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Inside the Challenge to Media Leadership and the Debate Over Journalism’s Values

A wave of editorial resignations and pushback on a Wrap op-ed reflect a division over the shared norms of journalism

My head is spinning from the upheaval happening in news media. In the space of the past two weeks — is it even that long? — top editors have been removed from their publications across the country, from The New York Times to the Philadelphia Inquirer to Variety to Refinery29 to Bon Appétit magazine.

Not suspended, or reprimanded behind closed doors. Ousted from their jobs for what would have been considered minor infractions not long ago: an insensitive headline, poor judgment in an op-ed or a bad tweet or a bad party costume from long ago.

Except those infractions are no longer minor in the current climate.

In the not-so-distant past, a top journalist with decades of experience could only expect to be booted following a major scandal like plagiarism (e.g., ex-New York Times top editor Howell Raines in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal).

But something new is going on here. In each of these cases, journalists at the publications rose up to complain about their bosses, claiming that the momentary offense reflected a deeper problem in leadership: being out of touch with the new norms of journalism.

Those norms pit an engaged generation of young reporters against an older, mostly white (and mostly male) establishment. At its heart is the tension between traditional journalistic mores of insistent neutrality, the balance of “both sides” journalism and the desire by younger journalists for clearer lines of a declared morality.

TheWrap is not immune to this friction: Last week, TheWrap’s leadership (myself and executive editor Thom Geier and assistant managing editor Daniel Goldblatt) held an employee town hall via Zoom to hear out objections to a guest op-ed piece about Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old girl who shot the video of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The discussion broke along whether the guest blog was so offensive to some readers that it should be removed, or whether the writer’s right to an unpopular opinion meant it should stay published. The discussion led first to an apology over the editing of the post, which did not meet our standards for focus and context. But that apology did not satisfy our newsroom. On Friday, we took down the post after a second, more insistent request by the vast majority of the editorial staff.

Similar discussions are echoing in newsrooms across the country, as L.A. Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine acknowledged to his staff in a memo this month: “We can be faulted for focusing on a white subscriber base even as the city became majority nonwhite. Our paper’s history of addressing the concerns of people of color in the newsroom has been equally checkered. Our failures have caused pain for staff past and present.”

Wesley Lowery, a former Washington Post journalist on the youthful side of this divide, tweeted about the meltdown at the New York Times over the publication of an op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton that led to the abrupt resignation of James Bennet as editorial page editor: “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” he wrote. “We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”

The New York Times’ Ben Smith — who is quickly emerging as the most trenchant media critic working today — told the story of Lowery, who was arrested while reporting on the front lines of Ferguson, Missouri, and who ultimately left his job at The Washington Post earlier this year in a clash with top editor Martin Baron over his opinionated tweets.

“As America is wrestling with the surging of a moment that began in August 2014 (in Ferguson), its biggest newsrooms are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls,” Smith wrote.

Ben Smith (Drew Angerer/.)

This sense lay beneath the outrage that erupted over Cotton’s call to “Send in the Troops” in his notorious Times op-ed — and the subsequent protest of 800 Times staffers. The acknowledgement of racial insensitivity over a “Buildings Matter, Too” headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer led to the resignation of executive editor Stan Wischnowski. Complaints at Refinery29 that journalists of color were discriminated against and paid less for their video appearances than white colleagues led to the resignation of co-founder Christene Barberich.

Last week, Bon Appétit editor in chief Adam Rapoport said he’d resign after an old photo of him in brownface surfaced. But, as TheWrap reported, that “led to a larger discussion on social media surrounding the culture at the magazine and how nonwhite staff members are compensated and treated.”

Newsrooms rarely rise up against their leadership, and definitely not publicly. But this too is part of this shift that is happening.

As Smith wrote in the Times: “The shift in mainstream American media — driven by a journalism that is more personal, and reporters more willing to speak what they see as the truth without worrying about alienating conservatives — now feels irreversible. It is driven in equal parts by politics, the culture and journalism’s business model, relying increasingly on passionate readers willing to pay for content rather than skittish advertisers.”

Adam Rapoport (.)

The debate here is quite fundamental. The shared mission among journalists has been canon for decades — that reporters remain neutral in order to retain their credibility. And that publications unstintingly report both sides (and sometimes more) of any issue they cover. In addition, I believe that outlets should be able to offer a platform for commentary from multiple voices, including ones with which some (or even most) readers and staffers might disagree.

Still, in the age of Trump, that view is under scrutiny. In a commentary last week posted on his PressThink site, media critic Jay Rosen wrote: “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.”

Rosen concluded: “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.”

He is probably not the last to do so.