The transformation of journalism that began with the political birth of Donald Trump has exploded into a full-blown crisis with the death of George Floyd.
It is, and I don’t say this lightly, a battle for the soul of the profession. And if you take a snapshot of this moment, those who believe in the old-fashioned notions of fairness and balance are losing.
That’s why the editorial page editor of the New York Times was forced out, that’s why the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer was forced out, and that’s why a vast swath of this country no longer trusts the media.
It’s easy to understand why black journalists, who a generation ago didn’t get to run papers like the Times or anchor many television shows, are filled with anger and passion over the systemic racism that showed its ugly face with Floyd’s killing. And having reported on civil rights, affirmative action and other issues for many years, I’ll readily concede that the white media power structure covered these issues sporadically and didn’t fully grasp the depth of frustration in the black community.
But a dangerous trend began when Trump ran for president, and it’s no accident that his views on immigration and other social issues were viewed by detractors as either flirting with racism or the real thing. Media critics began to write, and this intensified when he got to the White House, that perhaps journalists had a higher duty to oppose him, that just-the-facts reporting was now obsolete.
With their overwhelmingly negative coverage and caustic commentary, from a slew of scandals and controversies to impeachment and the coronavirus, the media increasingly came to be seen as part of the resistance. The culture rewarded their increasingly anti-Trump stance, which is shared by academics, entertainers and late-night comics. And these journalists would reassure themselves that this president is such an authoritarian figure, such a threat to democracy, that history demanded they toss out the old rulebook.
In the process, the roughly 40 percent of the country that supports Trump came to view the mainstream media as an arm of the Democratic Party. And the president was more than happy to demonize the business with his enemy-of-the-people rhetoric, fueling the us-versus-him atmosphere.
Now we're hearing many of the same arguments after nearly two weeks of nationwide protests, sometimes violent, even as four Minneapolis police officers have been charged in Floyd’s death. No responsible journalist supports racism or police brutality, but the sentiment that carried the day at the Times is that contrary opinions about handling the protests, such as that of Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, simply can’t be published because they hurt the cause.
James Bennet was ousted as the Times editorial page editor after he and Publisher A. G. Sulzberger eloquently defended the need to run contrary opinions such as Cotton’s, even if they are deemed “painful” or “dangerous,” as Bennet put it. They were right. But Sulzberger reversed himself under intense pressure from black and other staffers who denounced what was an online-only column by a United States senator who said the military could be brought in if urban riots were out of control. I don’t necessarily agree, but it's not a fringe view by a fringe figure.
At the Inquirer, Executive Editor Stan Wischnowski was pushed out after a 20-year career over an admittedly insensitive headline -- “Buildings Matter, Too” -- despite a quick and fulsome apology by the paper. The Inga Saffron column, while saying that black anger was justified after 400 years of oppression in America, argued that the destruction of downtown property would also permanently scar the city.
Protesting staffers wrote, and this is telling: “We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.”
Ben Smith, in a thoughtful Times column, says America’s biggest newsrooms “are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls.”
That’s the heart of the issue. “Moral calls” is a euphemism for political judgments, for taking a stand, for deciding which opinions are acceptable and which must be excluded.
Smith goes on to say that “the shift in mainstream American media — driven by a journalism that is more personal, and reporters more willing to speak what they see as the truth without worrying about alienating conservatives — now feels irreversible. It is driven in equal parts by politics, the culture and journalism’s business model, relying increasingly on passionate readers willing to pay for content rather than skittish advertisers.”
That candid admission reveals how high the stakes are. Perhaps, in this hyperpolarized era, news outlets can no longer sell themselves as objective arbiters and taking sides rings the cash register. But then it’s time to admit they are taking sides and drop the fig leaf of objectivity.
Bennet, a smart journalist and former Atlantic editor, didn’t help himself by failing to read the Cotton piece in advance. And Sulzberger made clear to his paper that the resignation wasn’t voluntary.
“We saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years,” he said. “Both of us concluded that James would not be able to lead the team through the next leg of change that is required.”
After Sulzberger initially defended the publication of Cotton’s online-only column, he used various rationales to explain why the paper was now denouncing it. One was that there were factual problems, although Cotton’s staff went through three drafts and questions that included fact-checking. The next was that its tone was “needlessly harsh.”
Would the same standard apply to the subsequent Bret Stephens column, “Donald Trump Is Our National Catastrophe”? Or to the subsequent Michelle Goldberg column, “Tom Cotton’s Fascist Op-Ed”? An argument by a United States senator that has majority support in the polls is now fascism? Or is the harshness label only slapped on columns that challenge the Times orthodoxy?
In her piece, Goldberg wrote that “there’s generally no way to defend the administration without being either bigoted or dishonest.” There you have it: there is no other side but the anti-Trump side, at least none that should be deemed fit to print.
News organizations have to choose whether they want to win back the confidence of the entire country or only publish material that appeals to the woke crowd. The racial tensions that have gripped the country turn on matters of life and death, and that put a harsh spotlight on how journalists are defining their future. The pretense isn’t working anymore.