A weird incident over the weekend demonstrates the potential problems of institutional blogging. Matt Yglesias wrote a rather innocuous, inside-baseball post arguing that, although it’s “a neat organization,” Third Way is “incrementalist” (not to mention excrementalist) and is really “messaging and political tactics outfit” rather than a think tank. Out of nowhere, the blog was commandeered Sunday night by Jennifer Palmieri, acting CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, for a special note saying Matty doesn’t always represent CAP and that CAP thinks Third Way is super duper.
Not at all surprisingly, the first post got a handful of comments, most having little to do with the topic at hand, whilst the second got a storm of angry responses. Julian Sanchez is “impressed” because “In something like six years of blogging, this may be the most spectacular act of institutional tone deafness I’ve seen.” Indeed.
CAP employs Matt to write a blog for them and, contrary to the views of some commenters, it’s absurd to expect that they should simply let him post whatever he feels like posting. Institutions start blogs with the purpose of advancing their institutional agenda. Writing for CAP is different from writing for a general interest magazine or on one’s own space, both of which Matt did previously.
At the same time, Palmieri’s handling of this was hamhanded. She should simply have taken Matt aside after his post and let him know he’d crossed a line. Like any other institution, CAP has some toes that it can’t afford to step on. They just need to tell their writers where the boundaries are and they can then decide whether they can live with those restrictions.
Brendan Nyhan is worried:
There’s no way that this sort of reaction won’t create a chilling effect on Yglesias. How could he not think twice about criticizing Third Way or other CAP partners in the future? It’s the reason we need smart bloggers like him at independent outlets like The Atlantic that won’t enforce a party line.
But maybe Matt wants to be more than a pundit? Working at CAP allows him to be at the periphery of shaping policy in a way that’s much harder than at even a prestige venue like The Atlantic. But straddling that fence imposes constraints that don’t exist on a personal blog. One presumes, for example, that we’re not going to see any “John Podesta is really screwing the pooch on Obama’s transition team” posts. [UPDATE: Dan Drezner makes the same point in a different way: "Way too many bloggers are giving Yglesias a pass on this. He is the one who chose to move from the Atlantic to CAP, and he did so because he wanted to advance a political agenda rather than continue to be an observer on the sidelines."]
If he’s forced to toe the CAP party line on issues, regardless of what he believes, that’s problematic. But I’ve been reading Matt’s work since he was an undergraduate at Harvard. His style’s evolved over the years as he’s matured as both a writer and a person but I haven’t noticed any significant shift in his analysis from his various moves.
UPDATE: After half a day of ignoring the problem while his commenters turned every thread into a tyrade on the Third Way putsch, Matt strikes back with “Third Way’s First 100 Days: Retirement Security Edition,” wherein he asserts that “Third Way’s First 100 Days agenda strikes me as pretty weak tea” and proceeds to explain why. We’ll see if his tongue-in-cheek disclaimer will suffice to keep the Third Way hounds at bay. Thus far, the appetite of the commenters for vengeance has not been slaked.
UPDATE: Jeffrey Goldberg is a real smartass.