You can just list the true things
At the end of the day we have to write what we believe
A few weeks ago in Hell World I quoted a piece by Wesley Lowery that explained a lot of the problems I have with traditional standards of objectivity in journalism very well.
“Since American journalism’s pivot many decades ago from an openly partisan press to a model of professed objectivity, the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses,” he wrote.
“And those selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers. On opinion pages, the contours of acceptable public debate have largely been determined through the gaze of white editors.”
He went on:
The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral. When black and brown reporters and editors challenge those conventions, it’s not uncommon for them to be pushed out, reprimanded or robbed of new opportunities.
The journalist Alex S. Jones, who served as a longtime director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, wrote in “Losing the News,” his 2009 book,“I define journalistic objectivity as a genuine effort to be an honest broker when it comes to news.” To him,“That means playing it straight without favoring one side when the facts are in dispute, regardless of your own views and preferences.”
But objectivity, Mr. Jones wrote, “also means not trying to create the illusion of fairness by letting advocates pretend in your journalism that there is a debate about the facts when the weight of truth is clear.” He critiqued “he-said/she-said reporting, which just pits one voice against another,” as “the discredited face of objectivity. But that is not authentic objectivity.”
It’s striking to read objectivity defined that way — not because it’s objectionable, but rather because it barely resembles the way the concept is commonly discussed in newsrooms today. Conversations about objectivity, rather than happening in a virtuous vacuum, habitually focus on predicting whether a given sentence, opening paragraph or entire article will appear objective to a theoretical reader, who is invariably assumed to be white. This creates the very illusion of fairness that Mr. Jones, and others, specifically warn against.
Instead of telling hard truths in this polarized environment, America’s newsrooms too often deprive their readers of plainly stated facts that could expose reporters to accusations of partiality or imbalance.
I called up Lowery today to talk about the ideas in that piece, the overabundance of deference given to police by media outlets, the ongoing idiotic debate about “cancel culture” in the media, and the state of journalism today.
It was your birthday the other day?
Yeah two days back. My days are all blurred together with coronavirus brain.
I heard you turned thirty, so on behalf of all of us over forty with zero Pulitzers I would like to invite you to go and fuck yourself.
Well I tell myself that every day too so don’t worry about it!
I really don’t want to keep the conversation going about the goddamn Letter, but it does tie into some of the stuff you’ve been talking about lately. What are your thoughts on the debate about “cancel culture” in general we’re having now?
I don’t like the term cancel culture. I find it to be pretty meaningless, in part because as long as there has been an American culture there have been some views that are seen as outside the mainstream, and people have faced recrimination for expressing them. To be clear, most often the victims of that type of pressure are not people like the signatories, but are, in fact, Black people, or other minorities, native people, immigrants, Muslims, communists… Typically not white, very well-platformed centrists types.
But beyond that, there’s a fallacy sometimes in this conversation, where many of the signatories of a letter like this would also assert that one of the ways to combat what they would consider to be bad speech would be additional speech. But the very thing they are upset about is people exercising speech: people sending a bunch of tweets at them saying they suck, or writing a column saying they shouldn’t receive commissions to write any columns because they suck. All of those things are people’s speech rights, and I think that’s important.
I think two things can be true at the same time. It is important for the leaders of our institutions to operate from a position of what is the right decision to make versus what is the wrong decision, and not always be swayed… “Everyone’s mad on the internet right now so I need to do something” decisions get made that way all the time. I think we see that in terms of some of the overreactions. To be clear, this still happens more often to Black people or radical leftists or women than it does to the types of people that the signatories are. It’s also true that there are cases where there’s institutional overreaction. Secondarily, a lot of these folks are people that have held a monopoly on the marketplace of ideas and are suddenly in a world that is more diverse and where speech is more democratized, where everyone can have a Twitter account. Some of what these folks are reacting to is criticism of their speech. Suddenly they face reputational recrimination because their ideas are bad. And they’re going “This is unfair, it’s the end of democracy!”
I compare it to the police. They're not just content having a monopoly on the ability to wield violence and power, they also have to frame themselves as being victims under siege all the time.
Correct. They’re the victims of the story. But two things can be true. If someone is fired or run out of a job unfairly that does matter. Individual circumstances do matter. But we’re seeing this strategic wielding of circumstances and grouping of incidents that don’t even fit together, or aren't even being described honestly, so that a group of people who feel as if they are losing collective power can frame themselves as, not only the victims, but the brave warriors on behalf of freedom and democracy. It’s like, no, people saying they don’t like your work and that you’re bad at it is not a crisis of speech.
One thing that bothers me is the framing of it being something coming exclusively from the left. You know this probably better than I do, but even just as a freelancer at newspapers and magazines, every single article you write there are people in the comments or writing emails trying to snitch on you for this or that.
Of course. Right wing people have been trying to get me fired every day of my career. I don’t recall any brave collective efforts on behalf of my speech rights.
One thing that I do agree is a “chilling” example, which relates to some of the stuff you’ve been writing lately, is the example at the Pittsburgh Gazette. Being considered biased and unable to report objectively on the police because you are Black, which is fairly common, to me, is fucking abhorrent.
Certainly. And a Black person with a sense of humor. She got a good joke off that was funny. Suddenly she’s ripped from her ability to do her job.
I don’t know if in your time at the Washington Post if anyone said those things explicitly, or is it just something that is understood institutionally, that a Black person is going to always already be unable to report on certain issues objectively?
I don’t know that it’s something explicitly stated. It’s more about the environment and culture and assumptions made by bosses and editors in how they assign stories and in edits they make. Again this goes back to power. Something I talk about all the time. What we know is that even in a moment when more people of more backgrounds have platforms and the ability to talk in public, largely due to social media, the people who control the most powerful platforms in our broad press remain a very specific type of person. They have such a power in this space. So I don't think it's something that’s stated all the time, but it shows up and is manifested in coverage, in the way people are treated, in terms of how assignments are handed out, in terms of hiring. I think it shows up all of the time. If you want to look at the Post, they very famously just had an incident where a reporter was suspended and thrown under the bus in public because she tweeted a headline about a basketball player. The Kobe Bryant case. Here you have brave editors saying we stand for truth and fairness, unless you tweet a fair and true article about someone at an inopportune time. It speaks to these issues. All of these are subjective decisions.
Something people say to me all the time is you just want all journalism to make decisions that way you would. To have your morals and ethics. That’s not necessarily true. I think journalism has like 98% someone’s else's morals and ethics and 2% mine. Would I love to have a little more of mine? Of course. But what I argue for is a more deliberate process that acknowledges that there are morals and ethics at all. All these folks get off on saying “We don’t make any decisions ever. This is what it’s always been” as a way of shielding the fact that they are constantly making decisions, and those decisions are subject to their biases.
The first thing I said when I started this newsletter was that I promise not to hear both sides. Most stories are not gray. Life isn’t a prestige HBO drama. There are good guys and bad guys in every story. There are the powerful forces of capitalism, or the defenders of capitalism like the police on one side, and then there are those being ground up in the gears. I am much more concerned about the latter than the justifications for why the powerful people are hurting them. You couldn't walk into a newspaper for an interview and say that and get a job right?
Sure, but what I think that misses is that in a newsrooms there's a need for all different types of people, including a need for someone like you. In the world where I’m running a newsroom... I do think part of the role of the mainstream press is to make powerful people and institutions be confronted by less powerful people. To pose to them hard questions. To ask the senator something they would otherwise not be asked. We are supposed to be an equalizer of power, and to bring ideas and perspectives into places where they otherwise would not be. In our society that means confronting Jeff Bezos about how he treats his workers. In a world in which someone walks in and says I want to stand up for the little guy, the idea that that would ban them from working in respectable journalism, to me, I think is kind of [crazy].
But look, I don’t think we have to change our conversations about rigor, about standards. I think all that stuff is really important.
I agree. When I say that I am 100% biased in my writing that doesn’t mean I’m going to lie or make things up. You don’t need to exaggerate the details of corruption or worker abuse or whatever because they’re already bad enough. There's no need for fabulism.
I think about this all the time. If a story is that stunning or insane you can write it with the calmest language. If the facts themselves are ridiculous you don’t have to write it up at all. You can just list the true things.
But don’t you also think you can present something horrific in a neutered language that drains the blood from it? Especially with the Times…
I certainly think that happens. Some of that is about pulling punches, not actually writing down the true things. But the way we do sourcing, the way we allow people sometimes to rebut allegations against them in the same sentences where we are saying what the allegation is... These are decisions that are made in the writing and editing process. It’s less about the individual reporter than the structure of how our journalism works. Fairness is important. You call everyone, you talk to them and hear what they say, but at the end of the day we have to write what we believe.
The Times is so bad at this and everyone complains about it constantly. The other day the headline was like “Trump's latest race-based appeal to white voters defending the confederate flag…” You’ve been in higher level positions than me, are there people operating at the Post or the Boston Globe or whatever saying “Why don’t we just call him a racist?” or…
I’ll be honest, in my experience there is far less discussion than there should be. Everything operates on autopilot. So often these things that become national conversations are things almost no one talked about in the first place. We know this. We know James Bennett didn’t read the Tom Cotton article. You see these examples time and again where the upshot isn’t even institutional cowardice, or a deliberate decision to water anything down, it’s that they never even had the conversation on what to do. So some person, the copywriter who slapped the headline on, some person in the bureaucracy of journalism, made a small decision without any weight to it, it got thrust on the internet, and moments later it’s a whole thing. To be clear, that is not to suggest were our newsrooms not more diverse that more of those decisions would not go this way. But it’s also to say I think a lot of this stuff has to slow down and there has to be real conversation about this issue. And those conversations would be served by having Black and Brown people in the room in the first place. Or people who aren’t convinced that the worst thing that can happen to someone is to be called a racist. Look man, we all have prejudices and have to combat them. The idea that someone would say something racist, to most Black Americans is just like how a Monday works. Meanwhile white people are like “We’re locked in the massive battle, can we call Trump’s tweet racist?” It’s like, well, was it racist? Then call it that.
Whether or not it’s appropriate for the Post or Times to call, insert whatever statement, racist, is a subjective decision. If you got 100 people you might have 100 different points on the scale where they draw the line. Some of them might be grouped together, but there would be cases like, ok this one yes, maybe not that one. Even people of the same politics. I think we have to acknowledge it is a subjective decision, and so therefore who should be involved in making that decision? Should a group of white guys be talking about whether or not it’s racist to talk about crime-infested and rat infested Baltimore, or perhaps should a Black person be involved. Not even a black person, many. I think that’s the structural failing in most of our newsrooms, that we have a presidential administration and prior to that a campaign that has nakedly played on white racial grievance. Explicitly. There are stories where Steve Bannon talked about why they did this and how they did this. It’s not even an accusation against them, it's a fact.
And we’re seeing it now. Trump is somehow leaning on it even more in the lead up to the election.
Certainly. What we have now is the decision makers charged with telling us the truth haven't even done the reading, so they don’t know what they’re looking at. They have no expertise on these issues, and they are the arbiters of whether or not something crosses the line. They literally don't have the academic expertise, and they also don't have the expertise of being Black or Brown in America. Which is an expertise. Like you said, I think that’s a failure. What’s hard is that there have been so many generations and decades of white guy editors training the next generation of white guy editors who are now training the next generation of white guy and white women editors … And here we are today and they're all going “Call something racist? We could never do that!” when every Black person is like “That was racist.” It’s become so normative in the industry that it seems like it’s the way it’s supposed to be as opposed to a decision that’s made.
So much of journalism seems like this prim upper class crisis of manners type of thing. “Well, that’s simply not done!” I think people forget all this shit is made up. We just made up these standards. Journalism wasn’t passed down from god on a stone tablet. It’s just a professional group’s internal standards. Those can change. But there's so much resistance to that, especially with the idea of objectivity.
One thing you wrote in the Times the other day I liked: “Neutral objectivity trips over itself to find ways to avoid telling the truth. Neutral objectivity insists we use clunky euphemisms like ‘officer-involved shooting.’”
I feel like objectivity is a form of lying to people. Would you go that far?
One of the things that’s difficult here is you have objectivity, what the world actually means, then the way it is too often applied in newsrooms. The neutral part of that is important, because there are any number of things where you can read my writing and not think that it’s neutral. If I’m writing about a murder, that story should probably not come across as neutral about the murder. Clearly the murder was bad! You still have to fair to the person accused of the murder, because maybe they didn’t do it. There’s all sorts of nuances. But the piece itself, you should not walk away going, that was a really neutral piece about the murder.
Right down the middle!
I think sometimes in the journalism conversation we miss this because it’s a decision we’ve made that we pretend isn’t even a decision. There is someone out there who might argue that in fact the murder was good. I could find you a person. But it is a moral decision to say murder is bad. It is not neutral.
I guess it depends on who is getting murdered.
Sure. It’s not bad that objectivity means telling the truth and being fair, of course we should do that, but the extent to which we want a theoretical reader to feel as if we have not taken any side on anything. Sometimes the truth takes a side. The truth is not in fact neutral. That does not remove the nuance of stories, that there aren’t other interesting angles or complexities. But there are many times where we do journalism and we stumble upon a truth. There is a good guy and a bad guy here. Or a good action or a bad action, it’s not even about the person themselves. Did they do something that should not have been done? It’s our job to say that. And it’s not our job to now allow the things we write to suggest there is legitimate debate over things where there is none. We saw this with climate change coverage for example. We went on and on for so long giving platforms to people who are denying basic science. That slowed the nation and therefore the world’s ability to address a crisis, because we concealed the truth from readers through our stylistic decisions.
That journalistic convention very well may spell the end of the world. Back to the term officer-involved shooting. Is that something that you think is a reflexive standard way of doing things in newspapers, or do you see that as an explicit decision being made to be deferential to the police at all times within institutions?
I think it's an institutional reflex. One of the things to remember is that reflex is informed by history. In so much of the modern newspaper era, not necessarily every newspaper, but in most local metro newspapers where they were competing with two or three other dailies through most of their history, one of the best thing you could do was slap a big sexy headline on the front page with the grizzliest details of the crime of the day. That would be the thing the paperboys were yelling out. So it was extremely important to cultivate police sources, and therefore a structure that is deferential to the police and their narratives. They are the key source, the people providing the information. That coverage itself relies solely on their willingness to provide that information. What that did over the course of generations was create a situation in which, too often, the coverage reads like it could’ve been written by the police themselves. In large part because it doesn’t have the appropriate skepticism for what the police are saying, nor does it take time to be fair to other people in the story. The police say this guy did a crime, and we’re going to throw them on the front page of the paper, having reached this guy or not. We’re going to throw in his entire criminal history, despite the fact that we haven’t even gotten the records yet. We haven’t talked to the lawyers in those cases. We haven’t gotten the trial transcripts. We don’t actually know what happened in those cases. We just know what either the police are telling us, or “a search of the docket says XYZ.”
Right. It’s so rare that you hear firsthand from the suspect in the original reporting on it, or even their lawyer.
And that original reporting colors the public perception of what has happened. You can never put that back. And by the way, the jurors in that person’s case are theoretically reading that article.
I like the comparison of journalists to referees and umpires calling balls and strikes. An umpire can never suggest that they don’t influence the game. They fundamentally control the game. The difference between the ball and the strike, a subjective decision, can cost someone the World Series, right? Are the umpires the star of the game? No. Do they have their name on their jersey? No. Would we like it to be interchangeable who the umpire is? Yes. But we know that that's not true. We understand the umpire matters and that the way they call balls and strikes changes the outcome of the game.
I think the right understands that better, and they play the refs all the time. Like how in a game you get a makeup call. The ref didn’t call holding on one play so they get the team back for it by calling it against the other team to make it seem like he’s being fair. But what’s actually happened is two wrongs have been done. They didn’t see the first penalty, so now they invent one that didn’t exist to create the idea that they’re not manipulating things. The right knows that very well, that media institutions are susceptible to that.
Of course. And they’re getting played by these people without even realizing it. What you end up doing is eroding the legitimacy of the entire system.
Exactly. Obviously you’re a great reporter, and I’ve read your stuff for a while, but the reason I wanted to talk to you now is it seems like you’ve developed a real red ass against bosses in the media. How did you come by that reddening ass?
I think I've always had a longstanding beef with authority and rules. But part of it has been, I kind of exist in a different ecosystem now, at least in this exact moment. I’m working at CBS as a correspondent for this 60 Minutes spinoff. It’s kind of understood that 60 Minutes correspondents are individual people. No one is like, “Anderson Cooper this tweet is over the line.” It’s a different world than being a newspaper reporter where it’s understood you are supposed to be this company person who has no beliefs about anything. I’ve always kind of flirted with that line a little bit, but there’s been something freeing about this moment to be able to speak out and speak out in ways that are different.
I’ll also say there is something about doing the work that empowers you to make the criticism. I want to do good journalism. I care about that more than anything else. When I talk about these things it’s because I wish the institutions would fix them so I never have to talk about them again. I don’t think it would be fun to be an ombudsman or media critic. I would like us to hire some Black people so I don’t have to be like “Hey can we hire some Black people?” ever again.
A decade into my professional career, what's the point of having put in all that work, and gained some standing, if I’m unwilling to use that platform and credibility that comes with that to try to agitate for a better industry? What’s the point of having a platform at all if you don’t use it to try to make things better?
Well you’re supposed to get yours, then pull up the ladder and fuck everyone else.
Exactly. I always go back to my roots in the Black journalism world. I say there are seventeen Black journalists and we’ve all dated each other. Everyone knows everyone. Because of that there’s always been the sense of… there are older Black journalists who I could not have done anything in my career without their help and guidance and mentorship. So I foundationally and fundamentally see that as my responsibility.
I don't have the desire to be a partisan political figure. Even though I get my tweets off sometimes. The things I tweet about are journalism. And what is the point of being a big prominent journalism public figure to not then weigh in on journalism and how it should operate?
I also know this is an industry that is unforgiving. And it’s changed very rapidly. I’m not someone that takes for granted that today I am someone with a platform and tomorrow I might not be.
You might get canceled!
Right! And again I’m actually at risk of getting canceled. The Washington Post tried to cancel me. I’ve seen so many generations of Black journalists chewed up and spit out by this field, and look, I’m still relatively young, I don’t think I want to be doing this shit when I’m sixty, so I might as well put my foot on the scale as much as possible so it changes for the people coming up behind me.
this is a great interview. good on ya.