From in-house Slack to all-too-public Twitter, from public letters to j’accuse-style resignations, journalism is debating its reshape under pressure from the big cultural reset of the now. It’s ugly — shocking — to see this out where anyone can see! Welcome to the 21st century.

For the US, it’s been like living through one of Australia’s reset moments, say, the booing of Adam Goodes — what you see depends on where you’re looking from.

It’s a very subjective wrangling of how journalists think, about objectivity for example, in the cultural reset of Black Lives Matter and Me Too, mixed up with access and amplification and jobs and newsroom collegiality.

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The craft tension broke surface when The New York Times amplified ever-Trump Republican Senator Tom Cotton with an op-ed repeating his earlier Fox News and Twitter calls for the army to deal “with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit [George] Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes”.

Sounds like the typical trolling the US media has accommodated as defence against Trumpian “enemy of the people” attacks. Australians recognise it — it’s why the ABC regularly hosts News Corp commentators.

But the zeitgeist had changed. The 2000-person NYT Newsroom Feedback Slack channel exploded. In a separate ad-hoc channel, Black staff coordinated their critique: “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger”. The paper’s guild came out in support.  It felt like Australia’s Friends of Fairfax editorial independence revolts of the 1990s.

Opinion page editor James Bennet resigned. The paper added the intro: “the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.”

The revolt spread across America’s major newsrooms: The Washington Post, LA Times, even News Corps’ Wall Street Journal, with demands for greater diversity and changes to reporting on race. 

On Twitter, Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Lowery provided the call to arms: “We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.” (For the record, I agree). NYT media columnist Ben Smith amplified the tweet: “Inside the revolts erupting in America’s big newsrooms.” Lowery followed up with a NYT op-ed: “A reckoning over objectivity, led by Black journalists.”

Objectivity today, Lowery argued, acts to “deprive their readers of plainly stated facts that could expose reporters to accusations of partiality or imbalance”.

For opinion page staffer Bari Weiss it was a generational battle: “The civil war inside The New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes [and] the (mostly 40+) liberals is the same one raging inside other publications and companies across the country.”

In New York magazine’s Intelligencer, Andrew Sullivan asked: Is there still room for debate? “This view of the world,” he wrote, “certainly has ‘moral clarity’. What it lacks is moral complexity.” Harper’s columnist Thomas Chatterton Williams tweeted that the reason journalists needed to “strive for objectivity (impossible, of course, but worthy of our effort) is quite simply because ‘moral clarity’ is always in the eye of the beholder”.

In The New Yorker, Masha Gessen squared the circle describing “moral clarity” as, “a quest, guided by clear values and informed by facts and context, and clearly aligned with the original concept of journalistic objectivity”.

Harper’s Letter on Open Justice and Debate warned of “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”. Apparently drafted by Williams and signed by about 150 writers, the letter was either a united appeal against destructive cancel culture on social media or the old voices unhappy about being replaced by the new, in inevitably messy circumstances. Or maybe both.

Frustratingly long on the passive voice, the letter circled back to the Bennet resignation (“editors are fired for running controversial pieces”). One NYT signatory, Bari Weiss, then publicly resigned saying: “Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired.”

Weiss was a controversial appointment, employed, she says, in reaction to the Trump shock, “with the goal of bringing in voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages: first-time writers, centrists, conservatives”. She was internally unpopular according to the internal Slack chats and Twitter gossip. Or, as she characterised it: “My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views.”

How much of it was politics? How much personal? How much a recognition that the initial pre-emptive buckle to Trump has passed? Bennet’s replacement, Kathleen Kingsbury, shrugged her out the door: “We appreciate the many contributions that Bari made to Times Opinion.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan has announced that he’s leaving New York magazine for reasons that are, apparently, “self-evident” and to be elaborated in his farewell column this Friday.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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