Something happened in journalism two weeks ago that I want to examine before we all forget about it and election season rolls on.
On December 8, Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed and before that a political reporter, wrote a memo to his staff that he made public. This is a screenshot of the memo:
The same day, NBC Nightly News broadcast what could only be called an editorial or “column” by Tom Brokaw, although it was not described that way by NBC. Lester Holt simply tossed to Brokaw, the face of the brand for 22 years as lead anchor at NBC, for what Holt called “reflections” and “some perspective” on Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. (Watch.)
“Trump’s statement, even in a season of extremes, is a dangerous proposal that overrides history, the law and the foundation of America itself,” Brokaw said, speaking directly into the camera. “In my lifetime alone, we have been witness to the consequences of paranoia overriding reason.”
As CNN’s Dylan Byers reported on Dec. 10:
With Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, several of the nation’s most esteemed journalists and influential news outlets have set aside traditional notions of balance and given themselves license to label the Republican front-runner a liar, a demagogue, a racist and worse… news organizations are abandoning concerns about impartiality and evenhandedness and stating what they believe are objective truths about the Republican’s most popular presidential candidate.
“What Trump is doing is wildly outside American traditions and values, and that’s what we’re covering and responding to and I think you see that across major media outlets,” Smith told CNN. “I’ve never seen a candidate base his campaign on vilifying a minority group. So it would be misleading to characterize it any other way.”
What happened here?
On one level it’s simple: Trump went too far. As David Folkenflik of NPR put it on Dec. 11, Trump has been making pronouncements and taking positions “that are increasingly alien to mainstream American thought.” His proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. was denounced by leading Republicans (including Paul Ryan, speaker of the House) as well as Democrats, so journalists could feel comfortable joining in the condemnations. End of story.
But this tells us something about what Byers called “traditional notions of balance.” They are only partly about lending fairness and a sense of proportion to news reports. As journalism scholars have been observing since the 1970s, the practices that are variously known as “objectivity,” or in political coverage “neutrality” — or, as Folkenflik put it, the “non-ideological” approach — as well as workplace rules against expressing an opinion on social media… these practices have purposes beyond rendering the world in an accurate and truthful way.
Ben Smith in his memo referenced “the need not to needlessly undermine the work of reporters on the beat.” What is he talking about there? Well, reporters covering the presidential campaigns need certain things from those campaigns: information, interviews, phone calls returned, a minimal level of cooperation. If a stray comment on social media from a Buzzfeed staffer on a wholly different beat persuades the communications staff for a presidential campaign that Buzzfeed is “against” their candidate, that would amount to “needlessly undermining” the political reporter who has to deal day-to-day with those people. The reporter can protest: hey, I have always been fair with you. But the candidate’s people can answer: your publication is biased, look at this comment on social media. What does the reporter say then?
It may sound trivial but it’s exactly this, what people “can say” — for which there is no effective reply — that accounts for a lot of the rules and procedures that journalists associate with “credibility,” a term with no precise meaning that has outsized importance in their internal deliberations, and their automatic thinking.
Vulnerable to criticism
The way scholars of journalism look at these events is different. In 1972 sociologist Gaye Tuchman published her (justly) famous article, “Objectivity as strategic ritual.” In it she analyzed the behavior of journalists, whom she called newsmen, working within hierarchies that had to reproduce a report on the state of the world every 24 hours. Whereas a sociologist could take six months to study a situation, assemble the data, and draft a report, the journalist had to complete this act in a single day, often under enormous pressure.
Inevitably mistakes happen. The most serious of these could lead to a libel suit, which in turn could threaten the entire enterprise. There were editors charged with removing mistakes, and checking up on reporters in the field, but they too were human, and also under pressure. On top of that, the product that these “newsmen” made — news — was destined for wide distribution, including people who knew a lot more about the story than the reporter ever could.
A situation like this was made for second guessing. The city editor second guessed the beat reporter. The managing editor second guessed the city editor. The informed reader second guessed the editors. (And the ignorant reader too!)
Improvised, imperfect, incomplete, telling of events that are still in motion, but then broadcast widely, the daily news report was vulnerable to criticism on a hundred and one counts. This vulnerability had to be managed somehow, the risks of it systematically reduced. In Tuchman’s eyes, that’s what “objectivity” in newsrooms was: a way of coping with the criticism that was sure to descend on a product that was hastily made.
The people who made it needed some kind of protection against charges that would inevitably come their way: that they didn’t know what they were talking about, that they were unqualified to say what was true, that they misunderstood. And today of course we would add: that they are biased, “against us,” part of an opposing camp. Tuchman in 1972 wrote:
The newsmen cope with these dangers by emphasizing “objectivity,” arguing that dangers can be minimized if newsmen follow strategies of newswork they identify with “objective stories.” They assume that, if every reporter gathers and structures “facts” in a detached, unbiased, impersonal manner, deadlines will be met and libel suits avoided.
Probably the best example of a “strategic ritual” that meets the journalist’s vulnerability to criticism and provides a veneer of objectivity is the use of quotation to say: Hey, I’m not saying this is true, but it is definitely a fact that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said today when he met with reporters….
Bring it on
Which brings us back to Trump and his “plan” to ban Muslims who are not already citizens from entering the United States. The ritual would say: report what Trump said, report what his critics said in reply, let people draw their own conclusions. And many news organizations did exactly that. But others made a different call: Objectively speaking, Trump is a racist and if you work for us you are free to say that. (Buzzfeed) Objectively speaking, this is a dangerous proposal that goes against what America is about. (NBC News) They didn’t think they were vulnerable to criticism for calling him out. Or they didn’t care. Of course there is a big difference between those two.
Trying to protect yourself against criticism, against what people “can say…” is perhaps understandable — Gaye Tuchman understood it exceptionally well in 1972 — but that does not make it legitimate.
A different approach would be to accept with equanimity: Yes, as journalists charged with reporting things that are complex and still in motion we are uniquely vulnerable to criticism. Bring it on! Protection will come from being specialists in verification who are allergic to any party line. Accountability journalism blows “balance” out of the water. Intellectual honesty is far more important than a ritualized objectivity. Recover your voice and people will have reason to listen. But journalists must listen also, and stand ready to correct.
During that odd interval, December 8-11 of 2015, we caught a small glimpse of a different press. To let it fade would be an error in pressthink that I cannot in good conscience allow my readers to make.