It was 2005 when Bob Sipchen, then an editor at the Los Angeles Times, said at a public forum about bloggers and journalists that he had always thought of the LA Times as “a heavy battleship under steam, regarding its critics as no more important than swimmers in the water throwing dead fish at it.”
I begin with this almost surreal image from 15 years ago — newspaper as giant battleship moving slowly out of harbor, critics so impotent they can only toss dead fish at it — because it shows how much has changed for the people formerly known as newspaper journalists, and especially for the editors who try to steer these organizations. They have suffered a massive loss in power as the media and political worlds have changed around them.
To whom has this power gone?
To the tech platforms that have a stronger hold on the audience for news; they do a better job and charge a fairer price for targeted advertising. To the internet itself, which continues to disassemble the newspaper “bundle” into specialist sites that satisfy niche audiences. To the faux-populists preaching resentment politics who have turned the “liberal media” into their always-on hate object, accelerating a loss of trust in the journalism that big city newspapers once practiced with impunity.
Power has been lost to Fox News. And to the trolls, including the one in the White House. And to sources who can find a following without playing ball with the press.
Battleship Newspaper was built for a world that has largely vanished. That means a lot of ideas have to come down that are still standing, like statues from an earlier era. This is my primary takeaway from the events at the New York Times last week that resulted in the resignation of editorial page editor James Bennet, who was thought to be one of the favorites to replace executive editor Dean Baquet when Baquet retires. (He is 63.)
Bennet left because his opinion section published “Send in the Troops” by Republican Senator Tom Cotton. It argued for intervention by the U.S. military in response to a nationwide protest movement that has taken up the Black Lives Matter cause. “Rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960s,” Cotton wrote. “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”
“Send in the Troops” went online Wednesday afternoon, June 3. It drew intense criticism that evening, including unprecedented resistance from Times journalists who took to Twitter to say, “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” But James Bennet defended the decision to publish it. His logic: I don’t agree with it myself, but we have to be open to opposing points of view. (“Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”)
Publisher A.G. Sulzberger also supported the decision in a memo he later called a “placeholder” pending further review. By Thursday night June 4 that review had come to a startling conclusion: “A rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards.”
On Friday Bennett apologized to his colleagues in a tense staff meeting. An editor’s note was then attached to Cotton’s Op Ed:
After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process. Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published… For example, the published piece presents as facts assertions about the role of “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa”; in fact, those allegations have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned.
Two days later James Bennet resigned.
Where to begin in interpreting these events? Where I begin is with the opening paragraphs of Michelle Goldberg’s outstanding column in the Times on June 4.
Before Donald Trump became president, most newspaper op-ed pages sought to present a spectrum of politically significant opinion and argument, which they could largely do while walling off extremist propaganda and incitement. The Trump presidency has undermined that model, because there’s generally no way to defend the administration without being either bigoted or dishonest.
In normal times, editors pick and choose among critics and defenders of the people in power in order to create a lively mix of plausible views. That’s what opinion journalism is at daily newspapers… in normal times. But what if times change? The Trump presidency is demagogic and mostly fact-free. What if there is no way to defend the government without practicing bigotry or demagoguery— or just making stuff up? This is the kind of question editors at the New York Times have tried to avoid. They want to declare it impossible. And by trying to avoid it, by declaring it impossible, James Bennet lost his way, then lost his job.
Michelle Goldberg again:
Opinion sections, eager to maintain ideological diversity without publishing lies or stuff that belongs in Breitbart, have therefore filled up with anti-Trump conservatives. As a result, newspapers like this one have often been criticized for elevating an intellectual clique that has little mass base or political influence.
Tom Cotton’s “Send In the Troops” was supposed to be provocative. A joint product of Cotton’s staff and Times editors, it was designed to challenge core readers with a point of view they were likely to reject, but still ought to hear. That was the idea, anyway. Rather than construct a “both sides” world out of liberals and conservatives who share a common opposition to Trump, the Times went to a Trump backer and rising star who could provide more friction than, say, Charlie Sykes.
Cotton delivered on his end. The editors could not deliver on theirs. This we learn by returning to the web address where “Send In the Troops” was first published. With the editor’s note attached that page now says, absurdly: here we bring you an essay we should never have brought you. The New York Times was unable to sustain an act of publishing that was supposed to challenge its audience. Why? Because it lacks courage and can’t stand the heat?
That’s what Cotton, Trump and their allies would say. (And this episode is a huge propaganda win for them, a successful troll.) My answer is different. Battleship Newspaper lives on, intellectually, but the costs are mounting. Ideas born in that era have refused to die, and their continuation is proving more and more costly.
Debate club democracy — where people of good will share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done — is an expensive illusion to maintain during a presidency that tries to undermine every independent and factual check there is on the executive’s power, not just a free press and its journalism, but the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps, the civil service, government scientists, inspectors general, and Congress in its oversight function.
Stories about the Trump government undermining all of these have appeared in the New York Times. They are ably reported. But at some point the light bulb has to flick on. This isn’t debate club. It’s an attack on the institutions of American democracy. Just as police work in our cities isn’t law enforcement constrained by the Constitution. It’s systemized suspicion of Black people, free of Constitutional constraint, and it frequently ends in violence.
The idea that the New York Times can never reach conclusions like this, and build them into its core values, because it has to remain neutral in order to be trusted as a news source by the very people who reject those values — an idea I have called the view from nowhere — might have been a mistaken-but-survivable construct in the era of Battleship Newspaper. That is no longer the case.
Many decades ago, the leadership class in big league journalism accepted the argument that racial integration had to come to their newsrooms, or the journalism would suffer. Or at least, this is what they said to themselves. But what they also said (without quite realizing it) is: We can have all that, a more diverse and multi-colored newsroom, and maintain the view from nowhere. They never faced up to the contradiction: minority journalists who are supposed to simultaneously supply a missing perspective and suppress that perspective in order to establish their objectivity.
Appearing on CNN the same day that James Bennet resigned, Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is African American and a Pulitzer Prize winner, made the connection explicit: “This adherence to even-handedness, both-sidism, the ‘view from nowhere’ doesn’t actually work in the political circumstances that we’re in.”
A few days earlier it was Wesley Lowery, formerly of the Washington Post, and now at 60 Minutes:
American view-from-nowhere, “objectivity”-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) June 4, 2020
Lowery also told Ben Smith, media columnist of the Times, that the “core value needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity.”
Elite newsrooms badly need people like Wesley Lowery and Nikole Hannah-Jones. But these people have no need for detritus from the age of Fortress Journalism. They aren’t going to shut up. And they aren’t throwing dead fish. Their moral clarity is a rebuke and wake-up call to an older generation of journalists.
In November of 2019, Ben Smith, then at Buzzfeed, published a long article on the succession drama at the New York Times. Who will replace Dean Baquet? He also checked in with some of the arguments made in this post. Smith concludes his piece this way:
And what about the Times that Sulzberger and Baquet hear so much about from critics on Twitter, from grumbling subscribers, and from much of the young generation of their own newsroom? The one that stops trying to be perceived as fair by Trumpian critics whose beef is with journalism itself, and shakes off the old obsession with political neutrality?
Sorry. The phrase I heard to dismiss that again and again: “It’s just not in our DNA.”
Dean Baquet and his lieutenants have another phrase: We are not the resistance. But if that were entirely true, James Bennet would still have a job. The Times has evolved a lot since 2005. But now it has to update its pressthink; it has to evolve politically. That’s not in the newsroom’s DNA. But it is the call of the times.
Thank you, Professor Rosen. For this and the many other contributions you have made to journalism, you have my sincere admiration.
I have been thinking that the pandemic has gone far to change the tenor of expression among in-the-trenches journalists. I believe the President’s persistent, toxic lying and presentation of mis- and disinformation aroused a seriousness of purpose that softened the ground for the explosive aftermath of the brazen George Floyd murder.
Consider the emergence of a compassionate, sincere, straight-talking man from the formerly brash, egotistical, pompous asshole-ish CNN host, Chris Cuomo. It’s been amazing to watch how he grew (and grew up). Similarly, Brian Williams has become more outspoken. Even Chuck Todd has improved, however slightly.
I think the entire working press deserves the Pulitzer Prize for their work on COVID-19. They stepped up and reported in the midst of a dangerous pandemic. They told the stories of the medical caregivers, the victims, and the dead. Kudos to them and the way extraordinary service they rendered.
This stands in contrast to the press before the pandemic: the general bullshit of the White House Correspondents Association and their childish acceptance of mistreatment r4om a corrupt, dishonest President. “Access journalism” has been the hallmark of Battleship Journalism, and I’m glad to see it gone…
Again, many thanks for all of your contributions to the field.
Thank you for the clarity and insights you bring to an issue of primary importance. We are where we are in this country in no small part due to the media normalization of trump and his cronies. Ideally, 2016 would have been the nadir for political coverage after some sorely needed self-examination. Alas, that has thus far not been the case.
Sadly the impotence to seek the truth at the NYT is mirrored writ large with Australia’s media organisations, in particular our ABC. Originally modelled on the BBC, but now a sad, pale reflection of its former self, afraid to seek and speak truth to call out callow, right-wing governments, hell bent on bringing it to heal, because to publish the truth is to be left wing.
With our remaining media owned or heavily influenced by NewsCorp very little dissenting viewpoints make it to the surface – and now our leading politicians are channeling MAGA-like diatribes and policies – railing against any and all who question them.
Thank you for your clarity and moral vision.
Stephen – the BBC has gone the same way. Brought to heel when Thatcher dismissed Alasdair Milne in favour of Marmaduke Hussey, and progressively degraded since. There’s now a revolving door between it and the communications arm of the Conservative Party.
Its leading lights of political reporting – AF Neil, Laura Kuenssberg, Nick Robinson et al – are Twitter’s leading Johnson sycophants. I take issue not with the idea of journalists expressing a political opinion, but with the fact the opinions’re all from the same place. The BBC is a bastion of Conservatism and unrealistic British imperialism.
I do like the “Battleship Newspaper” concept and I agree that many of the traditional news practices that I learned in j-school last century now seem to have been discarded, with the NYT situation this week serving as a crowning confirmation. Looking at the situation from a purely business standpoint, the NYT readership does not want to hear at all from differing viewpoints. Daily in the reader comments online you see the progressive/left readership railing against even the slightest deviation from their orthodoxy. To them, David Brooks is a fire-breathing right winger. The rejection of the traditional concept of the opinion section is so strong that they are best to just give it up – their customers are not interested. As their conservative columnists leave, they will be replaced with progressives.
The new normal does raise new questions:
– What is the role/stance of the NYT towards the 43% (or so) of (misguided IMHO) Amerians who do support Trump? Are they an enemy people? How should these people respond when the NYT parachutes into flyover country for re-election coverage?
– What is the impact of an NYT that aims only to speak to those with whom it already agrees?
– What is an NYT journalist? An advocate with clear and powerfully-felt personal political and social positions that inform their writing? Does a source have the right to know about these ahead of time since the “old” rules of impartiality are now declared dead?
I can’t speak for Jay, but I feel immense commonality with his stated views on these matters. In my view, those who have embraced Trump’s construct that the media are “the enemy of the people” have already effectively said goodbye to the Times enterprise, community, and audience. That’s why it was a category error to even invite Tom Cotton to soil its pages with his sophistical reading of the Constitution, his invidiously false and demonizing portrayal of the protest movement, and all the rest: He’s literally one of those people; he did not visit in good faith. Such views are simply not relevant and are in large part simply beyond the pale of rational discussion.
There’s plenty of disagreement within the Times’s universe of opinion, so that’s a false or flawed supposition; what there is not disagreement about involves fundamental principles and values–commitment to constitutional government, good will toward all those who genuinely inquire after the truth, dedication to the civil rights of all Americans and the human rights of all the human race. The Trumpian language of sophistry, manipulation, and power lies, again, beyond the pale. Folks who have committed to that will have to look after their own souls and wrestle with their own fates. We, the notional Times audience, have little to exchange with them, in terms of information or good will, in the meantime.
You’re making an awful lot of assumptions here that are not to be found in Jay’s piece. Also, I don’t know anyone who thinks of David Brooks as a “fire-breathing right-winger.” Rather, we think of him as a persistent, unrepentant apologist for the kind of both-siderism Jay has called out here — persistent and unrepentant even to the point of multiple instances of factual accuracy without consequence.
The proposed role of the NYT is to print the truth as clearly and accurately as possible.
From a corporate viewpoint. When the only press in the state are corporate press then the corporate press are the state press.
“What is the impact of an NYT that aims only to speak to those with whom it already agrees?”
I think it is important to distinguish between a paper with a commitment to a basic set of values, and a paper that only reports exactly what it likes. A paper can have a baseline commitment to the facts, to science, to democracy, to certain fundamental values that (should) undergird this society, and ensure that its reporting is consistent with that. This does not require that paper to say, “we will only report opinions that agree with us about the exact kind of pizza toppings that are the best.” We don’t have to swing from one imagined extreme to another.
As long as the press exists, it has to make decisions about what to publish and not publish, what questions to ask, etc., all of which helps shape the playing field. A totally neutral ‘view from nowhere’ is a convenient fiction. If you got rid of all the “media”, this would not change. Social media platforms, Youtube influencers, and other new mediators would fill the gap. And they would make the same decisions (declining to make a decision, e.g. Facebook today, is itself a significant decision). The Times has always had to decide what is worth publishing for the public good; it now has to update its standards for doing so to keep up with reality.
This further touches on the common confusion that ‘free speech’ means the press must report on any and every view in an uncritical way. No legal or philosophical doctrine of free speech has ever said this, and rightly so. Society always makes decisions to condemn, or actively decline to amplify, views that are dangerous to its very foundations. Nobody wants pedophiles to get uncritical airtime on CNN. When people criticise an op-ed and petition for its removal, they are not ‘censoring’ anything; they are exercising their freedom of speech as they should.
In 1965, Herbert Marcuse warned of ‘false’ tolerance. Tolerance is an important value for a liberal society, but when we end up chasing tolerance for the sake of it, we can end up undermining the conditions for free, democratic debate – e.g. by allowing dangerously antidemocratic views to overwhelm the public sphere. None of this is about getting a paper that only says what I agree with. It is about having a press that prioritises the basic values of a free, democratic society, and not becoming an inadvertent amplifier for, say, violent military suppression of its own citizens.
The Times refused to publish my “Earth is a Flat Hexagon And Anyone Who Disagrees Should Be Killed” editorial. This is just more evidence that their readership is intolerant of any disagreement with their orthodoxy! Isn’t there any place left in the “liberal media” that will tolerate dissenting viewpoints?!
To go beyond Michelle Goldberg’s piece, perhaps the best thing would have been to show Republicans for the radically anti-democratic, anti-constitutional gang they are by publishing Cotton’s piece unedited by NYT but after a meeting with staff who cover the issues to discuss the necessity for Republicans to be exposed.
The media can’t continue to ‘normalize’ Republicans, particularly in Congress, the way they have since Barack Obama took office… because they are all Joe McCarthys and we need some Ed Murrows.
“Debate club democracy — where people of good will share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done —”
Yet I long for that kind of civil discourse that enables people who disagree without throwing verbal tantrums. So there is a crisis in civil discourse in our country and my question: Is uncivil discourse the new normal?
Journalism in a culture that obsesses on all the nuances and benefits of first amendment free speech must bear the burden of this ideological tower of Babel spewing bigotry and dishonesty.
Also: Bennett took the bullet for his indiscretions while many others who have disgraced the values of journalism are still cashing them checks.
This has nothing to do with civility and much to do with the fact that there are many people who no longer people who believe in facts, thus, “alternative facts.” You can’t have a civil discussion with people who reject basic facts, and it is pointless to try.
And it’s worth remembering what Hannah Arendt wrote about Nazi lies: They didn’t lie to you because they expected you to believe the lies. They didn’t even lie because THEY believed the lies. No, they lied to explain what would have to be true to justify what they were about to do.
This definition of civility gives a clearer idea of what I mean by civil discourse.
“Civility is a collection of positive behaviors that produce feelings of respect, dignity, and trust.”
Alternative facts are just two words where one will suffice: lies. And Alternative facts tossed about in public discourse undermine respect for truth and respect for others.
I question too these assumptions about Nazi propaganda. Those thousands at the rallies were not raising their arms and chanting Sieg Heil because they thought their Leader was lying to them. They believed he was telling the truth. There’s no difference between propaganda and truth if you “truly” believe it.
Thank you for explaining old-guard journalism’s big problem that isn’t about funding, which has been the discussion for 20 years.
Sadly, NYT has outed itself. The same Opinion page that has published foreign dictators and brutal terrorists takes umbrage publishing the views of a sitting US Senator who served his country in war. For shame, Sulzberger. Good on the editor for resigning, too bad he misses out on the Covid unemployment benefits.
I’m a little surprised (not much) that NYT business journalists haven’t chimed in given how familiar a business story this is: old behemoth fails to adapt to upstarts and changing times. The battleships have been waging separate business- model wars, not realizing, and avoiding every opportunity to realize, basic challenges to their mission.
Even in the comments here I see people wanting to condemn people who read NYT for “not wanting to hear differing opinion” or not “engaging in civil discourse”…..
The problem is that all of conservative thought at this point is strictly trolling the media. That’s all it is. They have learned how to manipulate the “free press” into giving non-ideas coverage as if they were totally legitimate viewpoints.
It’s like in sports where players game the refs. But there is no higher authority to come in and alter this media relationship and change the rules to limit the bad actors like there is in sport. It is solely on readers to police the content since they are able to step back and look at things on the meta level. This meta level is how the conservatives have been able to manipulate the media. The media itself is either unable or unwilling to observe itself in this way.
Thank you. This is the the exactly problem. One cannot ‘engage in civil discourse’ when the other side is engaged in bullshit all the time. The Bari Weiss issue, for example. One side wants to demoralize and mock fact-based journalism and the other, imprint the assumption that it is irrelevant. at the end of the day it’s about FACTS vs bullshit. When the other side engages in BULLSHIT 24/7 you simply cannot engage because engagement would mean take bullshit as fact. And when you do that the entire enterprise suffers.
I recommend reading chapter 6 of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. We have to understand the genesis of propaganda to understand what is going on right now. On Chapter 6, Hitler is clear about the need for propaganda to be 1. primary and simplistic and 2. targeted at the ‘primitives’ (ie ‘the base). He repeatedly reminds the audience that converting intellectuals does not work. Forget about them he says.
The mistake of The TImes is undermining its audience. One cannot both push propaganda, which is about creating fiction to achieve political goals, AND push ‘journalism’ which is about FACTS.
The issue with Cotton isn’t journalism, it’s propaganda. Of course nobody read it at the Times, and nobody cared. It was understood that it is propaganda and not about facts The NYT audience reacts strongly to propaganda pieces because it is not the correct audience. Fictional bullshit does not pass the FACT test with educated audiences.
What a ridiculous standpoint. You can only dismiss “all” conservative thought as trolling if you consider the only possible valid point of view to be your own.
The “moral clarity” demanded by the journalists of the NYT inevitably leads to censorship of all dissenting views, with the ultimate goal of self-censorship: so that no-one even stops to think what alternative points of views might possibly exist.
Are you defining journalism are a matter of opinion? That is Hitler’s project you know. Presenting fiction, or as you call it, ‘opinion’ as a matter of fact. That is exactly the problem we are dealing with here. The attack on truth. “Alternative points of view” are what Hitler calls “Propaganda”.
Chapter 6 of Mein Kampf [ online here http://www.mondopolitico.com/library/meinkampf/v1c6.htm ]
“The function of propaganda is, for example, not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for. Its task is not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.”
He explains it in incredible detail the syntax of your comment with precision.The importance of sowing doubt against facts and the importance of presenting clear and black-and-white talking points that remove doubt and present a hollywood-like good and evil tale. The important thing Hitler knew and American ‘conservatives’ miss is, targeting the correct audience matters. Like Zuckerberg, Hitler knew that propaganda messaging does not work on educated people.
THEREFORE TAKE YOUR BULLSHIT ELSEWHERE. YOUR PROPAGANDA DOES NOT WORK ON ME.
“The broad mass of a nation does not consist of diplomats, or even professors of political law, or even individuals capable of forming a rational opinion; it consists of plain mortals, wavering and inclined to doubt and uncertainty.As soon as our own propaganda admits so much as a glimmer of right on the other side, the foundation for doubt in our own right has been laid. The masses are then in no position to distinguish where foreign injustice ends and our own begins. In such a case they become uncertain and suspicious, especially if the enemy refrains from going in for the same nonsense, but unloads every bit of blame on his adversary. Isn’t it perfectly understandable that the whole country ends up by lending more credence to enemy propaganda, which is more unified and coherent, than to its own? …”
Exactly! Thank you.
“all of conservative thought at this point is strictly trolling the media. That’s all it is”
This smacks of fanaticism; and demonization.
Feel free to provide some examples where it’s not.
Free speech can be nasty, no? Which is something that the extremists on the left and right fail to understand, when their “feeling” are being hurt….and that there is someone out there disagreeing with their political opinion. It is well said, “a plague on both your houses.”
That’s exactly the view Rosen is questioning. For a more detailed explanation of the problem, see this article from David Roberts of “Vox,” which Rosen strongly praised on Twitter:
Roberts’s piece is long and deeply thoughtful, but on op-ed matters it’s fairly clear. Such pages are going to have limits; they would not, for example, print an article advocating return of chattel slavery, no matter how many Senators supported it. Those limits are established essentially by the boundaries of liberal democratic governance. Cotton’s op-ed represents the “radicalized authoritarianism” that characterizes the Trumpist GOP, and that bundle of attitudes and behaviors is founded in a bad-faith will to win at all costs that puts it outside those boundaries. Freedom of thought does not require publications to run op-eds whose outlook is antithetical to the essential conditions for democracy and for journalism itself.
Roberts’s term for Cotton’s view was “racialized authoritarianism,” wrongly changed by spell-check.
“Such pages are going to have limits; they would not, for example, print an article advocating return of chattel slavery, no matter how many Senators supported it. Those limits are established essentially by the boundaries of liberal democratic governance. ”
Agreed. But it seems an inapt analogy – what percentage of Americans would agree with such a position? 0.05% or even far fewer? While Cotton’s views expressed in the infamous op-ed are in line with at least half the electorate.
Hitler could not agree with you more. He advocated for the ‘appeal to the emotions’ when making a propaganda argument. The point of propaganda IS to appeal to emotions. The project of the American right has been to attack truth and to tag it as a matter of opinion. Therefore it is of utmost importance that when facts are presented by ‘the enemy’ they must be dismissed as a matter of emotion.
Have you noticed how Trump and Boris Johnson do press conferences they act in a clown-like manner and dismiss all facts when speaking? Because when facts don’t matter excessive emotions are the only persuasive tool. Because when truth is self-evident one does not need persuasion, faculties of reason will suffice.
By all means do continue. Do you need a hankerchief or a table to pound upon? Don’t forget the Imperative and the Attack Emoting Tone. It makes you look sincere. Congratulations.
I agree with Stephen and Wayne. There is also an assumption by the NYT staff, who were so offended, that the NYT was published to please the staff and not to inform their readers. Are all NYT readers liberal leftists? And does the NYT publish to please only Democrats? I would hope not. Otherwise, what is the purpose of diversity? The assumption and implication by some on this blog, that all Trump supporters are ignorant sycophants speaks of an imperious snobbery and superior mindset that makes one wonder if they live in a bubble…and may explain one reason why so many fly-over voters do support Trump.
Indeed it can! For instance, you might publish something, and then people will criticize you for doing so. When you say “free speech”, you of course mean the state shouldn’t censor people merely because it doesn’t like the content of their speech. I mean, it would be pretty wild to imply that a private business should be compelled by the state to republish anything anyone submits to them.
As one of the first openly-gay TV reporters in the country, the rules changed for me a long time ago. As I watched my friends die from AIDS it became more than a story for me. Covering those early years, including other LGBTQ issues, I realized it was time for my stories to have a point of view, and that “objectivity” often meant pretending lies were truth. I always included “the other side” for purposes of fairness, but I took great pleasure in grilling those bigots on-camera. That’s what worked for me.
Presumably you appreciated the White House Press Corps laughing behind closed doors at the Reagan administration joking about your friends dying. This is what “objectivity” often means in practice: privileged elite opinion, and in the ’80s that opinion was mostly, “Ha-ha, those queers are dying from AIDS or whatever it’s called. Serves them right.” Relatedly, this is definitely the view that was reflected in the Times’s contemporary coverage, which treated AIDS as an unusual, exotic thing of no great significance to the general public. Heroic groups like ACT UP didn’t arise out of a vacuum. Don’t kid yourself that a lot of people don’t still have similar views, as we’re seeing with COVID-19. The right-wing attitude is that it mostly kills the old and sick, who are of no great economic value anyway, so it’s not something to get all worked up about.
Ms. Goldberg’s column was the first writing I’ve seen that engaged with the substance of Cotton’s arguments. It was helpful.
If a substantial minority of U.S. residents hold opinions that lie outside the bounds of reasonability, it might be helpful for the Times to make “remedial” space on its website for explaining why.
(“might be”, since it would become another battleground.)
When I was younger, The Times was the standard for journalism in my liberal house and my Father would say that I should read William Safire to understand opposing views. The Times still thinks that smart conservative columnists still exist when, as noted here, it’s not possible in this environment. And this yearning to show “both sides” is why The Times trumpeted Hillary’s e-mails day after day, as a sign to those that don’t trust it regardless of what it does that they were being “fair” while reporting on the daily Trump atrocities.
This is the same William Safire who was a propagandist for Agnew, Nixon, and Reagan, had his obsessive misogynistic hatred of Hillary Clinton (who at the time held no political office), helped launder the George W. Bush administration’s ginned-up “intelligence” to gain support for war with Iraq, and was a rah-rah cheerleader for killing brown people in other countries as long as not too many U.S. troops got hurt? I mean, yeah, he was a decent representative of contemporary U.S. conservatism. The main things that have changed are that U.S. conservatism has become even more openly white nationalist, authoritarian, and anti-intellectual, which has meant moving away from the William F. Buckley-esque erudition that Safire aped, dressing up morally repugnant views with fancy language to make them more palatable to the intelligentsia. And was the Times actually being “fair and balanced”, or were they preemptively caving in to right-wing howls about the “liberal media” while also chasing their institutional great white whale obsession of finally taking down the Clintons? How much time and how many front-page headlines did they give to “Hillary Must Be Hiding Something Nefarious; We Just Don’t Know What It Is Yet”, compared to things like “Trump Has Been Accused of Rape and Assault Numerous Times”, “Trump Has Committed Fraud For Decades and Gotten Away With It”, and “Trump Has Alarming Financial Ties To Global Organized Crime”?
What is the relation of evolving politically to evolving morally? How much trouble could the country could have been saved if this question had been dealt with beginning in, say, 2015?
America never had a President married three times (and under lurid circumstances at that), before now. America never had a President with such a record of cheating employees, contractors, and business partners, before now. If “just report the facts and let the readers decide” is an approach inadequate to today’s issues respecting race and the Trump administration’s contempt for democracy, why is it the right approach to the question of his depraved personal morals?
People in politics, or even in government, need not be saints. But ought we not to expect public wickedness and corruption from politicians of amply demonstrated defective character? How much of Trump’s public conduct since 2015 can be a surprise given his private conduct throughout his life? And is this not important enough to be covered by journalists with a measure of the judgement Rosen calls for here?
Mr. Britt. Wow! And how should we then remember the great John F. Kennedy and his many trysts with Marilyn Monroe and others? And how should we now refer to Bill Clinton and his Monica episode-as well as his Arkansas affairs? Married three times before achieving office versus sex in the White House with women not your wife? And the left wonders why the right cries hypocrisy at the left. I expect to be blocked from posting on this blog very soon.
In my recollection going back to the seventies, the Times took definitive positions on issues, and the op-ed page was reserved for those who disagreed with them. Friends debated these issues. Then they added columnists from all possible points of view, and it became unclear to me how the editorial board felt about much of anything. I learned whom I liked and with whom I rarely agreed. The news, which once felt formal and straight-jacketed, has become better reported and livelier, and I spend much less time on opinion. Sometimes, I feel like the Times has its eye on its stock price as much as what’s unfolding in Washington, so I supplement my reading with the Washington Post and the Guardian and a few online sites. But, of course, I’m retired. Most people (at least until recently) didn’t have the time.
“All possible points of view?” Who are the, for instance, neo-Nazi, Marxist, or anarchist op-ed columnists for the Times? Or does “all possible points of view” in your mind mean, “from the center-left to the center-right?”
The cause for Bennet’s “resignation” is that he didn’t adhere to the basic DPA in journalism—don’t publish anything until you’ve read it. The term Battleship Newspaper is too modern to apply here; the NYT is more like the Titanic, with Sulzberger asking, “Is that another iceberg ahead?”
I find the argument of this piece persuasive, but don’t pretend like nothing is lost. I am a lifelong reader of the Times but I have been pulling away from it in exasperation in recent years as it becomes larded with liberal opinion pieces, and news features, all chanting different takes on the same point of view.
A commenter said there is still plenty of disagreement within this emerging POV being cultivated at the Times. But I think the room for disagreement will continue to shrink. I also think it is all about money (capturing a passionate market) and for that reason I am entirely sympathetic. I just won’t read it or trust it as much anymore. As Trump would say, sad!
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “Just the facts, ma’am,” said Joe Friday. In the (infamous?) movie Absence of Malice, Sally Fields’s character says to a colleague that a particular comment is accurate but not true. Of many stories one might say that they are true but not accurate. Richard Viguerie adds another perspective. Speaking to Bill Moyers, he says, “That’s what journalism is. It’s just all opinion. Just opinion.” Factuality, accuracy, truth, and opinion are related but nonetheless discrete qualities.
And what about objectivity? When I was in college in 1960, I won brownie points with my professor because I knew the difference between “uninterested” and “disinterested.” By the time I retired after my own academic career, that distinction had become effectively meaningless and the words were being used interchangeably. Words mean what those using the words think they mean. When the speaker/writer thinks a word means one thing and the listener/reader thinks it means a different thing, then communication—and everything that depends on successful communication—fails, sometimes disastrously.
Laurie Anderson cites a Zen Koan:
There’s the thing.
And then there’s the name for the thing.
And that’s one thing too many.
For me, “objectivity” is the name for an ideal which, though impossible to achieve, is essential to pursue. It means something like factual, true, and un-slanted. For others, clearly, it’s the name for something I don’t really understand, something quite different—something not just to be eschewed but, indeed, to be scorned and derided. I’m thus convinced that the name “objective” has become “one thing too many” and must be retired from discourse on topics like this.
But what goal or ideal should replace it? Can this replacement be given a single encompassing name?
Bennet merely forgot where he was working. There’s clearly a place for the type of propaganda Cotton penned. It’s called The Wall Street Journal.
What happens when Trump is out of office? How should the approach of the Times and other media organizations change then? It seems that reporting on Trump and other current truth-defying Republicans requires a sharper, clearer call-out of b.s. But if “more normal” Republicans like Romney and Rubio and Tim Scott and Nikki Haley take over the party, should journalists shift back to the more traditional on the one hand this, on the other hand that model? I think there would be pressure within journalism organizations to do that. It surely would get murkier, when it now seems pretty obvious what to do with Trump and his enablers in power. But I still think what Dave Roberts wrote would remain true. There are values and principles that we believe are right and just — political participation, equal rights for all, ethical governance, social justice, quality health care for all — that should guide our journalism. How we achieve those goals still requires reporting out the evidence of what works best. But we shouldn’t pretend we don’t have a dog in that hunt.
Harris’ question is a truly important one. I think the genie will be far and clear of the bottle. The future appears to be moving universally toward advocacy journalism. There will no longer be attempts at a reasonably honest “truth.” The danger, at its worst, is that there essentially is nothing left in the media landscape but a range of opinions, though I’m sure some would argue that’s always been the case. The arguments for change in the article are good food for thought, but the idea that our approach starts at a relatively undefined and most likely personal righteous moral viewpoint is fraught with danger. Objectivity is not something you achieve; it’s something to strive for in being a devil’s advocate and constantly challenging your view of the world. It’s effort is to come as close as possible to a greater truth, and in that there is merit.
“You write: “To the tech platforms that have a stronger hold on the audience for news; they do a better job”…At what, copying and pasting what appears in real journalism and stealing their ad revenue to boot? Yes, they do a great job of that. Tell me one piece of actual journalism practiced by an employee of the tech platforms. This is a blind spot a mile wide. The platforms are parasites, and the host is dying.
Check out the semi-colon. They do a better job with and charge a fairer price for targeted advertising. That is what I meant.
It is a pleasure to see well thought out comments on this article.
The article points out that “truth” “rationality” were part of an assumed common world. The French polymath Bruno Latour has been clarifying these issues for over 40 years and now that Gaia, i.e., climate change, has changed the fundamentals. In this article he describes a fictional planetarium with 7 planets where different people live. Like trying to get schools or police to handle too many social concerns, journalism cannot bridge all these planets all by itself.
From the article:
“Architects and designers are facing a new problem when they aspire to build for a
habitable planet.1 They have to answer a new question, because what used to be a
poor joke—“My dear fellow, you seem to live on another planet”—has become
literal—“Yes, we do intend to live on a different planet!” In the “old days” when
political scientists talked about geopolitics, they meant different nations with
opposing interests waging wars on the same material and geographic stage. Today, geopolitics is also concerned with wars over the definition of the stage itself. A conflict will be called, from now on, “of planetary relevance” not because it has the planet for a stage, but because it is about which planet you are claiming to inhabit and defend.
I am starting from the premise that what I have called the New Climatic Regime
organizes all political affiliations.2 The climate question is not one aspect of politics among others, but that which defines the political order from beginning to end, forcing all of us to redefine the older questions of social justice along with those of identity, subsistence, and attachment to place. In recent years we have shifted from questions of ecology—nature remaining outside the social order—to questions of existential subsistence on threatened territories. Nature is no longer outside us but under our feet, and it shakes the ground. Just as at the beginning of modern political philosophy, in the time of Thomas Hobbes, we are dealing with humans not unified but divided by nature to the point that they are engaged in civil wars as violent as the religious wars of the past, and forced to look for peace by altogether reinventing the social order.3 Climate mutation means that the question of the land on which we all stand has come back into focus, hence the general political disorientation, especially for the left, which did not expect to have to talk again of “people” and “soil”— questions mostly abandoned to the right.”
The criticisms leveled above would be more credible if it were not for 2 very severe oversights:
1) The tech platforms are no more or less “objective” than the newspapers ever were. In fact, they are much less so, since their algorithms specifically incite ever greater levels of spite in order to increase “stickiness” and “engagement”.
2) Fox exists because of CNN. One is no more objective than the other.
I would recommend reading up on what Matt Taibbi has written on the subject of newspapers.
So Lowery and the other New Generation jounalists want a standard of “moral clarity” instead of objective truth? OK…we all agree that sexual abuse of under-age children is morally reprehensible, right?
Former President Bill Clinton has been accused, in numerous objective sources, of being a longtime friend of Jeffry Epstein who rode on the ‘Lolita Express’ dozens of times. Yet the national news media absolutely refuse to investgate this story to see if it’s true or not. It’s a legit news story: did a former President hang with a noted pedophile and did noted pedophile obtain underaged sex partners for said President, yes or no?
The media is silent. Why? Because Clinton is an establishment good ole boy? A Democrat? A liberal? A Trump opponent? One of many who also played in Epstein’s fetid playhouse and we don’t want people to know the who and how many?
I would rather have a press that tells me the truth–yes or no–than one that pretends to have an allegiance to some moral code that is, as here, apparently fungible.
“Just as police work in our cities isn’t law enforcement constrained by the Constitution. It’s systemized suspicion of Black people, free of Constitutional constraint, and it frequently ends in violence. ”
Completely wrong, according to all the evidence. Whites are just as subject to police detention, violence and deaths in custody as blacks — adjusting for poverty levels and numbers in the wider population. And this is despite the fact that black males are much more likely to be armed when taken into custody than white males. You can argue that the outcomes shouldn’t be as lethal as they are (and they’re not all that frequently lethal), but the numbers just don’t support the claim that there is systemic racial bias.
I’m legitimately interested in this evidence. Some of what you’ve claimed does not comport with data I’ve seen, which is that non-whites are more likely to be arrested and charged for offenses. Now, I do have little trouble believing that once people are imprisoned, rates of abuse are similar. I will note also that “police work” is a broad term that may, depending on context, include things such as the court system, which isn’t directly a police function.