How Journalism's Leadership Fails Journalists

Ed Zitron 9 min read

As if to send me a little notification that says “choose violence, Edward!” I was served up a Nieman Journalism Lab article from June 9th today, which currently sits as the second article on the “stories on reporting & production” section of the site. It specifically tells the story of how objectivity has become an expectation of journalism, and then a weapon of bad faith entities, going back decades (emphasis mine):

Back in 2001, New York Times reporter Barry Meier wrote 13 stories revealing Purdue Pharma’s questionable marketing of OxyContin. Purdue cried bias, calling the reporting “sensationalized and skewed,” while arguing that since Meier had published a book on OxyContin, there was a conflict of interest. Though the Times stood by the reporting, editors moved Meier off the story to avoid the appearance of bias. Twenty years and a guilty plea later, we know that Meier reported the truth. Yet the charge of bias put The New York Times on the defensive.

Reading the first three quarters of the piece, you’d think it would specifically address - especially as it’s written by a professor of media studies! - how these attacks can be fixed. Its lede - centered around Associated Press reporter Emily Wilder’s firing over supposed “bias” based on this tweet, which was used to drum up the usual right wing propaganda influencers and media entities.

The AP is fully capable of protecting their reporters and their reporting rather than arbitrarily firing people, and in fact was so good at not firing people that former reporter Matti Friedman wasn’t fired, or accused of bias, until after he left, despite literally being in the IDF:

It is NOT acceptable for you to be a junior AP reporter doing Arizona news for a couple of weeks if you did pro-Palestinian activism in college. It IS acceptable for you to report directly on Israel if you volunteered to serve in the Israeli military, like former AP correspondent Matti Friedman. (Not that such service only renders you employable in an Israeli context: if you volunteered for the IDF and also printed complete nonsense about the Iraq War, you can become the editor of the Atlantic.)

The AP was fully capable of protecting their reporting in response to Friedman’s continued statements as a “former AP correspondent,” writing in detail about his criticisms and statements. Middle East Eye put it even more bluntly:

For example, the AP's own former correspondent and editor in Jerusalem, Matti Friedman, had served in the Israeli military and participated in the occupation of south Lebanon prior to joining the news agency from 2006 to 2011.

The problem with the AP is one that reflects a lot of modern journalistic leadership and academia - caring more about the appearance of objectivity and the sanctity of the news rather than actually caring about it. It’s the formless ideal of a “objective” reporting - despite it being borderline impossible to write anything objectively while also reporting - and the industrial protection of objectivity over journalism itself.

The sick irony is that journalism’s leadership, in the process of protecting “the truth,” end up helping protect those who want to spread lies. Continually the world of journalistic leadership and academic sits around and, in detail, lists how bad situations are around trust in journalism and the difficulties of reporting without offering anything to deal with the problem. There is no leadership, there is no solidarity, there is no real protection of anyone.

Take the recent Maggie Haberman situation, where Fox News accused Haberman of being “fixated on Donald Trump” and failing to properly cover Joe Biden. This naturally led to Hannity doing his usual baby-man rant about how someone is bad, and Dean Baquet, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, one of if not the most powerful newspapers in the world, issuing the world’s weakest statement, which he gave to Fox News:

"Maggie Haberman is one of the finest journalists of her generation. She did outstanding work covering former President Donald Trump, breaking many of the most important stories involving his administration, and will continue to be one of our lead reporters on major political news in the coming years. We're proud that she works for The New York Times," Times executive editor Dean Baquet told Fox News.

So, a few things about this I hate:

  1. Who gives a shit if you’re proud of her? She is an adult, you do not need to be proud of her, protect her reporting!
  2. This isn’t even on the usual level of “sir, have you no dignity?” - it’s borderline congenial! You are giving a statement to a site that has continually harassed your reporters! You should be telling them to go fuck themselves! You should make a statement that says “Fox News continually attacks the New York Times’ reporters because they constantly challenge the despicable norms and tropes that Fox News uses to create fear, uncertainty and doubt with their readers. This is just another example of how Fox News isn’t interested in news - they’re interested in propaganda.” And when they refused to run that statement, you put it on the New York Times website that you are the executive editor of.

Haberman is also on book leave, and yes, she has covered Trump a lot, because that was her job because he was president, and now she is covering him - a former president that has exacerbated many, many problems in America and created many more - along with other stuff. What Baquet is doing here is actively humoring the thing that Fox News chose to get mad at today, which is the entire focus of their news arm, versus calling it what it is - yet another attack on someone they consider a threat to their interests.

The problem with all of these situations is that the leadership in journalism continually seems concerned with not offending anyone. My previous piece on this posited that this was because they’re terrified of potentially seeming biased, and I want to take it a step further.

I believe that an alarming amount of journalistic academia and leadership seems to want the status quo to keep existing, where they can be proud of their moral fortitude and “objectivity.” The right wing media very much wants to change the status quo so that they are positioned as the one source of truth that’s willing to call out “biases” - because they are the only side in this war that actually calls anyone biased. It’s the journalistic equivalent of this:

They are so obsessed with the sanctity of the news that they seek to chide and appease a force that is continually growing in strength and refining the tactics they use to intimidate and harm reporters. In something that alarmingly reflects history, journalistic leadership continually seeks to appease and keep the peace with a fascist force that is intent on the domination and destruction of what news is. Leadership too often doesn’t have solidarity with reporters - it has solidarity with reporting, and journalism, which is very important but not important enough to actually protect those doing it. It’s actually more pathetic than Chamberlain’s approach to Nazi Germany - Chamberlain recognized and attempted to negotiate with the threat, then threw other countries under the bus.

To my knowledge, major news outlets continue to fail to engage directly with these outlets (though I guess you could call Baquet’s pathetic quote an attempt?) as what they are - agenda-pushing, poisonously biased propaganda entities. They fail to even accept that these things are organized or planned - they fail to call these outlets what they are, they fail to say what’s happening to their reporter, their fail to even begin evaluating, let alone strategizing what to do. These vast, ultra-powerful news entities tiptoe around ghoulish monsters like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, treating them as peers rather than enemies.

It is absolutely fucking disgusting that Ben Smith, a guy who works for the New York Times, has Tucker Carlson’s cellphone and texts him stuff, and publishes his vile dogshit opinions on the New York Times website. If Ben Smith - and the Times! - had any soul, they’d text Tucker “why are you attacking my fucking colleagues.” He calls reporters animals. Smith asks:

And if you are a Tucker Carlson viewer, you may also be asking: How can the guy who tells you every night that the media is lying be texting with the enemy?

Ben’s story is actually fairly illustrative of why the appeasement continues:

And Brian Stelter, the host of the CNN program “Reliable Sources,” told me that “you can see Tucker’s fingerprints all over the hardcover” edition of his 2020 book “Hoax,” which excoriates Fox News for amplifying Mr. Trump’s falsehoods. He said that he “couldn’t stomach” talking to Mr. Carlson, who has grown ever more hard-line, for the updated paperback version that was just released.

Smith, in his bizarre “I’m so well connected and smart” screed, details how plenty of people use Tucker Carlson as some sort of source, and that’s why he’s tolerated. Cool! Naturally, Smith continues to show how much Carlson loathes and attacks reporters, and repeats a shitty quote he made:

“I just can’t overstate how disgusted I am,” [Carlson] told the Fox-owned sports media site Outkick in April. “The media is basically Praetorian Guard for the ruling class, the bodyguards for Jeff Bezos. That’s the opposite of what we should have. I really hate them for it, I’ll be honest.”

Smith moves on from this quote without interrogating it. He says that “Mr. Carlson spends less time on air talking about his warm relationships with a generation of political and media reporters,” yet another sneering, “you should feel ashamed of yourself” statement that doesn’t actually say that, and doesn’t really criticize Carlson. I’d love for Smith to have, say, asked whether he was a great source for reporters, or whether he was a great source for white and/or male reporters?

And why, why oh why, is Smith trying to suggest that it’s not that bad? (Emphasis mine):

And Mr. Carlson’s comfortable place inside Washington media, many of the reporters who cover him say, has taken the edge off some of the coverage.

This article is, if anything, the best example of how journalism’s leadership has failed journalism and reporters. This piece is, if anything, giving Tucker Carlson a pass for his demagoguery - that everybody reading this column should not take him and his actions seriously, and that “everybody knows” he’s a source. It is basically saying that the trade-off for reporters being harassed and having their lives ruined is that some other reporters get Tucker’s off-the-record sourcing for whatever thing they’re working on. It is throwing reporters - and reporting - under the bus.

Smith, who was the Editor-in-Chief of Buzzfeed, clearly set out to prove more inside baseball bullshit to make some sort of point about people being duplicitous. At the same time, he tacitly approved Carlson’s continued right wing propaganda campaigns, failing to address (let alone defend) the organized cruelty and harm that has befallen several of his colleagues. Smith frames this piece as rocking the boat - revealing a big secret that sometimes people say one thing and do another - but accidentally (or deliberately!) protects Carlson’s interests and position. It talks about Carlson going on the offensive, without talking about the offensives that have hurt fellow reporters like Mara Gay and Taylor Lorenz.

Smith doesn’t simply throw his colleagues under the bus, he buys a ticket and gets on board. Whoever approved this and didn’t push him to address with Tucker - he has his number after all! - is complicit in the erosion of trust in the New York Times. If anything, this column gives Tucker Carlson all the ammo he needs to prove that the Times are not to be trusted - Ben Smith wrote a piece that can be used as propaganda for the unifying theory that reporters are duplicitous and not to be trusted. He gives Carlson exactly the fuel he needs to continue attacking Brian Stelter - that in fact Carlson has been quite useful to Stelter, and thus Stelter is mean for attacking him.

It is another case where journalism’s leadership categorically fails the majority of reporters - Smith sits in his comfortable, well-moneyed position and doesn’t use any of the comfort of his pulpit to speak any truth to any power. The one person - the Media Columnist for the New York Times! - who has power, influence and connections to actually make a point and shed light on something instead continues to divide and factionalize.

As I’ve said before, there must be a united, aggressive, transparent and forceful response to Carlson and his ilk. They must be attacked for what they do, and what they are, not what we wish them to be. It is no longer the time to sneer at these people and tell them that they should feel ashamed of themselves - it’s time to treat them with rejection and disgust, just like they treat the New York Times and Washington Post. Baquet shouldn’t be telling them that he’s so proud of his reporters - why do they care? - he should be telling them to go fuck themselves. Ben Smith shouldn’t be asking Tucker Carlson if he’s vaccinated - he should be asking him what it is he seeks to gain by attacking his fellow reporters - what is it he wants? Does he care that people are scared? Why does he do what he does - and when he mumbles out a half-answer, ask again, and tell him he’s dodging.

What is it going to take to make journalism’s leadership to get their heads out of their asses and begin treating these right wing propagandists as a real threat to the truth? What is it going to take to make them protect their reporters and go on the offensive? Does somebody have to get hurt? Does somebody have to die? Was the Capital Gazette Shooting not enough to scare these people? Why are nearly two-hundred-year-old news empires attempting to appease nakedly fascist entities for fear of not being objective?

The answer is either that they don’t understand, or don’t care enough. And I hope that they open their god damn eyes at some point soon.

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