When paraphrase doesn't make sense: Rightly or wrong, Jonathan Weisman has been demoted from his position at the New York Times. Basically, he's been demoted on a morals charge—on a charge of repeated racist tweeting.
In yesterday's Washington Post, Paul Farhi tried to explain what happened. In our view, Farhi is routinely sensible and competent. That makes his attempt to explain Weisman's misconduct intriguing.
What exactly did Weisman say that got him in such hot water? This is the way Farhi began—and this doesn't exactly make sense:
FARHI (8/14/19): The New York Times demoted one of its Washington editors on Tuesday as punishment for sparking controversy last week with tweets about Democratic members of Congress and for a related run-in with an author.Just for the record, Rep. Tlaib doesn't "actually represent the Midwest." Neither does Rep. Omar.
The editor, Jonathan Weisman, came under fire for tweets questioning whether Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) actually represented the Midwest and whether Reps. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.) represented the Deep South, given that their districts are primarily urban and heavily minority.
Tlaib represents Michigan's 13th congressional district. In a similar sense. Rep. Lewis doesn't "represent the Deep South." According to the Constitution, he doesn't represent a region; he represents one particular congressional district.
It may sound like we're splitting hairs; in a way, that's exactly the point. You see, Farhi is an experienced, competent professional writer. As a general matter, he knows how to compose clear, concise, accurate statements—statements which are neither slightly puzzling nor slightly off-key and off-kilter.
In yesterday's report, the account of this matter with which he began didn't exactly make clear, concise sense. As he continued, we began to hear Weisman's words of defense, and we learned of the overall charge:
FARHI (continuing directly): Weisman said he was questioning whether the districts truly reflected the broader politics of their regions, which are predominantly white and more rural. He deleted the tweets after they were roundly criticized as racist.Hmm. According to Weisman, he had been tryin to make what sounds like a fairly obvious point—the districts those four people represent aren't typical of the wider regions in which the districts are located.
All in all, that would be a fairly obvious point. For the record, Doggett represents a district in Austin, which is often said to be unlike the rest of Texas. Again for the record, Weinstein referred to Doggett's district within the broader context of the state of Texas. He didn't make any comment about Doggett's connection to "the deep South."
At any rate, the larger charge against Weisman turns out to have been "racism." The problem for Weisman began with those tweets about Tlaib, Omar, Lewis and Doggett.
That said, it's amusing to see the difficulty various journalists have had explaining just what Weisman said which was so offensive. Here's Rebecca Fishbein's paraphrase in Jezebel:
"Weisman’s (rather small) fall began late last month, when he tweeted out a wild thread suggesting that people of color from cities don’t represent the areas they’re from."
According to Fishbein's snarky account, Weisman suggested that Tlaib, Omar and Lewis "don't represent the areas they're from." Once again, we're not entirely sure what that's supposed to mean, and we might as well note that Rep. Doggett, who rounded out The Weisman Four, isn't a "person of color." The fellow is old and he's "white."
What in the world did Weisman say which started all the trouble? In what way did his original tweet call up a "racism" charge?
We have no view on Weisman's overall work, but it seems to us that his initial offense was no real offense at all. In that sense, this intriguing hubbub may shine some light on the way our progressive politics (and journalism) often work at this time.
We'll return to this topic in the coming days. But did Jonathan Weisman really question whether Tlaib and Omar "actually represent the Midwest?"
Did he really suggest that "people of color from cities" (plus one white guy) "don’t represent the areas they’re from," whatever that might mean? And if he did make some such suggestion, what would be wrong with that? Is Tlaib supposed to represents the views of militia groups on the Upper Peninsula?
A final question: Since these people don't represent entire regions—since they don't even exactly represent the (vaguer) "areas they're from"—is it possible that a person could say some such thing without requiring a bristling response in the form of an R-bomb?
Farhi is a cool, clear, competent writer; Fishbein writes for a publication which stresses snark and excitement. But what exactly did Weisman tweet, and was it really racist?
These writers' attempts at paraphrase don't exactly seem to make sense. Were they struggling to stay in line with a murky charge—a charge we all agree to affirm on a tribal basis?
This episode is intriguing. We'll stumble forward from here.