Brooklyn-based journalist Caitlin Curran was fired from her part-time gig at WNYC, the innovative public radio station, because her boss found out that she attended an Occupy Wall Street protest. She's written about her termination at Gawker, where she wondered whether experiences like hers will "dissuade people who have jobs they want to keep from expressing their opinions." It's a disturbing possibility, but reading her story, I couldn't help but focus on a disturbing fact.
As regular readers know, Curran and her boyfriend, neither of whom I know, made a sign that displayed an excerpted phrase from an article I wrote. While Curran held it aloft in Times Square, someone snapped a photograph; soon afterward the image went viral. "I thought all of this could be fodder for an interesting segment on The Takeaway -- a morning news program co-produced by WNYC Radio and Public Radio International -- for which I had been working as a freelance web producer roughly 20 hours per week for the past seven months," Curran wrote. "I pitched the idea to producers on the show, in an e-mail. The next day, The Takeaway's general manager fired me over the phone, effective immediately. He was inconsolably angry, and said that I had violated every ethic of journalism, and that this should be a 'teaching moment' for me in my career as a journalist."
Presuming the accuracy of this account, her boss is wrong.
For too long, managers at American newspapers and public radio stations have clung to this confused, corrosive notion of journalistic ethics -- that it is always a breach to participate in a protest or be caught expressing a controversial opinion. They talk about preventing "the perception of bias," though the model of journalism they champion is often perceived as biased, and almost never because of the activities staffers participate in during their leisure hours. There is a general argument about why this allergy to civic participation is flawed, and a specific argument about why it's wrong in this case. I'll lay them out in turn.
To borrow a phrase, every editor who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that propagating the myth of "objective journalism" is indefensible. A newspaper or radio program may try to hide or obscure the fact that the people responsible for its content have opinions, convictions, and biases. But it is impossible to function as a journalist without making subjective judgment calls about newsworthiness, relevance and emphasis, or covering issues about which you have an opinion. Pretending otherwise requires willfully misleading the public.
An ethical journalist ought to be accurate. She ought to be fair. Her aim ought to be reporting the truth or earnestly advancing a logically sound argument, rather than enriching herself or bolstering her reputation or shilling for her partisan or ideological allies. It is perfectly legitimate for a journalistic organization to decide that it is going to publish or broadcast work that presents verifiable facts as neutrally as possible, and avoid permitting its employees to inject statements of opinion into their professional output. If that's what you mean by "journalistic objectivity," you've not run afoul of my views.
What is objectionable is the View from Nowhere, a term popularized in this context by Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU journalism school, my alma mater. "In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer," he writes. "Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position 'impartial.' Second, it's a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it's an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance."
Journalistic outfits make a grave mistake by building their authority on the foundation of the View From Nowhere. I'll explain why as soon as Rosen makes one more point. "What authority there is in the position of viewlessness is unearned -- like the snooty guy who, when challenged, says, 'Madam, I have a PhD,'" he writes. "Real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. 'I'm there, you're not, let me tell you about it.' Illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone. Doing the work! Having a track record, a reputation for reliability is part of it, too. But that comes from doing the work."
That ought to be the pitch that newspapers and public radio stations make to their audience. It might go something like this: "Yes, the field of journalism attracts more liberals than conservatives, more Occupy Wall Street participants than Tea Party ralliers, more urban dwellers than rural Americans, more college graduates than people without degrees, more Democrats than Republicans, more English majors than math majors, more secular people than religious people -- and although we value diversity of thought, experience and world view on our staff, the core of our value proposition is that we're accurate in our reporting, fair-minded in setting forth arguments and perspectives even when we don't agree with them, transparent about who we are, attune to our biases and constantly trying to account for them, and insistent that we be judged by our output, not our political or religious or ideological identity, or what we do on weekends. Judge us by our work, and if you challenge it in good faith we'll engage you."
It may seem like a good idea to avoid the "perception of bias" by insisting that media employees hide who they are from the audience. Perhaps it was once even tenable. It no longer is. To build your credibility on viewlessness is to concede, every time an employee of yours is shown to be a sentient, opinionated person, that your credibility has taken a hit. To tout and enforce your viewlessness is to hold your own reputation hostage to reality; it makes your credibility, the most valuable thing you have, vulnerable to every staffer's Tweet, or incriminating Facebook photograph, or inane James O'Keefe hidden video sting operation. She claims to be neutral, but look, while out at a dinner with friends we caught her on camera saying that she thinks Obama is a better president than was Bush. See! She was hiding her liberal views from us all along!
Who is even fooled at this point?
The American public understands who makes up the press corps, or more likely, has an exaggerated idea of how liberal it is precisely because the lack of transparency and pose of viewlessness seems conspiratorial. Is any reader of this article shocked or even mildly surprised that a Brooklyn-based freelance Web journalist working part time at a New York City public radio station held up a cardboard sign during an Occupy Wall Street protest? If that totally banal and predictable event is the thing that gets you upset as a journalistic manager, if you think that it is the threat to your program's credibility, you misunderstand the present media landscape.
There is some behavior for which journalists deserve to be fired, things they shouldn't do if their day-to-day is covering a specific beat. There are signs that it would be inappropriate for any journalist to hold aloft in Times Square, even during her off hours. For example, "Let's Wage A Propaganda War Against Wall Street." Were I presiding over a journalistic organization, I'd fire anyone who publicly asserted or privately advocated subverting accuracy for a political cause.
In contrast, a general rule against any participation in public protests is absurd, and the Curran case is a nearly perfect demonstration of why it is absurd. Let's do the critical thinking that her boss' zero tolerance mindset helped him to avoid. For we don't have to wonder what message Curran was sending by her presence. She was holding a sign aloft with a very specific message on it. Strangely, as I quote her sign, I quote myself: "It's wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon."
What that unlikely slogan alludes to is the infamous ABACUS deal put together by Goldman Sachs. I was not the first person to deem it objectionable. The SEC launched an investigation into the investment bank's behavior. If I may quote from an SEC press release: "The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced that Goldman, Sachs & Co. will pay $550 million and reform its business practices to settle SEC charges that Goldman misled investors in a subprime mortgage product just as the U.S. housing market was starting to collapse."
The release includes a statement from Goldman Sachs:
Goldman acknowledges that the marketing materials for the ABACUS 2007-AC1 transaction contained incomplete information. In particular, it was a mistake for the Goldman marketing materials to state that the reference portfolio was "selected by" ACA Management LLC without disclosing the role of Paulson & Co. Inc. in the portfolio selection process and that Paulson's economic interests were adverse to CDO investors. Goldman regrets that the marketing materials did not contain that disclosure.
Is this seeming absurd yet?
WNYC has fired someone for publicly stating on a street sign that the ABACUS deal was wrong -- this despite the fact that the government agency that regulates financial transactions and the investment bank that put the deal together have both publicly criticized it, at the conclusion of a legal process -- prompted by its probable illegality -- that resulted in a $550 million fine! When I appeared on Marketplace, a Los Angeles-based public radio program that focuses on economics, the host, Kai Ryssdal, called it "the infamous Abacus deal," and went on to state that my post "was all about Goldman Sachs and its ABACUS deal, which was, as you said in this sentence, a thing where they basically rigged the game in some of these mortgage-backed securities."
So it's okay for NPR's Planet Money to produce a whole show explaining the shadiness of the Abacus deal; it's perfectly fine for financial journalists all over the United States to remark on its flaws; it's unobjectionable for a journalist at The Atlantic to spell out those flaws; and it's good radio when the host of Marketplace acknowledges its shadiness; but it "violates every ethic of journalism" for a Web producer at WNYC to hold a sign objecting to the deal? If I could purchase some credit default swaps on that code of ethics I'd jump at the chance -- it is bankrupt, and it's only a matter of time before industry norms catch up to good sense and reality.
Accusations of liberal bias come in two varieties. There are conservatives and libertarians who earnestly believe, often legitimately, that their ideas aren't getting their due; and there are folks who make accusations of bias as a political strategy, whether because their audience likes it when they bash "the MSM," or because they're trying to delegitimize basically honest news organizations or stories that are actually perfectly accurate and defensible. For "mainstream media" managers and ombudsmen, there is a strange failure to distinguish among these two sorts of critiques and respond as warranted -- to engage the honest critics, and fight back against the opportunists without letting them provoke absurd policies that won't prevent their attacks.
Were I an opportunist, I'd be salivating at the recent news from NPR, which is now on record with the precedent that it is unacceptable for the host of an opera show to participate in Occupy Wall Street. This is tantamount to saying that any political expression, no matter how disconnected from one's beat, is a breach of journalistic ethics. How does NPR think the Andrew Breitbarts of the world will respond to that precedent? Only a journalist completely disconnected from the social media technology and controversies of her day can survive that degree of scrutiny.
Is that the sort of staffer public radio stations want to attract? I hope not. Via the fantastic show Radiolab, WNYC is broadcasting arguably the most innovative journalism produced in the U.S. today. This American Life manages to be stellar more times a year than would seem possible. Planet Money, Marketplace and All Things Considered are fantastic too, and the Web is permitting a golden age of audio journalism to flourish. There's always room for improvement, but overall the quality programming is there, and it's so frustrating to see some in the industry savaging their staffers for failing to meet an unrealistic standard of objectivity peripheral to their work product. These standards do nothing to address the concerns of constructive critics, and needlessly empower the disingenuous folks trying to destroy public radio. Why not just act like a prestigious magazine rather than a prestigious newspaper and be done with it?
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