Matt Yglesias, Wesley Lowery, Walter Cronkite and ethics in journalism

Matt Yglesias, Wesley Lowery, Walter Cronkite and ethics in journalism

There has been a lot of talk about ethics in journalism in the wake of the NY Times’ decision to publish an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton. There was an internal backlash against the publication and after initially backing it, the Times later reversed course and said it was a mistake. The editor of the Times editorial page resigned in the wake of the reversal. NY Times columnist Bari Weiss said there was a civil war taking place between the woke left and the more traditionally liberal journalists at the paper.

As the debate over ethics in journalism continues, Vice News has published a takedown of “America’s leading media ethicist” whose name is Kelly McBride. The piece points out that McBride has put herself at odds with many media progressives at the New Republic, Vox and the Washington Post over the NY Times’ decision to publish Cotton’s op-ed:

The day after the op-ed was published, Kelly McBride, America’s foremost expert on media ethics, shared with me a very different opinion, more in line with that of the people inside and outside the Times decrying the episode as a triumph of “safetyism.” McBride wouldn’t have published it had she been in charge of the section, she said, because it was “crappy” and “intellectually dishonest.” As she saw it, though, publishing controversial and unpopular arguments, like one that the government should use military force to deny protesters the ability to exercise First Amendment rights, is important in order to ensure a robust “marketplace of ideas.”

The piece quickly signals that McBride is wrong about that:

By this logic, of course, the Times is unjustly denying the public the ability to debate the virtues of cannibalism, or of the United States becoming a Communist state, or whether people killed in mass shootings are really crisis actors, or any number of other unpopular ideas whose adherents aren’t given some of the limited space available in its Opinion section.

There’s obviously a big difference between something the U.S. has done several times before (and which polls showed a majority of Americans would support) and cannibalism. But if your goal is to ridicule the argument, I guess cannibalism is where you go.

Later the same piece attempts to argue that McBride’s entire view of ethics makes no sense and points to Wesley Lowery as a journalist who takes a different perspective:

Over the course of her time as the industry’s most established ethicist, the world has changed around her. Journalists from across the industry are challenging longstanding conventions of objectivity and neutrality. Wesley Lowery, a reporter for CBS and a former member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, has been openly scornful of the rules by which journalists have long lived. “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” Lowery recently tweeted. “We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go.” The idea that journalists should be open about the fact that everything they do is the result of a choice, and prioritize doing what’s right over being seen as “objective”—objectivity itself being, in this context, a euphemism for advancing the interests of power, and especially of white people—is ascendent. In many ways, McBride’s down-the-middle, please-everyone approach feels like a representation of a worldview that’s lost its legitimacy.

I have a very different perspective from Wesley Lowery but I partly agree with what he’s saying here. I think it’s true that “down the middle” journalism has been a pretty spectacular failure for the past 60 years, at least since the time of Walter Cronkite who was idolized as a newsman when in fact he was always a partisan disguising his real motives:

After Cronkite had belatedly turned against LBJ’s Vietnam War, he met privately with Robert Kennedy. “You must announce your intention to run against Johnson, to show people there will be a way out of this terrible war,” he said in Kennedy’s Senate office. Soon afterward, Cronkite got an exclusive interview in which Kennedy left the door open for a possible run—the very candidacy that the anchor had urged him to undertake. (Kennedy announced three days later.) I am shaking my head at the spectacle of a network anchor secretly urging a politician to mount a White House campaign—and then interviewing him about that very question. This was duplicitous, a major breach of trust…

In what would likely be deemed a firing offense today, Cronkite blatantly manipulated an interview with LBJ shortly before Johnson died. According to Brinkley, his producer spliced the footage in unflattering ways, reshooting Cronkite asking the questions so it appeared that he was nodding or raising his eyebrows in disgust when Johnson talked about Vietnam. LBJ saw a rough cut and pronounced it “dirty pool”; I would call it a video version of lying. Under pressure from the former president’s team, CBS undid the misleading editing, so the public never learned of the deception.

So if you wonder where Samantha Bee got her dishonest progressive shtick, she got it from Walter Cronkite. While I agree with Lowery that this has largely been a failed experiment, I’m sure we disagree about why. I would say the reason it failed is that most of the people pretending to be down the middle reporters were in fact liberals claiming a guise of neutrality when it suited them and using their positions to advance the cause when it didn’t. In other words it failed because the progressives who make up the bulk of the industry couldn’t actually behave ethically.

I know Wesley Lowery wouldn’t agree with that because he commented on the Vice piece on Twitter, saying that young journalists are tired of hearing from editors that they need to avoid inviting criticism. He got some push back from Vox’s Matt Yglesias:

In other words, what if “telling the truth” actually turns out to be doing sloppy PR work for democratic socialists or Bernie Sanders or whatever else. Isn’t there a need for some recognition that “telling the truth” depends where you are standing and therefore it makes sense to be aware of where other people are standing because they may see it differently. Lowery pleaded ignorance:

I won’t explain the whole Lee Fang controversy but very briefly, he’s a far left writer for the Intercept who made the mistake of saying on Twitter that people on the left were taking Martin Luther King Jr.’s comments about riots out of context. And that brought a huge backlash from people including at his own site. He eventually issued an apology. You can read more about it here. But Yglesias is basically saying that this pile on of a reasonable point shows there are people who are more concerned with advancing a narrative than the truth. Lowery’s response to that is pretty astounding:

So instead of acknowledging that there can be bad media actors on the left and instead of criticizing a mob pile on of a left-wing journalist, Lowery simply goes straight to you mean that guy who tweets racist stuff? Forget discussion. Forget nuance. Lowery doesn’t even need to know the details which he again claims to have missed. He just dismisses it all with an allegation of racism and done. And, as intended, that’s the end of the discussion.

Wesley Lowery appears to be one of the bad actors Yglesias was talking about. Lowery may have a point about fake, down the middle journalism but the fact he can’t admit there’s a problem on his side of the aisle, and that “telling the truth” can become cover for ignoring other valid perspectives, is a big problem. God help us all when Matt Yglesias is the voice of reason in this debate.

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