The woke revolution in American journalism has begun

Can the media's traditional principles survive?

A newspaper stand.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Alamy Stock Photo, iStock)

When we think about revolutions, we envision acts of violence: the storming and overrunning of barricades, the sharpening of guillotine blades, regicide. But what's most essential to revolution isn't the bloodletting. It's the change in regime — the shift in the orienting principles or ideals of the community or organization. Whether individuals in power hang on to their positions or are deposed matters less than whether the prevailing standards the community or organization looks up to, admires, and reveres fundamentally shift. When such a shift occurs, a revolution has been accomplished.

We've living through a revolutionary moment in American journalism right now.

It's been building slowly over the past few years. A conservative or centrist pundit pens a controversial column — or a news story treats with empathy a person or group expressing views at odds with progressive convictions — and a firestorm ignites on Twitter, with staffers at the news organization that published the offending piece joining with peers at other outlets and ideologically allied readers in expressing fury at the decision to run the article or op-ed.

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These storms have become more frequent and more severe as the insults and provocations of the Trump administration have piled up. But only in the past two weeks, as protests against the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer have spread across the country and the president has spoken and acted precipitously in response, have they exploded into outright newsroom rebellions.

The volatile situation at The New York Times — with staff uproar upon the publication of a highly controversial op-ed by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) roiling the paper for days and leading to the resignation of editorial page editor James Bennet — has received the bulk of the coverage. But the situation at the Times isn't the only example of staffers at news organizations rising up against perceived deviations from the progressive orthodoxy and demanding a greater say in (and veto power over) what gets published. When this has happened, at the Times and elsewhere, those holding the institutional power have capitulated.

We've been here before — on college campuses in the late 1960s, when student protesters occupied buildings, making demands for curricular and other changes, and administrators and prominent faculty members gave in across the board. The students at Columbia and Cornell were leading a revolution from the left, and the authorities who surrendered to them were liberals. The liberals folded because they were terrified of bad publicity, but also because they felt shamed by the moral purity, clarity, passion, and certainty of the young rebels. In all those respects, our newsroom revolutions are following the same script.

But what exactly is the character of these revolutions? How will the new order differ from the old? What new principles and ideals do the insurrectionists aim to institute?

It's important to clarify at the outset what the change is not aiming to do. The revolutionaries are not attempting to impose political or moral standards where they were once absent. No newsroom is politically neutral and no editorial page ideologically unbiased. Every community, every organization, and certainly every journalistic enterprise makes decisions about what's acceptable and what isn't, where lines should be drawn, and what kinds of statements belong on which sides of those lines. Reporters and editors make judgments every day about what's worth thinking about, taking seriously, and engaging with.

The rebels want to move the lines and impose new standards. Ben Smith's recent and very informative essay in the Times about the revolts erupting in America's newsrooms helps us to understand the character of the proposed changes. The journalists Smith quotes and paraphrases believe that "fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls." That news organizations need to be devoted to "the truth" rather than some spurious ideal of "objectivity." That in all things "moral clarity" is required. And that a journalist determines whether he or she has achieved such righteousness by measuring the volume of applause from likeminded followers on Twitter.

But what's absent from Smith's essay may be even more illuminating than what's in it. No one acknowledges the difficulty of achieving moral clarity. No one notes that there are precious few "clear moral calls" in life. No one demonstrates awareness that "the truth," like justice, is something our country is deeply divided about. No one expresses an understanding of how those divisions shape everyone's standpoint, very much including that of journalists themselves. Or concedes that understanding a country as complex and divided as the United States might require a little humility and willingness to suspend judgment for a time.

In place of difficulty, complexity, and complication, today's journalistic revolutionaries crave tidy moral lessons with clear villains and heroes. They champion simplicity, embrace moral uplift, and seek out evildoers to demonize.

That's how it is with crusades, whether theological or moral — they excuse words and deeds that in other contexts would be considered unacceptable. How many journalists have falsely testified that Cotton's op-ed advocated shooting protesters when it did no such thing? How many routinely rip the president's statements out of context in order to make him sound even worse than he does all on his own?

Such errors reveal how the revolutionaries conceive of the "news" — as a fluid and malleable "truth" to be weaponized to advance the self-evident Higher Truth of justice as they understand it. We also see this at work in the way the newsroom rebels cloak their political goals in the bureaucratic language of human resources, complete with appeals to "workplace safety." (Smith recounts how Times staffers outraged at Cotton's op-ed strategized about how to respond before settling on a maximally potent viral tweet reading, "Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.")

It can make for a formidable PR push — which partially explains why liberals in positions of authority have been so quick to capitulate.

But an explanation isn't the same as an excuse.

Liberals aren't relativists. They're people who recognize that achieving understanding is hard, that what justice entails and requires is deeply contested in the United States, and that a news organization that aspires to explain our fractious country to itself cannot be guided by the sensibility of a single-issue activist. Lines need to be drawn, but they should be drawn broadly. A serious news organization cannot exclude views championed by one of the country's two major political parties and held by more than 40 percent of the country's voters.

A low-circulation magazine with an explicitly partisan agenda can have a narrower scope. So can a propaganda network like Fox News. But a news outlet with national ambitions needs to aim higher — and broader — than that.

That's why the woke revolution in American newsrooms is so disheartening — not because it's a victory for the left, but because it's yet another sign of the hollowing out of the nation's public life, as individuals and institutions burrow ever-deeper into ideological enclaves. It is a victory for narrowness and dogmatism, for unearned certainty and facile simplifications. Which means it's also a defeat for the American mind, which finds itself ever more alienated from reality itself.

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