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Culture Wars In The Newsroom

This year, the news has been increasingly about the news. We’ve witnessed editors apologizing and/or resigning; we’ve seen journalists walking out of newsrooms in protest; we’ve seen letters signed by tens or even hundreds of members of staff criticizing their senior editorial staff and supervisors for out-of-touch, possibly dangerous editorial choices.

Headlines include:

“War in the newsroom!”

“Journalists prefer silos to the marketplace of ideas.”

“Woke rebellions in America’s newsrooms.”

By nearly all accounts, it is one of the biggest stories in decades for the news industry. What’s at stake is free speech. And when free speech is shouted down by the very people whose job it is to promote it — the press — then the media itself is in danger of becoming trapped in an echo chamber. Untrusted. Irrelevant. Out of touch. Censored.

Are we watching freedom of speech slip away in service of political correctness, collective guilt and a fear of being bullied and canceled for expressing an opposing view?

Some of the stories this year include:

A clash between News and Opinion at the Wall Street Journal

Back in July, nearly 300 reporters and editors signed a letter to the WSJ’s publisher complaining about the newspaper’s editorials and opinion pieces.

Among the examples the news side complained about were two op-eds: one by US Vice President Mike Pence on COVID-19 and the second by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald on the issue of race and policing. MacDonald questioned the charge of systemic racism. The newsroom employees said that “employees of color publicly spoke out about the pain this piece caused them during company-held discussions surrounding diversity initiatives.”

“Opinion’s lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources,” the staff letter says.

The New York Times and Senator Tom Cotton

This is the case that garnered the most attention, in all likelihood. The New York Times ran an op-ed (“Call in the Troops”) by US Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, calling for the use of Federal troops to quell the Black Lives Matter protests.

NYT staff took to Twitter to express their objections, going public with their belief that this op-ed put journalists’ lives in danger.

The fallout included a “sickout” by a number of staff members refusing to log on because the op-ed piece “put the lives of Black NYT staff in danger.” It included, as well, the resignation of James Bennett, the Times’ editorial page editor.

In its own coverage of the story, the NYT quoted a young reporter from The Washington Post, saying, “Telling the truth is now more important than the perception of balance.”

Add to these examples, a public resignation by NYT Op-ed editor Bari Weiss. A walkout at The Washington Post. Controversies at both The Philadelphia Enquirer and The Los Angeles Times, in each case over a lack of diversity and a perceived insensitivity to issues of particular importance to journalists of color.

Nor is the controversy limited to the United States.These issues top the list of challenges for senior news executives from London to Tokyo, from Johannesburg to Mexico City.

Within newsrooms there is a desire to take a clearer stance on stories involving race, gender, identity and justice. The intent to abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard has been applauded by prominent senior editors, including Dean Baquet, editor of The New York Times.

This is part of a shifting focus on traditional journalistic values. Does the future lie in subjectivity? Is the movement for journalists to be more culturally woke dismantling free speech, however inadvertently? Have we reached the natural conclusion of objectivity-driven, both-sides journalism?

This is the first issue ReNEWS will tackle — very possibly more than once. We will bring together distinctly different perspectives and look at culture wars through the lens of what they mean to and for newsrooms. In America and around the world, newsrooms are trying to find that balance between a tradition that seeks to convince audiences across a wide spectrum that its reporting is impartial and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to justice and from Donald Trump to Covid demands moral clarity.

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Amy Selwyn is Founding Partner and Moderator of ReNEWS. She has worked in news for 35+ years and still feels the passion. Amy is a writer, a photographer and dog mom, and she lives (for now…she’s nomadic by nature…) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA.