Seems like heresy when two national journalists take a deep dive into soul-searching the integrity of their profession.
But hold on. There’s much to unpack and parse here.
First, Roger Cohen. “Outcry Over ‘Both Sides’ Journalism :
“I have never believed much in the notion of journalistic “objectivity”. We all bring our individual sensitivities to bear on what we write. Great journalism involves the head and the heart, the lucidity to think and the passion to feel, the two in balance.”
And Bret Stephens (on the same page just three columns over).
“Last week’s decision by this newspaper to disavow an Op-Ed by Senator Tom Cotton is a gift to the enemies of a free press – free in the sense of one that doesn’t quiver and cave in the face of an outrage mob.”
They were referring, of course, to (1.) “objectivity” as a foundational standard of the journalism profession; (2) the flare up in the Times newsroom over Senator Cotton’s Op-ed). Issues: As an editor, reporter or commentator can you truly extinguish the life-long emotional and intellectual experiences stored in the recesses of your brain? Do you really want to?
Here’s an experiment to begin to address this: Place the front page of any two daily newspapers before you and consider how the content varies on the choice of stories, headlines, ledes, story lines, display and length.
Which, ultimately, is a good thing in a democratic society: freedom of speech, freedom of the “press”, marketplace of ideas, etc. As long as there is an earnest effort to achieve objectivity in news reporting and yes, even in commentaries on the editorial/op-ed pages as well.
Avoid false equivalencies. Rely on facts and truth as much as they can be verified.
But false equivalencies may be a tipping point on the “”Both Sides Journalism” debate. That’s the case for Eric Alterman, in MOYERS ON DEMOCRACY , expressed in his trenchant piece, “You Don’t Have to Publish Both Sides When One Side is Fascism” – (originally in The Nation) :
“I don’t doubt the Times editors good faith in seeking to expose readers to points of view they might not otherwise encounter. But more than three years into the Trump presidency, given the threats we face, it is long past time for editors to stop playing both sides with fascism and democracy.”
Cohen and Stephens have done us a service by threading the needle on journalistic”propriety. Surely, not everything should appear in mainstream media. The long-standing question, of course, is where do you draw the line?
Perhaps style, word selection and track record are important as context. Cotton’s recent tweets on the George Floyd protesters included this: “And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, Ist Cav, 3rd Infantry – whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter [emphasis added] for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters and looters.”
Stephens is open to Op-eds such as Senator Cotton’s – although he has a personal/professional limit for such free speech/free press: “We have an obligation to keep undeniably hateful ideas, like Holocaust denial or racism, out of editorial pages. But serious journalism, complete with vigorous exchange of ideas, cannot survive in an atmosphere in which modest intellectual risk-taking or minor offenses against new ideological orthodoxies risk professional ruin.”
I feel more comfortable with Cohen’s conclusion:
“I also recognize another truth: that the Floyd killing illustrated that racism in the United States is systemic, and white-dominated American newsrooms are ill-equipped to deal with this reality because only more diversity can capture multiple perspectives.”