American journalists are under attack — not just on the streets where they are being targeted by police but within their newsrooms where they are being targeted by each other.
It’s being called a “cultural reckoning” but as the victims tendering their resignations pile up it looks more like culture wars, or at least a racial version of the Me Too movement which engulfed some key media outlets.
And, being journalists, the biggest news story in decades becomes all about them.
The biggest stir was caused by The New York Times when opinion editor James Bennet resigned yesterday over an inflammatory piece by Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for troops to quell the Black Lives Matter protests.
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At the weekend the The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editor resigned over this headline: “Buildings matter, too”.
Overnight the editor of lifestyle publication Refinery29 resigned over complaints about discrimination and insensitive treatment of minorities at the 15-year-old online site.
On Monday the editor of Bon Appetit magazine, Adam Rapoport, was forced to resign over a 2004 “brownface” photo and criticism of not only how he treats people of colour but how he treats the food from different cultures.
Then there is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which banned two black journalists from covering local protests because they were perceived as too biased based on some of their tweets.
Although the controversies were sparked by sensitivity to the protests, they are causing a much broader and intense debate about the role of media in the post-Trump, Fox News world.
The NYT controversy has attracted the most attention given its role as the biggest and most powerful paper in the US. It raises not only questions of bias and safety in the workplace but the very basis of free speech.
It’s here that the obvious and most famous quote to use is “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (often attributed to Voltaire but should now be attributed to author Evelyn Beatrice Hall).
The premise remains the same — except at the NYT apparently. An opinion piece by an elected Republican senator designed to stir debate was deemed too incendiary under the headline “Send in the troops”.
This led to “sickout” by a number of staff members refusing to log on because, as they explained later, the oped piece “put the lives of black NYT staff in danger”.
(And what about the danger of protests in a pandemic that killed more than 22,000 primarily people of colour in New York? Or the free speech rights of the widely condemned white, right-wing anti-lockdown protesters earlier?)
Some observers felt Bennet’s demise was brought on more by his admission at a staff town hall on Friday that he had not read the incendiary piece before it was published.
As usual the right is in full dudgeon about free speech and censorship and warning the left has gone too woke and politically correct. Some NYT subscribers have made similar comments online.
Being the Times, it ran a lengthy feature analysing its own scandal with a quote from a younger Washington Post reporter: “Telling the truth is now more important than the perception of balance.”
Really? Does that mean we can leave it to the toxic Fox News to keep the “fair and balanced” travesty of a logo?
Certainly the NYT — “All the news that’s fit to print” — can now be interpreted many ways.
To put the other side while still allowed, oped pages have previously censored “dangerous” views from paedophiles to anti-vaxxers and Klan members. Although in the UK one observer noted that bastion of the left, The Guardian, ran a piece by Osama bin Laden in 2004 in its comment section.
We are not immune in Australia. The ABC is under constant attack from Murdoch papers for too few right-wing voices, and new Insiders host David Speers is criticised for too many. (Admittedly News has its own outlet in Sky News which does not encourage rival voices.)
Last week Insiders was deemed too white. Q&A carefully tried to avoid that on Monday night.
I worked for Sky News for many years because I thought it was important to be a voice of the centre and counter some of the more ludicrous arguments that go to air from non journalists and dubious “commentators”.
Otherwise everywhere becomes an echo chamber, or as one NYT reader wrote overnight: “We must meet each other in the marketplace of ideas or retreat into silos.”