Coming under fire for ‘constrained view of journalism’
MARTY BARON, the newspaper editor who showed no fear in taking on the Catholic Church and now President Trump, is suddenly being described as old-school and out of touch.
The 65-year-old Baron is a difference maker in the newspaper industry. Wherever he goes, the publication improves and the quality of its journalism rises. That’s true at the Washington Post, where he is the executive editor, and it was also true at the Boston Globe, where he spurred a group of reporters to investigate the Catholic Church and its handling of pedophile priests. His intense demeanor and exacting standards were captured perfectly by Liev Schreiber in the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight.
Yet now Baron is coming under fire for what New York Times media writer Ben Smith calls his “constrained view of what journalism is today.” Several black reporters have left the newspaper, grumbling about a rigid newsroom culture that fails to recognize their value and their insights.
“It can, in this fraught moment, be difficult to untangle the forces driving the arguments about newsroom culture, objectivity, and fairness,” Smith writes. “There are, no doubt, real disagreements around the issue of how much journalists’ opinions, identities, and experiences should shape coverage and be shared with their audience, and when ‘objectivity’ simply means a dominant point of view. But what separates today’s cultural conflicts inside newsrooms from previous generations’ is that they now play out, in real time, in public on social media. And they offer a window into an industry, and society, struggling to find its moral footing around issues of racism.”
Nowhere was this struggle more evident than a story the Washington Post ran about a Halloween party in 2018 at the home of Post cartoonist Tom Toles. A woman came to the party dressed in blackface as Megyn Kelly, who had just been fired from her anchor’s job at NBC for saying on air that she didn’t understand why it was automatically considered racist for people to wear blackface as part of a Halloween costume. A number of people at the party confronted the woman about her costume and she ultimately left early and went home.
Two years later, in the midst of the racial awakening caused by George Floyd’s killing, a couple of people who were at the party in 2018 started pushing for answers from the Post about who the woman dressed up as Megyn Kelly was and what she was doing there dressed in blackface. Their questions led to a 3,000-word piece about the woman and the party, which got the woman fired from her job as a graphic designer.
Some saw the Post’s story, approved by Baron, as political correctness run amok. (“The non-recent, non-criminal bad acts of non-public figures are not ordinarily considered news,” said New York Magazine.) But a Post spokeswoman described the article as very relevant to the ongoing debate about race in America. “America’s grappling with racism has entered a phase in which people who once felt they should keep quiet are now raising their voices in public,” the spokeswoman said. “The story is a microcosm of what the country is going through right now.”
Wesley Lowery, a black reporter who recently left the Washington Post for a job with a 60 Minutes offshoot, argues the times demand a new type of journalism. In an article he wrote for the New York Times, Lowery said the notion of “objective journalism” should be put to rest because it is constructed on a platform of subjective decision-making and carried out by journalists who are not objective.
“And so, instead of promising our readers that we will never, on any platform, betray a single personal bias — submitting ourselves to a life sentence of public thoughtlessness — a better pledge would be an assurance that we will devote ourselves to accuracy, that we will diligently seek out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree and that we will be just as sure to ask hard questions of those with whom we’re inclined to agree.”
Lowery said this new approach is needed because the Republican Party and the Trump administration are providing “refuge to white supremacist rhetoric and policies, and our industry’s gatekeepers are preoccupied with seeming balanced, even ordering up glossy profiles of complicit actors. All the while, black and brown lives and livelihoods remain imperiled.”
Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, whom Lowery cited in his article, issued a series of tweets that praised Lowery’s essay on objectivity but raised concerns about some of its points. Rosenstiel said he feared the essay might be interpreted as a call for replacing “a misunderstood concept of objectivity” with subjectivity.
“Wes suggested the term moral clarity as a guiding principle,” Rosenstiel tweeted. “If that invites people to think that simply opining is some kind of truer or more moral form of reporting, they would be wrong and the effect would be tragic. If journalists replace a flawed understanding of objectivity by taking refuge in subjectivity and think their opinions have more moral integrity than genuine inquiry, journalism, will be lost.”