“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.”
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