This post is not intended to denigrate or harm the feelings of any reader who feels afflicted by social injustice, threaten the ability of reporters to do their jobs, or get any editors fired.
I thought I’d better start out with a disclaimer because reporters and editors at various newspapers around the county have suddenly become woke to alleged misdeeds of their publications in coverage of the peaceful demonstrations and criminal behavior that have followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
This is quite a change for our nation’s newspapers, which have traditionally operated their newsrooms as benevolent dictatorships. Editors are always seeking to hire smart, aggressive reporters who aren’t intimidated by authority figures, and have been willing to listen to their suggestions and complaints when it comes to news coverage. But at the end of the day, editors are paid to decide what goes into the newspaper and how it is presented, and reporters have to accept those edicts.
This is on top of the tension present when reporters summit their pristine articles—always fine examples of the journalistic arts—to editors who view these efforts as collections of words that could bring criticism and financial ruin to the newspaper absent the careful vetting of editors. If you don’t think this causes heartburn, you’ve never spent time in a newsroom.
But it appears these traditional safeguards are no longer sufficient as recent incidents at three of the nation’s largest papers has cost two editors their jobs and created turmoil in the newsroom of the third. The old standards are giving way to a new social conscience ethos, which doesn’t bode well for print journalism.
The best known case involved the New York Times, where James Bennett, the paper’s opinion editor, “resigned” in the wake of an opinion piece written by Senator Tom Cotton that outraged liberal subscribers and members of the paper’s editorial staff.
In the article, “Send in the Troops,” Cotton called for deployment of troops as a last resort to quell riots and looting. That prompted a staff protest followed by a sick-out, and a review by management that concluded the article didn’t meet the paper’s standards.
Publisher A. G. Sulzberger said, “There was a significant breakdown in our editing process, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years.” In this instance, the breakdown appears to be that Bennett didn’t review the opinion piece that offended the sensibilities of management and employees. (The editor who green-lighted the article has been demoted.)
Another opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer cost the newspaper’s editor his job. In this case, the offense was committed in a headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” over a piece that expressed concern that historic buildings in the city could be damaged during protests over the death of Floyd.
That prompted 44 minority employees in the editorial department to sign an open letter to the paper’s editors, complaining their work to gain public trust was “eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions.” The paper’s editors apologized, saying the headline was “offensive, inappropriate.”
As other people have learned, appearing to mock or challenge the phrase “Black Lives Matter” can be damaging to their well-being and employment prospects. Sacramento Kings TV play-by-play announcer Grant Napier tweeted “All Lives Matter” to former Kings player DeMarcus Cousins. Napier is now the team’s former announcer.
In both the New York and Philadelphia incidents, we’re talking about people expressing opinions the newspaper might not agree with, traditionally a means of broadening the discussion of issues of the day. When newspapers wanted you to know what they thought about an issue, they wrote an editorial. Now, apparently, even commentary has to toe the company line.
The third incident involves the touchy subject of reporters taking a neutral stance when reporting a story. That created a problem at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where a black reporter, Alexis Johnson, said she was barred from covering local protests after the following tweet went viral:
“…horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS…oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate.” (Chesney’s annual concert in Pittsburgh is reported to prompt much debauchery.)
Johnson has declined to speak with media, but one of her colleagues claimed that several articles she proposed were rejected by editors, and that two online stories about local demonstrations were killed. It was reported that black staff photographer Michael Santiago, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has also been removed from coverage of the demonstrations.
I’m a fan of Johnson’s style of humor, but she should have had enough sense to keep that remark in the newsroom. The joke put her editors in a difficult position at a time when newspapers are receiving close scrutiny over how they differentiate legitimate protests from vandalism and looting, with some critics suggesting they are making excuses for looters.
Some of Johnson’s colleagues see this as an attempt to stifle black voices in coverage of events that are exposing the deep wounds blacks have experienced in America. They have a point in an industry where institutional bias has caused many stories like Floyd’s to be underplayed, defended or ignored.
But abandoning the traditional standards and rules that govern the conduct of newspapers and embracing the latest social outrage will make them no better than social media, where news coverage often consists of “news” from unverifiable sources, extremist meddling, agenda shaming and unsourced outrage videos.
If this is the future of American journalism, newspapers deserve to die.