Correcting the Record

Yesterday, Chuck C. Johnson made me the subject of one of his rambling, fact-challenged assaults on the media. It happens. Unfortunately, in mocking Johnson, I made an error, and I want to correct it here.

Short version: In a post ostensibly about why I was re-hired by The Washington Post, Johnson attempted to explain why I had praised his obsessive reporting in 2013, but become a critic since then.

The real answer is simple: I thought Johnson did some amazing spelunking on stories in early 2013, especially on the resume of key Republican aide making the case for bombing Syria. His obsessive digging produced facts that eluded other reporters. I praised his work, and at the time, the praise was warranted.

Unfortunately, Johnson appeared to take a running leap off the deep end with a run of vicious and false “investigations” — starting with a laughably bogus story about whether the mayor of Newark actually lived there, peaking with the personal harassment of New York Times reporters. (Johnson printed their home addresses out of pique that they mentioned the neighborhood that Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson lived in, an abhorrent act that he actually brags about in this same post, which I’m not linking to.)

That’s my answer: Johnson did some good stuff then turned rotten. Johnson’s alternate answer is that I am “mentally ill.” He sums it up in a sentence that made me laugh out loud. “GotNews.com did some research on Weigel and found a history of mental illness–which makes sense.”

That “research” consists of a link to a story I wrote about my history of depression for Slate, in August 2014, after the suicide of Robin Williams. It’s been shared on Facebook more than a thousand times and shared on Twitter almost as often. Sorry for the brag; it’s just a sign of how far Johnson has tumbled that googling a well-read article is now his “research.” I self-institutionalized in 2002, and have treated my depression ever since. I’m proud of that, not ashamed.

On Twitter, which Johnson has been banned from since May, I chided the “report” and got some friendly responses. I told Becket Adams, a reporter for the Washington Examiner, that Johnson’s exploitation of my depression was strange because, when cornered, he’s accused critics of cruelty to people with disorders.

On his website, Johnson (rightly) points out that I misspelled “Aspergers,” the calls this “malicious falsehood,” as he has “never had” that particular syndrome. My apologies. I was misremembering something else: How Johnson excused the publication of a false and defamatory article by claiming that he is on the autism spectrum and does not get jokes.

That started in January 2014, when Johnson published a strange hit piece on the New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick. After Kirkpatrick published an exhaustive story about the circumstances of the September 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Johnson published a story titled “Benghazi reporter Kirkpatrick showed off his naked body at Princeton.” (Please don’t stop to think about what that had to do with Benghazi. You’ll sprain something) Johnson dug up old articles about Kirkpatrick’s participation in a campus streak, and in a nude art project, then claimed that the future Timesman had posed for Playgirl.

It took no time at all to find the source of that last claim — an obviously satirical edition of the Princeton Daily News. Johnson had run satire as a “scoop.” Over e-mail, I asked Johnson how he missed this, and he explained that he simply did not understand some humor. “I am rather notorious for not understanding sarcasm or satire and I am deeply embarrassed by the whole article,” he wrote. (The whole e-mail is up at that Slate link.)

Johnson never wrote for The Daily Caller again. But months later, when the Kirkpatrick debacle or my name came up on Twitter, Johnson had a new reason for his face-plant. Johnson’s Twitter account has been deleted, but Tom Kludt captured a representative tweet from July 2014.

“Weigel posted this story he did on how my autism caused me to miss humor in a parody issue,” Johnson tweeted. “He leaves out apology.”

Later that year, when reporters profiled Johnson’s role as a relentless social media troll, he repeated this detail.

“Johnson told me that he has trouble recognizing satire because he is mildly autistic,” reported Tim Murphy in Mother Jones.

“In interviews and on Twitter, Johnson has attributed some of his lapses to being ‘neuroatypical’—that is, on the autism spectrum,” reported Jacob Silverman in Politico.

“Maybe it’s because of my weird autistic tendencies but I tend to find joining tribes boring,” Johnson told Business Insider.

That was what I was trying to recall, late on a Friday night. I do apologize for referring to Johnson’s self-diagnosed “autism” as “Aspergers,” which is a specific autism spectrum disorder. Yet Johnson did not tell me anything about autism when I wrote my January 2014. For more than a year, he insisted that I had cruelly exploited his autism and failed to apologize for it. Then, when it served him, he decided that “mental illness” was a perfectly good reason to attack someone personally.

I don’t feel attacked, frankly. But I should work on my spelling. It’s important if people are thinking of publishing your work — fortunately, a problem that Johnson no longer has.