Newspapers now embracing a social conscience ethos

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, and other incidents involving Black men and white cops.

This is quite a change for our nation’s newspapers, which have traditionally served as neutral arbiters, tasked with helping their readers understand the community and world they live in. But it appears this tradition is no longer sufficient as recent incidents at three of the nation’s largest papers have 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 broke out in the wake of the Floyd shooting. 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.

“There was a significant breakdown in our editing process, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years,” publisher A. G. Sulzberger said. 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 was demoted.)

This dent in the paper’s liberal armor came in the midst of the Times’ ambitious 1619 Project, intended to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the national narrative.” (In case you missed the reference,”1619” was the year slaves first arrived in North America.)

Some conservatives have attacked the project, claiming the Times is rewriting American history to make it look as if everything we’ve ever done was driven by slavery and its consequences. While it is easy to make the case that slavery is America’s original sin, it hardly requires a publish lashing to expiate our sins. Apparently you aren’t a true liberal these days if you don’t feel guilt.

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.”

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 involved 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, was removed from coverage of the demonstrations.

I’m a fan of Johnson’s style of humor, but she should have 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.

Some newspapers appear to be confronting this legacy. The Los Angeles Times has launched a project to examine the paper’s attitude toward race and racism over the years. Since the paper was owned and run by archconservatives for decades until Otis Chandler took over the family business in 1960, this will cause a lot of printers ink to be spilled.

Closer to home, the Sacramento Bee has launched something called the Equity Lab and staffed it with three minority reporters, who will presumably devote their time to rooting out inequity in the community. But it may not last long. The effort was championed by editor Lauren Gustus, who left the Bee for a job in Salt Lake City after it was bought by the same outfit that publishes the National Enquirer.

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.

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