The New York Times op-ed page has featured contributions from Vladimir Putin, pedophiles, and the Taliban without a peep from the paper’s staff, so it might seem odd that an opinion piece by Senator Tom Cotton was the one that would spur a professional revolt. But Cotton’s op-ed argued for using the American military to help local police quell violent unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In the eyes of hundreds of Times staffers, that view—shared, according to one poll, by 3 in 5 Americans—could not be permitted.
Black journalists at the Times claimed that the op-ed literally endangered their lives (“Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger,” many of them tweeted), a sentiment other journalists outside the Times endorsed on social media. 60 Minutes correspondent Wesley Lowery tweeted that black Times employees “deserve so much better than to have their own employer endangering not only their lives but the lives of their friends and families and millions of other Americans.” He continued, “American view-from-no-where, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”
E. Alex Jung of New York magazine went one further, posting on Twitter that “the entire journalistic frame of ‘objectivity’ and political neutrality is structured around white supremacy.” He later reveled in the news that op-ed chief James Bennet had “resigned” from the Times, tweeting, “mediocre white men everywhere are shaking.” As Atlantic contributing writer Jemelle Hill described on CNN recently: “Journalism is not a profession of being friends. Journalism is a profession of agitation.”
For these reporters, the reaction (and the removal of Bennet) was seen as a bracing and welcome new wave of change for newsrooms. As the Times’ media critic, Ben Smith, described, “Lowery’s view that news organizations’ ‘core value needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity’…has been winning in a series of battles, many around how to cover race.” In truth, the supposed moral clarity claimed by these new arbiters of how journalism should be pursued has led to muddled and, in some cases, hypocritical news gathering that is not compatible with fact-based journalism. A position of moral clarity assumes one already knows certain unwavering truths; any questions asked will have emerged from those truths and be guided by them.
In this view, objectivity is either a pretense or a lie, since the truth is already understood by those who have reached a state of moral clarity. Thus it is seen as appropriate to downplay facts about the looting and rioting and violence that were committed during supposedly peaceful protests; or to memory-hole the efforts of reporters to shame Americans protesting extended pandemic-related lockdowns who then praised those gathering in far larger crowds to protest police brutality. The defense: The “truth” of these events outweighs the tired and tiresome rules governing honest reporting.
Moral clarity is also uncomfortable with nuance. Describing the reaction to a Times reporter’s description of Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, as “no angel,” Smith noted that “it set off outrage on Twitter, as a symbol of a style of journalism that seemed too ready to explain away police violence.”
But as an exhaustive investigation by the Obama Justice Department found, this characterization of Brown, although blunt, wasn’t wrong. Brown attacked a police officer and was trying to seize the officer’s weapon when he was killed. The mythology that arose around the event, including the claim that Brown had been shot in the back, or that his hands were up (which sparked the enduring protest phrase “Hands up. Don’t shoot”) was based on a fiction.
Likewise, moral clarity can lead its practitioners to ignore uncomfortable facts. Consider the violence and looting that occurred across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Asked for her thoughts on the subject on CBS News, Times staffer Nikole Hannah-Jones responded, “Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man’s neck until all of the life is leached out of his body. Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence. To use the same language to describe those two things is not moral.”
Hannah-Jones is right that what happened to George Floyd was an appalling act of violence, and one nearly all Americans agree has revealed serious problems in policing; but she’s wrong that the rioting and looting did not also result in violence. Several people have been killed as a result of the rioting and looting, including a retired black police captain who was shot while defending a business from looters. Many more people have lost their businesses and their jobs—some permanently—and it will take some of these communities decades to recover from the damage that was done.
It’s not just what is happening right in front of us that our new moral arbiters wish to police; it’s the language we use to describe it. The Associated Press style guide urged reporters to “limit the use of the word looting” in their reporting as it had “racial overtones.” Others raised similar objections to the use of the words “thug” and “riot,” which is why the New Yorker’s David Remnick referred to the lawlessness as “an uprising.” Policing speech in this manner isn’t done merely to shut down the use of inappropriate words. It’s an attempt to make verboten certain ideas by eliding distinctions and erasing inconvenient facts.
The new moral clarity, as bracing as it may be for the journalists who pursue it, ultimately undermines the argument they are trying to present by embracing hyperbole over uncertainty. It’s worse than rank punditry or naked partisanship, which at least concedes or reveals its motivations. It conceals complications and offers a false depiction of harsh realities.
If it’s true, as an activist whom Lowery quotes repeatedly in an Atlantic article claims, that our current law-enforcement systems “were created to hunt, to maim, and to kill black people, and the police have always been an uncontrollable source of violence that terrorizes our communities without accountability,” then how do we explain another persistent fear in black communities: the violent gangs that terrorize law-abiding residents in their own neighborhoods?
As Jamil Jivani recently noted in City Journal: “Reformers and revolutionaries alike often struggle to accept the reality of persistent hardcore criminality among a minority segment of the black community. Not wanting to play into racist stereotypes, they refuse to distinguish the gangsters who terrorize black communities from the vast majority of law-abiding black people.” As a result, crucial voices in these communities are not given space to tell their stories because doing so would complicate the morally clear narrative the journalists have already established.
In the 1970s, the New Journalism pioneered by writers such as Tom Wolfe drew on personal observations and used some of the techniques of fiction to tell stories, transforming nonfiction narrative journalism in the process and not necessarily in a good way. Today, Lowery and his peers practice a New Moralism, and the consequences for anyone who just wants to know what’s going on in the world are going to be parlous.
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