It came onto my radar by one of the more credible voices in journalism, NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen, so it appeared to be something to take seriously. And it appeared in the Washington Post, so it found space in a legit newspaper. And it was written by the WaPo media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, so it was presumptively authoritative.
But it was an irrational, unethical paean to justify why reporters should be liars “for the public good.”
The Society for Professional Journalists has a code of ethics which begins with a fairly straightforward admonition.
Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Sullivan begins her polemic by noting the hardships endured by reporters over the past two weeks. Reporters attacked and arrested, one losing an eye, during the protests. The Philly Inquirer’s and New York Times’ editors being canned (yes, they “resigned”), and thousands of journalists losing their jobs due to the pandemic. Curiously, she forgets the thousands more who lost their jobs as media outlets folded or laid off staff they could no longer support before COVID-19.
It’s a mess.
But it’s the kind of mess that American journalists could come out of stronger and better if they — and the American people they serve — grapple with some difficult questions.
They could. Or not. But confronting “difficult questions” is the fashionable framing, so why not?
The core question is this: In this polarized, dangerous moment, what are journalists supposed to be?
There’s an old lawyer adage that if you want to get the right answer, ask the right question. This is a stupid question. What does this being a “polarized, dangerous moment” have to do with what journalists are supposed to be? They’re supposed to be journalists during happy times or sad times. But of course, that wasn’t why Sullivan posed a stupid question. It’s because she wanted to give her stupid answer. But first, she had to “demolish” her opposition.
Pose that question to most members of the public, and you might get an answer something like this: “Just tell me the bare facts. Leave your interpretation out of it. And don’t be on anyone’s side.”
That’s an appealing idea at first blush.
It’s also one that doesn’t always work, especially right now.
Before getting to her punchline, it’s worth noting the heavy work being done by her intellectual squishiness. Sure, the public wants facts (she tosses the adjective “bare” in front to try to front load her point, which can be seen as either redundant or, more likely, minimalist). As for “leave your interpretation out of it,” that too is a bit tricky as it’s not quite what anyone is saying.
When facts are technical, complex or involve factors that readers need to know in order to appreciate, then people want journalists to provide the requisite background information, often described as “context,” to enable readers to draw their own conclusions.
That doesn’t mean we want the personal interpretations of a 24-year-old journalism major, with no subject matter expertise, but reporting of knowledgeable views presenting fairly and accurately. By compounding her explanation of what the simplistic public wants with a squishy but less-than-accurate characterization, she ironically demonstrates the problem.
Every piece of reporting — written or spoken, told in text or in images — is the product of choices. Every article approaches its subject from somebody’s perspective. Every digital home page, every printed front page, every 30-minute newscast, every one of the news alerts blowing up your phone, every radio talk show is the product of decision-making.
We choose what to focus on, what to amplify, what to investigate and examine.
This is, of course, true, that the media decides what we need to know, what’s worthy of their time or real estate. But it provides nothing about the basis upon which the media does, or should, make its choices. Sure, newsworthiness reflects an inherent bias. Is the solution to try one’s best to overcome personal bias or to succumb to it?
That’s why the simplistic “just the unadorned facts” can be such a canard. And that’s why the notion to “represent all points of view equally” is absurd and sometimes wrongheaded.
If you’re wondering how the argument of bias in deciding what to cover morphs into the conclusion that reporting facts is “simplistic” and, inexplicably, then into “represent all points of view equally” (where the hell did that come from, in general, and “equally,” which is the strawiest of strawmen, in particular), is “absurd.” And “wrongheaded,” but only “sometimes.”
Whereupon, Sullivan nails down her position.
The real answer is to make better, wiser choices — ones that best serve our important mission to find and tell the truth.
Surely, this is uncontroversial, since no reasonable person can complain about a journalist “finding and telling the truth,” right? But “truth” has become one of those curious words these days, where once it was synonymous with facts and now it’s relative, as Sullivan shows by example.
“We need to hear all points of view, especially those we disagree with,” is their reasoning. And some even argue that those who object to the piece on the grounds that it is incendiary and factually flawed are a mob of coddled activists masquerading as objective journalists.
What are the chances she addresses the first sentence rather than the hyperbole of the second?
That argument can be dismantled in a nanosecond. Should the denialist views of, say, Alex Jones of Infowars on the Sandy Hook massacre be given a prestigious platform, too? But Cotton is a prominent political figure, you say? By that logic, the lies of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway should be welcomed on news-discussion shows daily because she’s close to the president.
At no time does Sullivan recognize the distinction between editorial and news, which seems rather basic and yet eludes her. Her comparison of the editorial views of Alex Jones with a United States senator is inapt, and her comparison of the editorial views of that senator with presenting alternate facts as facts in the news is inapt. And if Conway tells lies, then there should be facts to be presented by an ethical journalist as part of the reporting to show that to be the case. Notice how we ended up back with the facts again?
From reading this D minus sophomore journalism essay, one might suppose that Margaret Sullivan should be handed a dime by Professor Rosen and told to call her mom and tell her she will never be a journalist. Instead, she’s the media columnist in the Washington Post, and Jay Rosen is amplifying her.
Does this mean there’s a duty to lie? Not exactly, but if there is no longer a duty to accurately and fairly report the facts, the options are limited.