Maybe Journalism Needs a Coup

Maybe Journalism Needs a Coup

On Wednesday, the New York Times Opinion section made the choice to publish an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton that can only be described as a fascist call for the military to crack down on people protesting against police violence and brutality, under the incendiary headline “Send in the Troops.” Earlier that day, the Philadelphia Inquirer had made a similar choice to publish an op-ed titled, “Buildings Matter, Too.”

Both of these deliberate choices by the outlets’ opinion editors were widely criticized by people who asked very reasonable questions about the ethics of these decisions. Why give platforms, and the implied stamp of approval of two of the country’s leading newspapers, to ideas that are both incredibly dangerous and incredibly dumb? The answer, I suspect, is some combination of wanting rage clicks, a fucked-up belief that the value of black people’s humanity is worthy of debate, and the utter inability of Old White Men Journalists to let go of the idea that they alone should get to decide the terms of public conversation.

Now, journalists at both outlets are speaking out and criticizing the decisions of their opinion pages. Shortly after Cotton’s op-ed was published, staffers from both the New York Times’ editorial and opinion sections publicly voiced their dissent. At the Times, dozens of its staffers, and a large number of its black journalists, in particular, posted a screenshot on Twitter of the op-ed’s headline with the message, “Running this put Black @nytimes staff in danger.” “To be clear, this story endangers *all* black people, NYT staffers and not,” wrote the New York Times Magazine’s Jazmine Hughes.

That staffers are speaking up in the midst of a pandemic that has gutted newsrooms around the country only underscores the stakes of their protest.

But at an outlet like the Times, where the newspaper’s official social media policy for its staffers explicitly tells employees to “not express partisan opinions” or “promote political views” and to “reflect a diverse collection of viewpoints,” and where they are forbidden to publicly criticize their workplace, to speak out has ramifications for their employment, and in particular for its (alarmingly few) black employees. Black reporters have long raised valid complaints about their treatment at the Times, including a lack of institutional support and a dismissal of their critiques of other reporters’ and writers’ ideological framing of issues, ranging from police violence to white nationalism: critiques that are frequently framed as biased when, to give just one obvious example, Bret Stephens’s thoughts are not. On Thursday, the Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger defended the decision to publish Cotton’s op-ed with the flimsy excuse of the need to provide a “diversity of perspectives,” an excuse that is all the more hollow when one considers that his own employees are barred from freely expressing their own opinions.

That Times staffers are speaking up now in the midst of a pandemic that has gutted newsrooms around the country and made reporting jobs even more tenuous only underscores the stakes of their protest. Hughes added, “This is a labor issue. This is our livelihood. This is embarrassing.” In a statement sent out on Wednesday night, the NewsGuild, the union representing many of the Times’ editorial staff, pushed back against the decision to publish Cotton’s op-ed. “Media organizations have a responsibility to hold power to account, not amplify voices of power without context and caution,” they wrote.

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, reporters also spoke up in response to their paper’s op-ed. “This is what happens when a newsroom doesn’t look like the city it covers,” wrote one of its editorial writers. On Wednesday, more than 40 of the Inquirer’s staff of color sent an open letter to their newsroom’s top executives, announcing that on Thursday, they would be taking collective action in the form of a sick-out. “We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age. We’re tired of being told of the progress the company has made and being served platitudes about ‘diversity and inclusion’ when we raise our concerns,” they wrote. “We’re tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.”

None of the issues that staffers at both the Times and the Inquirer are raising are new. Black journalists and other staff of color have long voiced their frustrations about both workplace conditions and the willful refusal of their leaders to meet the demands of a moment with any sort of moral backbone. But what this moment has helped clarify and expose, not just in the journalism industry but in workplaces across the country, is that the status quo has failed black people. Andrew Sullivan laughably described the outrage from Times staffers as an “attempted coup” by a “mob” whose participants are a “disgrace to journalism.”

But the true disgrace is pretending that people who are calling for violence should be considered just as carefully and thoughtfully as those who are protesting for an end to violence, and calling that some sort of public service. Maybe there does need to be an overthrow of the old guard. This is a reckoning that’s long overdue.

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