The demise of the profession formerly known as journalism

We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.”

Never in my four decades as a journalist did I expect to hear reporters say that they’re tired of being told by their editors that they must report both sides of a story.

Yet, this is what we’ve come to, that there’s only one side of a story to tell. And that the other side(s) should shut up.

This startling canon came in a letter from Philadelphia Inquirer staff members of color who, prompted by a headline (“Buildings Matter, Too”) proclaimed they were sick and tired of among other things reporting two sides of the story.

This returns the American press to the post-colonial days when newspapers were overtly partisan and unreliable sources of objective news. It took many decades for journalism to evolve into a profession, when providing the most accurate  and objective accounts was the ideal.

We can disagree over whether the headline was racially insensitive or even dangerous, but this goes beyond a mere difference opinion. It declares that the first principle of journalism should be abandoned and bow to a lockstep agenda that reflexives the “reality” of one side or another.

This incident at the Inquirer, which led to the resignation of the paper’s top editor and a squirrelly apology, is as dangerous as the uproar at the New York Times over an op-ed that some of the staff found inflammatory. Never mind that the argument by Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, calling for tougher action against violent rioters is backed by a majority of Americans; it’s not the “fringe” view that the staff made it out to be. That the Insurrection Act authorizes the president to employ the military in domestic uprising is established law.

For example, President Dwight Eisenhower deployed federal troops (the 101st Airborne Division) over the objections of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to integrate a Little Rock school. Somehow this has escaped the attention of the agenda setters.

More frightening, though, is the idea that opinion pieces on the editorial page must conform to the views of the reporters out in the newsroom. It is as dangerous to the very purpose of journalism as it is stupid. Never, ever in my experience on an editorial board has the newsroom dictated what is published on the editorial page, including op-eds. Any demand from newsroom reporters  and editors to snuff out a view in the editorial section would have been met with an unmistakeable get lost.

Even at Poynter, a sort of press watchdog, the thought was expressed that because Cotton’s op-ed was more harmful than good, he should have “used Twitter and not had help getting his word out from one of the biggest media companies in the world.” Think about the implications of that.

How did we get here?

I haven’t been back to my alma mater, Marquette University’s School of Journalism, in years, so I don’t know what’s being taught in J-schools these days. But I got a clue about what students expect from this view expressed by the Inquirer’s Jenice Armstrong in her piece, “Inquirer staffers who called out ‘sick and tired’ voiced what a lot of us have been thinking”

In college, I was initially attracted to this industry because I thought journalists were more progressive than people in other industries. I hoped that as an African American female reared in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, I would have fewer in-house battles to fight, since I would be with fellow crusaders who made a living by prodding America to live up to the ideals upon which she was founded.

For her, journalism is an agenda. She choose a progressive agenda; what of others who choose a conservative agenda? Are they to be excluded from the profession? For her, journalism is a crusade. Does that mean that every story she writes or editors should bend to fit her views?

I fear this view is reflective of the profession formerly known as journalism. It is a rejection of the guiding principle that journalism’s job is to provide dependable, balanced and accurate information, the feedstock of a self-governing people.

The new “journalism” rejects the view of founding father John Adams: “Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.” It is replaced with, “Don’t you dare.” 

My historical novel: Madness: The War of 1812

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  • "Don't you dare" would be nice actually. In local online posts that get political, I have seen people tell those with a conservative bent to "just stop talking."

  • When 0bama was 'president', the MSM was practically licking his nutsack (and still are).

  • I remember when the Trib refused to publish my letters to the editor.
    Were they abridging my freedom of speech?

    Why should you be obliged to give both sides of an issue when one side is patently false? You very well aware that Trump lies practically every time he opens his mouth.

    Dannis, don't fret. Journalism is strong today and as vital and important as ever. It provides the sunlight to disinfectant the lies of an aspiring fascist like Trump.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I completely agree that a publisher has a right to control what appears in his newspaper. Thus, he can accept or decline your letters. When I, as a freelance writer, submit anything to a publisher, that's exactly what they do. I don't whine about they are not understanding that my viewpoint is patently correct

    In these cases, the publisher, under pressure, gave up that right to the staff, which is okay if that is what he wants. But these two cases go beyond that point. The staff decided they alone have the knowledge of the truth. Such arrogance.

    Here the one side was not "patently" false. The op-ed's viewpoint was a legitimate issue of public policy, one supported by the majority. Even if supported by only a minority, that doesn't make it a less legitimate issue.

    When I was on the Sun-Times editorial board, we recognized that in deciding what op-eds and letters should be published. Frankly, I'm surprised to see you take this stand against a full and open debate. Is that one of your progressive values?

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    You say in the blog that "tougher action against violent rioters is backed by a majority of Americans;" and you repeat it here. Do you have support for this?

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Journalism is DOA from self inflicted wounds. Just look at the circulation numbers. BTW who is do decide what is patently false and who is over seeing them?

  • I worked with several immigrants that escaped from Iron Curtain countries, even Russia. They all said the same thing:. "We knew PRAVADA was lying to us". You American's are believing what you read in the news. Recently I came across (even met) the author of AMERICAN PRAVDA.

  • Something you failed to point out is that shortly before Tom Cotton's letter was submitted to the Times he wrote a broadly circulated tweet in which he declared that regular army forces should by used in American cities and that there should be "No quarter for insurrections, anarchists, rioters and looters." As a former army officer and a graduate of Harvard Law School, he surely knew that this order would be in violation of American Department of Defense Law of War Manual, and has been since 1863. He would also know that it is in violation of Article 4 of the Geneva Conventions on warfare and customary international law.

    Is it the duty of news organizations to give an advocate of war crimes a forum to discuss military tactics?

  • In reply to jnorto:


  • In reply to jnorto:

    The NYT actually approached HIM and asked him to write the piece.

  • This is not the way James Bennet, the editorial page editor explained it. See, e.g.
    But maybe you have other information.

  • If mass-media "journalism" resembled then what it has become now, I would never have enrolled in J-school 23 years ago. It was already heavily liberal then, but at least alternative views were tolerated and not censored.

    Reporters should be on a "crusade" for the truth and nothing else. I've decided I'm putting "journalism" and "journalist" in quotation marks from now on because it's become propaganda. I also believe that media bias is reflected more in the news that doesn't get reported than in what does. Now, if you want to find out what's actually happening in the world you often have to turn to specialty and ideological publications.

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