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Meyer Responds To "Weirdo" Complaints

A column I published on has earned me voluminous scorn and vitriol. Somewhat happily and certainly interestingly, condemnation has come in roughly equal portions from the left and the right.

Actually, it was just the opening sentence that so irritated bloggers, commenters and e-mailers. Here are the offending words:

This is a story I should have written 12 years ago when the "Contract with America" Republicans captured the House in 1994. I apologize.

Really, it's just a simple thesis: The men who ran the Republican Party in the House of Representatives for the past 12 years were a group of weirdos. Together, they comprised one of the oddest legislative power cliques in our history. And for 12 years, the media didn't call a duck a duck, because that's not something we're supposed to do.

A writer on the Daily Kos called "Numerian" is typical of the incoming fire from the left, furious that I withheld the truth for 12 years:
In an extraordinary confession of journalistic failure, editor Dick Meyer reveals that the House Republican leadership for the past 12 years were a bunch of weirdos and misfits unfit for public office…

What are American journalists supposed to do when they are face to face, day after day, with hypocrisy and deceit in our nation's Congress? What excuse does an editorial writer have for not revealing these dangerous weaknesses to his readers? ...

We here in the 99 percent of the population do not see these politicians up close. We don't meet every day with politicians, staffers, consultants and reporters, who with "few dissenters" universally accepted your thesis that Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, Dick Armey, Dennis Hastert and others were morally, ethically, and politically flawed and destructive people.

We count on you - Dick Meyer - as editor of a major American news room - to act on our behalf. When you have so much evidence in hand that serious damage is being done to American political discourse, to the role and reputation of the Congress, to the very concept of good government - it is your job to tell us. And not 12 years later when they are finally out of power.

How convenient you have found religion now that these weirdos, hypocrites, and psychopaths no longer run the House of Representatives.

A fairly typical crack from the right came to my inbox from someone named Jeff Clark:
Nice article on Newt. Coming from a known bleeding heart d*****-bag like yourself it was especially touching to read your self righteous indictment of Gingrich. Meyer, your bias is showing. Now be a good Democrat and go abort something.
So some on the left are mad that I didn't call "a duck a duck" 12 years ago and some on the right are mad that I would call Gingrich and others "weirdos."

The question of why would I wait 12 years to issue my judgment also led Editor & Publisher to ask, "Still, in the end, one is left with: If this was so clear and compelling, why didn't CBS News and others say so years ago?"

It's a legitimate question that probably would not have come up if I had written the opening of my column more carefully. I should have taken more time to explain what I meant.

I didn't have a column 12 years ago, so I had no forum to editorialize.

More importantly, even in commentary, calling someone a "weirdo" is not something to be done lightly or frequently if you want to retain credibility. Judging a group to be a bunch of weirdos is entirely subjective and not really subject to rigorous argument. Making that kind of judgment is what I meant when I said "that's not something we're supposed to do." Calling someone a weirdo is very different than pointing out hypocrisies, lies, policy contradictions or corruptions. I was trying to emphasize that difference, and the sense that I was deviating from standard practice in writing about weirdos. I did think what I was saying about the quirkiness of this group was accurate, interesting and serious. I should have been more explicit in setting it up.

Now, should I have shared my personal judgment on the character and psychology of Gingrich & Co. earlier? Sure, once I had a column I could have, but I'm not sure there is a "should" involved. My judgment on such things is just not that important. Still, the column did hit a nerve and that's probably a sign it might have been valuable to have written about this earlier. On the other hand, if you go around calling people weirdos all the time, serious readers go away quickly.

Since I've had the column, I have certainly written plenty of columns about the policies and public activities of the House Republicans and they are archived and available. That seems much more important in the end.

To defend myself a bit more, in the 1990s I was a reporter for CBS News, not a columnist. I actually did quite a bit of investigating reporting about new Gingrich's finances, organizations and record. I think that was far more important than sharing my judgment that he and his close allies were weirdos in my book.

The criticism from the right didn't pose any new issues, just more of the same: any criticism or lack of support for Republicans is proof of liberal bias.

The shrillness of criticism from both sides doesn't surprise me any more; it is what too much political argument has become. Everything is an emotional Rorschach test. But I do wish I had written the top of last week's column more carefully.

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