It's been quite a week for media ethics. Emily Wilder, a recently-hired news associate for the Associated Press, was unceremoniously fired after conservative media and activist groups whipped up an outrage mob over her pro-Palestinian activism while she was in college. The reason was supposedly that she had violated the AP's social media policy while doing her job, though her bosses reportedly would not tell her which posts had done so.
Meanwhile, CNN's Chris Cuomo, who was recently found to have given his brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, public relations advice over his numerous scandals, was given the kid-glove treatment. A CNN spokesman said he would not even be disciplined.
The truth is big media organizations are an ethical sewer where powerless young reporters get thrown to the wolves over violations of policies that make little sense and are rarely applied to their rich stars anyway.
In the first place, the social media policies most big news organizations have are epistemologically preposterous. The AP's social media policy states: "AP employees must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum," while The Washington Post's says "Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything — including photographs or video — that could objectively be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism."
But it is not actually possible for any reporter to avoid stating "views" or "bias." All reporting, like all language, cannot help but be based on contestable ideological assumptions. As journalist David Roberts argues, "If we so much as propose a physical world containing enduring objects, we are beyond just-facts to cultural posits, theories meant to help us order those data and predict future experiences. The minute we use language we enter the realm of metaphor and narrative."
Even aside from abstract philosophy, every AP story is riddled with obvious normative views of some sort. This one on coronavirus in Japan, for instance, clearly assumes that it's good for people to be able to access health care. That's a view I happen to agree with, but it's not some kind of axiomatic truth built into the universe — the only way to defend it is with an ideological argument.
The real social media policy here is that AP reporters (and their colleagues at other big publications) are allowed to post all manner of opinions so long as they tread carefully around hot-button issues and don't annoy powerful interest groups. That is almost certainly why the AP brass refused to tell Wilder which of her social media posts violated the policy — there weren't any such posts, they were simply trying to appease a right-wing mob that was cynically pretending to be mad in order to punish a critic of Israel (who is Jewish herself, by the way). As Discourse Blog's Jack Mirkinson points out, another former AP reporter served in the Israeli military yet somehow didn't run afoul of the AP bias police.
All that said, other parts of the usual journalism ethics handbook are fine and good. It's not like there's no such thing as journalistic ethics. The gleefully dishonest right-wing publications that fueled the Wilder witch hunt don't even pretend to adhere to any standards of honesty, transparency, or accuracy, and that's even worse than the AP.
Most publications have policies against conflicts of interest, for instance, which makes sense. It may not be possible to be "unbiased," but it is certainly possible to mislead readers for the benefit of yourself or your family, and CNN indeed has a policy on conflicts of interest. But big stars don't have to follow the rules.
Chris Cuomo advising his brother off-air on how to escape accountability (for his numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and covering up nursing home pandemic deaths) isn't even the most egregious example of his conflict. In the depths of the pandemic, the two had chummy, softball interviews for months — getting Chris great ratings and helping Andrew burnish his brand as a competent crisis manager. Except as was obvious even at the time, Governor Cuomo horrifically botched the pandemic response. His dithering and control freak personality are a big part of the reason why tens of thousands of New Yorkers died in agony while he was chatting up his brother on television.
It wasn't just mutual brand-boosting, either, Chris Cuomo got special treatment from the New York state government. Michael M. Grynbaum writes at The New York Times: "Reports also emerged this year that Chris Cuomo was among the governor's friends and family members who received special access to government-run coronavirus testing facilities, including a police escort for samples so that they could be quickly processed."
Then when all the scandals hit, suddenly Chris clammed up about the governor. "Obviously, I'm aware of what's going on with my brother. And obviously, I cannot cover it because he is my brother." he said back in March. The conflict of interest worry apparently only applies when it gets Chris out of having to talk about his brother's massive scandals. (I should also note Cuomo physically threatened CUNY historian Angus Johnston over being called a "putz.")
Rest assured, Cuomo's CNN show is not going anywhere, for the same reason the network let Fareed Zakaria skate on multiple instances of plagiarism. Unlike some AP reporter who has just started her career, Cuomo is rich, famous, and powerful, and therefore the rules basically don't apply. As a famous man once said, "when you're a star, they let you do it."
Mainstream media would save themselves and all of us a lot of trouble if they stopped pretending like their goofy ethical rules are some eternal verities or are applied across the board.