We have been discussing the rise of advocacy journalism and the rejection of objectivity in journalism schools. The New York Times has been at the forefront of this shift away from traditional reporting but has increasingly found that the fluidity of advocacy journalism leaves it without any clear framework or standards. Consider the latest scandal at the Times. Justice Department reporter and MSNBC contributor Katie Benner went on a rave about Republicans and called Trump supporters “enemies of the state.” She also made a not-so-veiled call for readers to vote against them. The Times has been in total radio silence over what, just a few years ago, would have been viewed as an outrageous violation of journalistic standards. Yet, just recently, it fired another reporter for a comparatively mild tweet supporting Biden. Professional ethics, it seems, has become entirely impressionistic in the age of advocacy journalism.
Notably, many of us denounced Donald Trump for calling the New York Times and other media outlets the “enemy of the people.” The media was aghast and the Times publicly condemned such rhetoric as “inflammatory.” Now, however, journalists like Benner are engaging in the same inflammatory rhetoric and the Times is conspicuously silent.
We have have been discussing how writers, editors, commentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. This movement includes academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy. Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll has denounced how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation. In an interview with The Stanford Daily, Stanford journalism professor, Ted Glasser, insisted that journalism needed to “free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice.” He rejected the notion that the journalism is based on objectivity and said that he views “journalists as activists because journalism at its best — and indeed history at its best — is all about morality.” Thus, “Journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.”
Benner tweeted on Tuesday during the first hearing of the Democrat-led Jan. 6 select committee was underway: “Today’s #January6thSelectCommittee underscores the America’s current, essential natsec dilemma: Work to combat legitimate national security threats now entails calling a politician’s supporters enemies of the state.” The MSNBC contributor also declared:
“As Americans, we believe that state power should not be used to work against a political figure or a political party. But what happens if a politician seems to threaten the state? If the politician continues to do so out of office and his entire party supports that threat?”…That leaves it up to voters, making even more essential free, fair access to the polls.”
Benner’s comments are indistinguishable from the Democratic members that she is covering. The problem is that, while the Times has embraced advocacy journalism, its has not updated its guidelines which state that “Our journalists should be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively.”
While the tweets were deleted, the Times refused to respond to other reporters asking about the tweets.
Just recently, we discussed the firing of Lauren Wolfe, who was fired for saying that she had “chills” in watching Biden land at Andrews Air Force base. Wolfe later penned a column declaring “I’m a Biased Journalist and I’m Okay With That” — a full-throated endorsement of the new journalistic model of open bias and advocacy.
I was critical of Wolfe but the two cases leave many completely confused on the standards applied by the Times. The confusion has been growing for years.
A year ago, the New York Times denounced its own publishing of an editorial of Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) calling for the use of the troops to restore order in Washington after days of rioting around the White House. It was one of the one of the lowest points in the history of modern American journalism. While Congress would “call in the troops” six months later to quell the rioting at the Capitol on January 6th, New York Times reporters and columnists called the column historically inaccurate and politically inciteful. Reporters insisted that Cotton was even endangering them by suggesting the use of troops and insisted that the newspaper cannot feature people who advocate political violence.
While insisting that it will never again publish someone like Cotton, it has published columns from figures like one of the Chinese leaders crushing protests for freedom in Hong Kong. Cotton was arguing that the use of national guard troops may be necessary to quell violent riots, noting the historical use of this option in past protests. This option was used most recently after the Capitol riot. Yet the Times has no problem publishing someone called “Beijing’s enforcer” who mocked pro-Democracy protesters as her government beat them and arrested them.
Likewise, almost on the one-year anniversary of its condemning its own publication of Cotton (and forcing out its own editor), the New York Times published an academic columnist who previously defended the killing of conservative protesters.
If none of this makes sense to you, that is because it does not have to make sense. Starting with the Cotton scandal, the New York Times cut its mooring cables with traditional journalist values. It embraced figures like Nikole Hannah-Jones who have championed advocacy journalism.
The problem with Benner was not that she is actively supporting Democrats or viewing Trump supporters as enemies of the state. The problem is that she said it a bit too openly. There remain slight sensibilities to be observed even the age of advocacy journalism. So she deleted the tweet and no one is much interested in how such biased reporters continue to cover such stories. Indeed, just this week, NBC’s Chuck Todd denied that there is a problem of biased journalism despite the long criticism of his own overt partisanship on the air.
In the end, it does not matter what happens to Benner. The lesson for others is to confine any such bias to framing coverage rather than directly calling for votes for Democrats or joining in on the condemnations of Trump supporters. One must keep up appearances even in the age of advocacy journalism.