National Public Radio recently announced that it had revised its ethics policy to allow its reporters to “participate in activities that advocate for ‘the freedom and dignity of human beings’ on both social media and in real life.” The policy also lifted a previous prohibition on NPR employees participating in “marches, rallies, and public events.” 

Now NPR employees are free to “express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

At a time when public trust in mainstream-media institutions is at an all-time low, it’s perhaps not the worst thing for a news outlet to call for greater transparency among its journalists. The policy might succeed if NPR journalists are honest in their disclosures of their activism. And who could be against promoting the “freedom and dignity of human beings”? 

But the policy itself will never face a true test of its ethical durability. NPR journalists and their editors are already a self-selected bunch. No one honestly believes public-radio bosses will be parsing the ethical nuances of whether a pro-life NPR reporter should be allowed to picket outside a Planned Parenthood abortion facility, because that would never happen. Rather, they are likely to rubber-stamp staffers’ requests to attend a Black Lives Matter rally or whatever is the left-liberal protest cause du jour.

More challenging will be enforcing the social-media component of the new policy. Because what forced the hand of NPR to loosen its restrictions on journalists advocating for causes wasn’t a new sense of civic duty or ethical responsibility. It was pressure from a new generation of reporters who can’t imagine a world where they merely hold personal beliefs. They must be allowed—nay, encouraged!—to promote and perform them on social media.

As NPR itself noted in its description of the committee convened to draft the new ethics rules, “in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a younger generation of journalists pushed NPR to modify its traditional prohibitions.” NPR’s “chief diversity officer,” Keith Woods, was named the co-chair of the committee that wrote the new policy. An NPR reporter quotes Woods as saying that at one end of the committee were “people who would go so far as to use the word ‘objectivity,’” while at the other end of the spectrum were the “burn-it-all-down kinds of folks.” It tells you a great deal about mainstream journalism today that even invoking the word “objectivity” was viewed as possibly going too far.

This has become even more pronounced in the era of woke politics and the required public posturing such politics demand. It is no longer sufficient to keep your personal opinions private or try to remain neutral; everyone must choose a side (because silence is violence). As a result, everything is now an act of resistance—from the kinds of books you buy (if you haven’t read Antiracist Baby, by Ibram X. Kendi, then you’re probably a racist and so is your child), to the politicians you choose to retweet on Twitter. Every choice signals an allegiance, and that signal is the only noise that matters.

The politics of personal expression enabled by social media merges well with journalism’s embrace of this woke revolution. As NPR notes, “Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American journalists have argued that they have been disproportionately confined by—even disciplined over—policies that limit personal expression.” Our nation’s post–George Floyd “racial reckoning” is now frequently used by journalists to justify “my truth” (as opposed to impartiality) as an active and improved posture for reporters, particularly reporters keen to view events through the lens of identity politics. And they promote “their truth” as akin to universal values about human dignity. As former Washington Post reporter (now at CBS) Wesley Lowery tweeted about the new NPR policy, “it says something that a news organization would need to *update* their policies to allow employees to express ‘support’ for ‘the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press.’”

This new contempt for objectivity, professional detachment, and impartiality doesn’t signal a new attention to ethics in journalism. It heralds the new era of “post-journalism,” as Andrey Mir has described it. A younger generation of journalists views traditional journalistic values as antediluvian, as well as a hindrance to the expression of their own ideological beliefs. The aging producers and editors and journalists who went into journalism assuming these were important values have either left the profession (willingly or by force) or feel obliged to offer caveats to even the mildest defense of impartiality.

The results of this post-journalistic approach have been decidedly mixed. We have been given some transparency about the partisan bias of some reporters (Yamiche Alcindor, call your office). But the already unhealthy solipsism of the profession has increased exponentially. Reporters now cover the professional movements of other reporters (or their woke missteps) like Tiger Beat magazine used to cover pop stars. How is the public served by multiple, detailed reports by the New York Times about the Machiavellian career maneuverings involved in reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’s pursuit of tenure at a J-school? 

In some sense we should care, because the logical products of this new form of journalism are questionable ideas bearing the imprimatur of professional institutions. For example, in its journalism predictions for 2021, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University devoted space to an argument for “reparative journalism.” As outlined by journalism professor Meredith Clark—who likened today’s newsrooms to Jim Crow and often puts the word objectivity in scare quotes—reparative journalism does “the work of racial justice, and by extension—without apology—social justice.” She wants to see the “core value” of initiatives like the Times’ controversial 1619 Project “normalized,” which is odd considering how much money the Times has made in 1619 merchandising, and she claims she is opposed to “racial capitalism that values and reifies white dominance.” 

In fact, like many woke initiatives, reparative journalism is about power and who gets the plum jobs. As Clark argues, “reparative journalism requires the redistribution of power—a phrase that often causes white folks—who, not coincidentally, make up more than 70 percent of the U.S. news industry’s workforce—to blanch when it’s uttered in the service of racial justice and liberation.”

No wonder values such as impartiality and neutrality appear quaint. As Martin Gurri has argued: “Post-journalism, in truth, is a business model concealed behind an ideological stance. It sells a creed, an agenda, to like-minded believers. It identifies the existential fears of a specific audience, then manufactures what that audience will buy.”

For now, NPR’s new ethics policy will likely still prevent a reporter who marches with BLM to report on it as if his or her views are objective. But it marks a further slide into journalism as “my truth” and away from the ideal of objective reporting.

And it contributes to a dangerous hubris. Today’s elite journalists often speak of themselves and their work as if describing the vaunted duties of high clerics or angels, forgetting their profession’s baser origins; journalists were for centuries viewed as the guttersnipes of the literary world, often rightly so. In Lost Illusions, Balzac’s main character goes to Paris to become a poet. But he ends up a hack journalist, and the moral compromises he makes in service to his ambition do not lead to a happy ending. Were Balzac alive today, he would find that those hack journalists have now become a profession as fickle, vain, and dishonest as the French beau monde he so vividly skewered in his work.

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