shift to the web has greatly expanded the space for stories (it’s now infinite, or something close to it). News organizations no longer only report what’s newsworthy, because they no longer really have to. In fact, they are incentivized to publish as much as they can. To push. The endless river of push notifications—which originally began about breaking news and is now used for items about tertiary British royals—is invasive and profit-seeking.
And as soon as you start to look outside the legacy press, you find yourself facing down a tsunami of new brands and new names—and always new subscriptions. It has put the burden of curation on every single one of us. If you are a lawyer or a doctor or anyone that doesn’t live online for a living, it is a wildly unrealistic expectation.
As a person who never owned a cord to cut, I lately find myself nostalgic for the bundle I never had. I’m hemorrhaging money on newsletters and Patreons and streamers—including one for Paramount+ that I have used exactly one time to watch Meghan Markle pretend she never googled Prince Harry.
So that’s the first major problem: There are too many subscriptions that add up to too much money and take far too much time.
What there’s too little of—and here is the second unignorable problem—is trust.
A huge and growing audience of Americans no longer believes the stories the establishment media tells. This has been building for years, decades maybe, and now that skepticism, that irritation with the “liberal press,” has morphed into a gag reflex: tens of millions of readers and watchers who once took for granted that you could more or less depend on The Times or CBS or even CNN to report the facts, to give it to you straight, don’t think that anymore. Their breaking points were different—maybe it was dismissing the Trump phenomenon as a joke; or calling the lab leak theory misinformation; or maybe it was seeing reporters act like mean girls on social media. The upshot is that they are out of trust.
This loss is nothing to celebrate. I would love to live in a world where I trusted what I read in the paper.
I’m not betting on things changing soon though—and neither are other Americans, who have started to find people to trust in unlikely places. And while it’s true that Joe Rogan and the newsletter crowd don’t (yet) own the cultural high ground, I think we offer something that Americans find profoundly valuable: authenticity.
When I started Common Sense, it wasn’t necessarily to solve these two problems—time and trust—but now I see it as core to our mission.
Here’s why I think it’s worked so far:
We’re unowned: No media boss tells us which one of his enemies we must go out and attack today, or what the overarching narrative of our stories is going to be. We’re accountable to ourselves and our subscribers. We got into this gig to pursue the truth—and that is why people pay to get this little email in their inboxes. That’s the job. We think it’s a privilege to do it.
We’re unaffiliated: We don’t have any allegiance to one particular political party or persuasion.
We’re unafraid: Reporting on the world as it actually is—and not as The Narrative would like it to be—was once a journalistic ideal. Now it’s a liability. Here at Common Sense it’s a job requirement. This may be why we’re making an impact: The Fifth and Sixth Circuit Courts have recently cited Common Sense stories, and the likes of The New York Times, The Economist and, yes, The Washington Post have followed our reporting.
And we respect you: We treat you like adults. Not just by telling you about the world as it actually is, but by respecting your precious time. If the best journalism right now is fractured between hundreds of Twitter feeds, newsletters and podcasts, making it impossible for normal, busy people to discover it, we ultimately want to bring it all together in one place. We want to be your algorithm.
At Common Sense, we spend our days searching for stories and finding voices across the world who have something to say that we believe is worth your time. We bring them to Common Sense to report and write, and we invite them onto our podcast, Honestly. We assign stories. We issue corrections. We offer our considered thoughts on the news of the day. In many ways, it’s all completely traditional, but the traditional approach has become wildly radical these days. Ours is the publication we wished existed but somehow didn’t before we built it.
I’m glad I stopped complaining and started this thing. I’m a lot more fun at dinner, and I don’t have to worry about being fired for a retweet.