“Activist” Journalists Have Completely Taken Over The Media Industry

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when America’s leading paragon of journalistic virtue was widely regarded to be the ancient Washington Post columnist David Broder. What aroused such admiration for Broder was his reputation as a steadfast defender of an idealized doctrine of “objectivity” — that is, the doctrine of disinterested detachment which had long been the professional code of mainstream (or “establishment”) US journalism. 

It was as though Broder floated angelically above the riff-raff, enabling him to impart sagely judgment from on high while his lessers fought amongst themselves over such trivial matters as their mutually-contradictory moral and political commitments. Broder never revealed his opinions on anything of real consequence — particularly opinions that could be connected to an ugly partisan affiliation. That would’ve been sacrilegious. So to discern his views, one had to pick up on the subtle clues he’d intermittently drop.

For example, shortly after the Iraq War was launched, Broder wrote in his syndicated column: “There is little the Democrats can do to shatter the reputation for strong leadership Bush has built.” Declining to straightforwardly disclose whether he supported or opposed the invasion, Broder’s paramount goal was always to maintain the perception of being perpetually “objective” — and supporting or opposing a preemptive invasion would’ve been a grave violation of this creed. So instead, he’d just offer up these little nuggets of analytical wisdom, like the public image of George W. Bush supposedly being a “reliable wartime commander in chief,” usually with no thought given to his role in creating that image. 

Chuck Todd adeptly summed up Broder’s basic function upon his death in 2011, gushing: “He was a protector, I felt like, of the institutions of Washington. In a good way.” Of course, this inadvertently revealed Broder’s true ideological disposition. Not “objectivity” per se, given that humans can’t be perfectly objective in the first place, but rather a determination to serve as the guardian of the US governing institutions he so revered, together with the people who inhabited those institutions. Then-Senator Joe Lieberman also weighed in to mark the occasion, eulogizing Broder as a “journalistic giant” whose “work embodied fair-mindedness and objectivity.”

Needless to say, Joe Lieberman’s standard for what constitutes “fair-mindedness” and “objectivity” is probably not the standard that every journalist should aspire to.

There is no doubt that what might be called the “Broder worldview” was once very influential in US journalism and media culture. But… Broder has now been dead for over a decade. And even before his death, the emergence of the blogosphere in the early 2000s had dislodged the primacy of that worldview with an onslaught of ruthless skewering. Now, in 2021, the genre of journalism Broder represented could only be seen as comically antiquated.

And yet when one listens to the up-and-coming crop of media content-producers air their grievances about the industry — or explain what they see as the injustices holding them back in the journalism field — they often seem to be railing against a Broder-style status quo that has largely ceased to exist. Like there’s an army of Broder acolytes impeding them from expressing their true selves. It’s almost as if they need to resurrect the ghost of Broder in order to have some adversary to posture as opponents of, even as their preferred ideology has consumed the entire media ecosystem.

To test this thesis, some crafty young troublemaker should try applying for a “newsroom fellowship” at, say, the New York Times and write in the application material that their only ambition for the job is to neutrally and dispassionately report on the problems facing America in a kind of indifferent Broder-esque vernacular. Let’s see how far you get with that. Extra credit for neglecting to mention whatever structural inequities you believe yourself to have overcome by dint of your identity status. For even more fun, try praising the legacy and accomplishments of Donald Trump in anything like the language Broder had once used to extol the wartime prowess of George W. Bush. The most the New York Times might offer you is an opportunity to provide a hostage-like comment before they publish an article apocalyptically tying you to some horrifying new white nationalist/QAnon splinter group.

NOTE: I promise this Substack is not going to be 100% dedicated to meta-analysis of the journalism industry. But it’s simply true that the journalism industry has just emerged from a massive five-year convulsion brought on by the rise of Trump (and other interrelated factors), and is in the process of constructing a new set of “norms” and expectations for itself. How the people who run the industry conceive of their role has downstream effects on the whole body politic. And once you’ve gotten anything like an inside view of how narratives get constructed, what kind of people ascend the career ladder, and what kind of pathologies dominate media institutions, it’s hard to look away.

Some of this is a tad ironic for me personally, because I was once as staunch a critic of the “objectivity” doctrine as anybody. I believed it genuinely was corrosive, outmoded, and stultifying. In an article for The Nation, just a few months after Broder’s death, I wrote:

Formalized journalism training also lends academic credibility to mainstream normative standards, the most notorious being the objectivity decree, which is still seriously entertained as a plausible ideal in journalism departments. To get a job in the “traditional” industry, one former journalism major told me, students are urged to maintain an image of unsullied impartiality, both personally and professionally. This means never taking part in public political events, never affiliating with any partisan organizations, never posting Facebook status updates that might indicate your opinions on matters of substance. Studiously avoid any demonstration of being invested in how the world works, lest you fail to meet the requirements for journalistic seriousness.

But today, anyone with a modicum of self-awareness would have to acknowledge that the media industry dynamics I’d described circa 2011 have been all but obliterated. Case in point: during the first wave of protests and riots last summer after the death of George Floyd, I was informed that journalists at major publications were being expressly authorized by their management to engage in the protests as participants.

These weren’t eccentric left-wing outfits, mind you, but major name-brand publications. Some of the directives were made public, others were not. However you feel about the propriety of those directives, there was no question that the “norms” which had once been thought to govern professional journalistic conduct had radically shifted. Couple this with it being taken for granted within media circles that Trump was not just bad, not just unseemly, but the modern incarnation of genocidal fascist tyranny. If that was your true belief (and there’s a reasonable debate to be had over the extent to which the proponents of this belief actually believed it), of course this would necessitate a drastic upheaval in the kind of journalistic philosophy you subscribe to. Anything less would be a dire failure in the face of an unprecedented, existential emergency. The call to #resist was the final nail in the coffin for anything resembling Broder-style objectivity. 

And yet, the ascendant class of journalists today do not seem to have updated their critique. They still imagine themselves pitted against a Broder-like status quo which, in reality, has been almost entirely overthrown. A prime example is Wesley Lowery, the highly-touted journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in his mid-20s for reporting on race and policing issues. In a New York Times op-ed last summer, Lowery denounced the media for clinging to “a model of professed objectivity,” which he viewed as particularly indefensible in light of the protest activity going on at the time. Covering the protests accurately demanded not “objectivity,” he inveighed, but a new ethic of what Lowery called “moral clarity.”

The overwhelming praise Lowery’s op-ed received at the time from fellow journalists was itself very instructive. Apparently, it was widely believed that a long-overdue “reckoning” with journalistic objectivity was needed in June 2020 — as though the first thing that comes to mind when you look back on the last 4-5 years is the media’s unflinching commitment to “objectively” covering the tenure of President Donald J. Trump.

Per the Lowery formulation, most journalists had “professed objectivity” with respect to Trump, and also “professed objectivity” with respect to “the views and inclinations of whiteness.” Perhaps only a journalist could actually believe this.

Media figures like Lowery were and are campaigning against a mentality that is simply not meaningfully operative anymore within the industry. So what are they trying to achieve, exactly? What they so obviously want is for their values — which generally align with the already-dominant left/liberal monoculture — to be the new governing standard, replete with speech codes and various shortcuts engineered to effectuate their own professional and social advancement. What they want is power. It’s not particularly complicated. Nor is it a coincidence that these same people tend to be most fluent in “therapeutic trauma jargon,” which provides a turbo-charged boost in their maneuvers to bludgeon editors and managers into submission.

Lowery helped pioneer this new trauma jargon at a critical moment when he proclaimed that a different NYT op-ed last June would “imperil the lives” of his “loved ones,” and that he was therefore melodramatically canceling his NYT subscription. As usual, the emotional terrorism-style gambit worked. The NYT swiftly dumped opinion editor James Bennet, and the “moral clarity” framework entered further into mainstream consensus. The more the tactic is used, the more obvious it is that invoking “trauma” or related concepts puts all the leverage into the hands of the people claiming psychological aggrievement. And it also allows for the circumvention of the ordinary evidence-building exercises that, one would have thought, are a central component of trustworthy journalism.

Lowery himself is now employed by some kind of web-based division of 60 Minutes. It would be no surprise if he were eventually elevated to Steve Kroft status as a prime-time anchor. At which point he’ll be preaching about the need for “moral clarity,” with the full institutional weight of CBS behind him, for a mass audience, with no contradiction ever detected. 

There are already signs that his ideology is infiltrating the fabled old institution. If you genuinely believe that Ron DeSantis is the next iteration of Trump, and you genuinely believed that Trump ushered in a fascist movement in the US, then you likely believe a 60 Minutes segment grossly distorting DeSantis’s statements regarding COVID vaccine distribution in Florida was justified. “Moral clarity” demanded it, or something.

The paradox of this mercenary mentality is that there was always more than enough about Trump’s governing record, persona, and so forth to legitimately criticize. Which made the amount of energy the media dedicated to incessantly exaggerating or, in some cases, outright fabricating anti-Trump criticisms all the more bizarre. But “moral clarity” required interminably launching into five-alarm-fire mode over the most maximalist version of the threat Trump supposedly posed, with basic expectations of accuracy and proportionality tossed out the window.

How might we arrive at a journalistic ethic that rightly leaves hoary David Broderism in the dust, without giving itself completely over to “activism” imperatives, which can be just as distorting? “Activism versus advocacy” might be a helpful heuristic. The two categories could be distinguished in the following sense: a journalist can “advocate” a certain moral value or policy prescription, or even “advocate” supporting a certain political candidate, without prioritizing those “advocacy” goals to such an extent that consciously obscuring the truth and/or ignoring countervailing evidence becomes justified. Everybody’s got preferences, so you might as well just be open about them. The difference between “advocacy” and “activism” is that the latter gladly subordinates the prerogatives of journalism to the prerogatives of activism.

Negative externalities of an excessively “activist” mindset could include, for example, fostering a political and media environment wherein journalists systematically fail to document the most widespread and destructive riots in the US in at least 50 years. Which, as my own reporting demonstrated, is exactly what happened last summer. If you doubt this, I’ll pose a question that I’ve posed again and again for the past nine months, with no satisfactory response ever received: have you seen any comprehensive accounts in a ‘prestigious’ national media outlet rigorously detailing the full nationwide impact of the Summer 2020 riots, pondering their long-term political and cultural significance, and otherwise ensuring that they are properly memorialized in the historical record?

You have not — because this new breed of “activist” journalism and its attendant ideology has an entirely novel epistemology associated with it, whereby the overriding principle is always and everywhere the attainment of certain activist goals. (Summer 2020 activist goals: dismantle white supremacy and defeat Trump.) The goals which you’re striving toward can never be falsifiable upon the discovery of contradictory evidence, either.

No one’s saying that journalists can’t “advocate” for certain societal reforms like any other citizen, but what’s destructive is when their “activist” commitments — such as “intersectional oppressions” are a defining intractable feature of American life, or “white supremacy” infects every facet of interpersonal relations — are taken to be so sacrosanct that they’re put beyond the reach of ordinary critical inquiry. (And if the journalists do encounter critical inquiry, a dramatic sputtering meltdown ensues.)

There’s also the question of what commitments, exactly, are animating the current crop of activist journalists who purport to be so disillusioned with the industry consensus — i.e., whether the adoption of those commitments is a byproduct of their own autonomous intellectual endeavors, or if they’ve just been habituated by status-conferring institutions into this new, quasi-activist mindset. A very interesting essay published last week in Tablet by Blake Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, captures some of this ambiguity. Smith offers a theory for why his students — drawn from the same types of elite cultural classes that dominate the journalism industry — are in his estimation such conspicuously poor writers.

They “write poorly because they have been stripped of agency,” he posits. “What they have instead of an internal locus of control, the ability to form their own personal standards and adhere to them, are stories, usually written by other people on their behalf, about how by dint of hard work and personal talent they have surmounted powerful and malevolent social structures.” The same could easily be said about admittance into the media field. It’s not as though these activist commitments always stem from a deep independent study of the philosophical or political issues at hand — in fact they’re often mindlessly imbued by an environment which makes affirming them almost obligatory to obtain entry into elite institutions. Including media institutions.

With this in mind, it’s worth parsing out a distinction between objectivity — which was always an unattainable standard — and impartiality, understood as a facility which enables you to dispassionately evaluate evidence and facts, separately from your own personal preferences, with an eye toward conveying maximal truth. I am often gratified by readers/viewers/followers who say they appreciate my ‘content,’ even if they find they don’t agree with me politically. Balancing these competing incentives requires a high degree of transparency in order to ensure trust. For example, I’ve always been happy to tell people who I voted for, rather than concealing that information like a state secret. (I’m curious if Wesley Lowery would do the same.) And I’m also not asserting that there’s some impermeable bright line between the “activism” and “advocacy” categories; the distinction is always going to be a tad fuzzy. But there has to be a happy medium somewhere between obsolete David Broderism and the new all-activism-all-the-time mindset, otherwise much of the country is going to completely tune out, and for good reason.

Because when the alternative to that stodgy old form of unattainable objectivity is to simply repeat the opinions and demands of foundation-funded activists (whose life experiences are virtually indistinguishable from most journalists’), there may be a bit of a problem. To take just one recent example, only after a minor uproar did CBS News change a headline from “3 ways companies can help fight Georgia's restrictive new voting law” to “Activists are calling on big companies to challenge new voting laws. Here's what they're asking for.” This kind of gave away the game: the CBS digital editor in charge of writing that headline evidently saw their job as fulfilling more-or-less the same purpose as a foundation-funded activist’s job. 

On top of that, who even cares what “activists” are “calling on” corporations to do? And why is it the job of CBS News to merely repeat what those activists are saying without qualification, thus giving them the kind of amplification that they crave? Any activist group can get its message out by self-publishing on the internet. This sort of journalism’s only function is to signal institutional agreement with activist demands and, furthermore, an outlet’s editorial desire to assist in promulgating those demands.

Looking out on the present media landscape, one can only conclude that this is Wesley Lowery’s world, not David Broder’s. But pretending that Broder still reigns supreme is important. Because in 2021, more power accrues when you falsely present yourself as the plucky underdog.