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Journalists critical of their own companies cause headaches for news organizations

Journalists see themselves as truth-tellers, and sometimes as contrarians

By DAVID BAUDER, AP Media Writer
Published: April 29, 2024, 6:02am
4 Photos
FILE - MSNBC television anchor Rachel Maddow, host of &ldquo;The Rachel Maddow Show,&rdquo; moderates a panel at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., on Oct. 16, 2017. In the past few weeks, NBC reversed a decision to hire former Republican National Committee head Ronna McDaniel as a political contributor following a revolt by some of its best-known personalities, including Maddow, and others.
FILE - MSNBC television anchor Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show,” moderates a panel at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., on Oct. 16, 2017. In the past few weeks, NBC reversed a decision to hire former Republican National Committee head Ronna McDaniel as a political contributor following a revolt by some of its best-known personalities, including Maddow, and others. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File) Photo Gallery

NEW YORK (AP) — This spring, NBC News, The New York Times and National Public Radio have each dealt with turmoil for essentially the same reason: journalists taking the critical gaze they deploy to cover the world and turning it inward at their own employers.

Whistleblowing isn’t unique to any industry. Yet the contrary outlook baked into many journalists — which can be a central part of their jobs — and generational changes in how many view activism have combined to make it probable these sort of incidents will continue.

In the past few weeks, NBC reversed a decision to hire former Republican National Committee chief Ronna McDaniel as a political contributor following a revolt by some of its best-known personalities. An NPR editor was suspended and then quit after critiquing his company’s willingness to tolerate diverse viewpoints and an internal probe provoked by Gaza coverage ended at the Times.

Journalism as a profession attracts people who are anti-authoritarian, who see themselves as truth-tellers. Many believe the way to make an organization better is by criticizing it, said Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of “The Elements of Journalism” and a professor at the University of Maryland.

“We’re taught to hold power to account,” said Kate O’Brian, president of news for the E.W. Scripps Co.

IT’S IN THEIR NATURE

So was it really surprising to see Chuck Todd, who spent years questioning politicians on “Meet the Press,” do the same to his bosses when there was resistance to putting McDaniel on the payroll? MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid, Joe Scarborough, Jen Psaki, Nicolle Wallace and Lawrence O’Donnell all joined a protest that was extraordinary for how it played out on the network’s own airwaves.

National Public Radio editor Uri Berliner didn’t receive much internal support for his complaints, but that actually reinforced his point. He said NPR had become too one-sided in promoting a liberal point of view, and that he went public with an essay in another news outlet when his concerns went unanswered by his superiors.

NPR management says he is wrong. But Berliner quickly became a hero among conservatives who hold the same belief.

Journalism history has many examples of meaningful internal protests. Women journalists sued in the 1970s to force The New York Times and The Associated Press to confront gender discrimination. Los Angeles Times journalists exposed a deal their company made to share profits with a sports arena from a special issue. A Chicago TV news anchor quit to protest her station’s hiring of talk show host Jerry Springer as a commentator.

The 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police was a significant moment, forcing news organizations across the country to confront how they covered racial issues, both past and present, often at the prodding of their staff. It also forced a look at a lack of diversity in newsrooms.

There are several reasons why many journalists are more apt now to go public with complaints they may once have kept to sharing with colleagues down at the corner bar. Among them is the likelihood that their outlet is owned by a faraway hedge fund instead of a local family, said Joel Kaplan, associate dean for graduate studies at Syracuse University’s Newhouse communications school and a former Chicago Tribune reporter.

A generational change also has emboldened many young journalists. In his own classroom, Kaplan sees more young journalists questioning traditional notions of objectivity that keep them from expressing opinions. Many believe they have the right to state their beliefs and support causes, he said.

“Now you have journalists that are advocates,” Rosenstiel said. “That reflects something of a culture war that is happening inside of journalism.”

Debates over coverage of the Trump administration had a similar galvanizing effect.

“There are some journalists who say, ‘I’m not interested in covering conservatives because they are not interested in the truth,’” Rosenstiel said.

A BACKLASH TO THE BACKLASH

Some traditionalists, like former Washington Post editor Marty Baron, have despaired over some of these changes. Battles with young staff members over how they express their opinions over social media left him despondent, a factor in his eventual retirement.

“Never have I felt more distant from my fellow journalists,” he wrote about a staff meeting on the topic in his 2023 book, “Collision of Power.”

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One of the most prominent thinkers on this issue, journalist Wesley Lowery, has written that some defenders of objectivity are more interested in inoffensiveness and appearance, less so on journalistic rigor.

“In pursuing objectivity, we silence the marginalized,” a Harvard student, Ajay V. Singh, wrote at the height of the debate. “In silencing the marginalized, we tip the narrative of ‘truth’ into the hands of the powerful.”

The New York Times frequently has been at the forefront with journalists questioning their organization. In 2020, the newspaper’s editorial page editor resigned after the newspaper disowned an opinion piece written by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton about Floyd-related protests, following a staff protest. Some Times staff members also have spoken out intensely against the newspaper’s coverage of gender issues.

Its executives, however, appeared to have lost patience with a debate surrounding another contentious issue: the war in Gaza.

They launched an internal investigation into who leaked material to an outside publication, the Intercept, about a podcast based on a late December article about Hamas and sexual violence. The podcast was never done. That angered some staff members who were concerned the Times was striking back against employees for doing something that its own reporters do on a regular basis: write stories based on leaked material.

Yet management of the Times viewed the action as a violation of trust, particularly the sharing of what was essentially drafts of material that never saw the light of day.

“Reporters, editors and producers need to be able to have candid exchanges and disagreements about the best way to tackle a difficult piece of journalism with the understanding that those exchanges will strengthen the story, not become the story,” Joe Kahn, Times executive editor, said in a memo to staff on April 15. He said the probe concluded without determining who leaked the material.

Against this backdrop is another truth: The media itself and how it covers news are issues that interest the public more than in the past, creating the market for just the sort of material that Kahn was talking about — and for this story as well.

Because of the interest, and because of the journalism DNA that courses through the debate, there’s likely to be no shortage of sources for such news, Rosenstiel said.

“Newsrooms,” he said, “are full of people who are often disgruntled.”

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