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‘Both-Sides Journalism’ vs. ‘A Place Of Moral Clarity’

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Image by Mahesh Patel from Pixabay

We live in interesting times … pandemic, economic disaster, civil unrest, extreme partisanship.

And as the people whose job it is to inform their neighbors what’s going on in their world, we journalists, in particular, are struggling to keep up with the titanic shifts that make these times so “interesting.” A recent controversy at the New York Times illustrates one seismic fault line everyone in the news business is having to wrestle with.

The Times’ Op-Ed page recently published a piece by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) provocatively titled, “Send in the Troops,” in which he called for the U.S. military to be used to put down the sometimes violent protests that arose after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.

“Rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960s,” Cotton wrote. “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”

The piece received intense criticism, not just for its broad assertions lacking factual evidence, but also for advocating a stunning break with the principle that the military stays out of domestic affairs.

Having seen many religions and political movements claim with absolute moral clarity that their beliefs are the only valid ones, I’m reluctant to don that mantle myself.

Many journalists, including dozens in the Times’ newsroom, felt the piece endangered them, given the well over 300 documented cases of working journalists being arrested, injured or targeted by law enforcement while covering the unrest. Senior editor Kwame Opam tweeted “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” Others tweeted similar sentiments.

Editorial page editor James Bennet initially defended publishing the piece, saying, “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”

But within two days, the Times said publishing the op-ed was a mistake, the result of “a rushed editorial process” that “did not meet our standards.” Bennet—widely considered a likely successor to the executive editor job in a few years, resigned.

American journalism reeled. What just happened? Times columnist Michelle Goldberg’s take was that the extremist positions increasingly being staked out by Cotton and his Republican colleagues had upended the traditional approach to op-ed pages, an approach Bennett had championed.

“It’s important to understand what the people around the president are thinking. But if they’re honest about what they’re thinking, it’s usually too disgusting to engage with. This creates a crisis for traditional understandings of how the so-called marketplace of ideas functions.”

New York University journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen expanded on that observation.

“Debate club democracy — where people of good will share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done — is an expensive illusion to maintain during a presidency that tries to undermine every independent and factual check there is on the executive’s power, not just a free press and its journalism, but the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps, the civil service, government scientists, inspectors general, and Congress in its oversight function ... This isn’t debate club. It’s an attack on the institutions of American democracy.”

Writing in Vox, Zach Beauchamp said this isn’t to argue for limiting the range of opinions to a particular ideological viewpoint.

“Rather, it’s a question of how journalists should think about their roles as guardians of mainstream discourse. Does every idea that’s popular in power, no matter how poorly considered, deserve some kind of respectful airing in mainstream publications? Or are there boundaries, both of quality of argument and moral decency, where editors need to draw the line — especially in the Trump era?”

Wesley Lowery, formerly of the Washington Post and now with 60 Minutes, made the point sharply in a June 3 tweet: “American view-from-nowhere, “objectivity”-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”

That rang an alarm with NYT’s international columnist Roger Cohen. He agrees that journalistic “objectivity” is a fallacy—it doesn’t exist and never did. But, recalling his interviews with Serbian warlords during the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia in the 1990s, Cohen says …

“I still believe in both-sides journalism. ‘A place of moral clarity’ can easily mean there is only one truth, and if you deviate from it, you are done for. The liberal idea that freedom is served by open debate, even with people holding repugnant views, is worth defending. If conformity wins, democracy dies.”

I tend to share Roger Cohen’s discomfort with the call to base journalism in “moral clarity.” Having seen many religions and political movements claim with absolute moral clarity that their beliefs are the only valid ones, I’m reluctant to don that mantle myself. I still think well-informed readers and listeners can be trusted to sort out conflicting political perspectives.

Which gets to the core of journalism’s raison d’etre; to give the citizens of a democracy factual information and exposure to a range of reasonable viewpoints so they can debate the merits among themselves and base their votes and other civic engagement on quality ideas.

But with a social media universe that’s become increasingly detached from reality, when top White House advisors promote “alternative facts” with a straight face, when major party nominees for Senate and House seats endorse absurd conspiracy theories, the times do seem to call for a more robust defense of the just, the humane, dare I say, the moral. We seem to be reaching a point where splitting the difference between opposing perspectives and calling it good just isn’t good enough anymore.

So, like it or not, finding an honest, ethically-sound way through the confusion to a new place of balance seems to be the work that lies ahead of us.