The prejudice and populism of lobby journalism in the media

Israel’s media should take a careful look at what is happening to the standards of journalism, not with awe, but fear, or perhaps the courage to show the world that there is something better.

LAWLESSNESS ON the streets did not distinguish between Right and Left, white or black, male or female. (photo credit: REUTERS)
LAWLESSNESS ON the streets did not distinguish between Right and Left, white or black, male or female.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Journalism, it is becoming apparent, has itself fallen victim to the “I Can’t Breathe” protest movement in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. Andrew Sullivan, a gay and conservative independent-thinking columnist, was banned by his employer, New York magazine, from writing about the recent riots. Stan Wischnowski, top editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, resigned following discontent among the newspaper’s staff. They reacted to a headline on a column discussing the destruction and looting that accompanied the riots with the title “Buildings Matter, Too.”
Across the pond, a clip came out documenting a mounted policewoman smashing into a traffic light and severely injured as a result of a demonstrator throwing a missile at her horse. The Guardian’s pop culture columnist, Hannah Jane Parkinson, felt free to tweet out in response that the clip should be set to a song by Gwen Stefani, “Hollaback Girl,” memorable for its inane lines: “This my shit/ This my shit/ Let me hear you say/ This shit is bananas.”
A particularly egregious example of the present day smothering of journalistic culture was the forced resignation of The New York Times’ James Bennet and two of his coworkers. Their “crime” was allowing US (Republican) Sen. Tom Cotton to publish an article in which he argued that President Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act and “send in the troops” to help quell the lawlessness in US cities.
The union, representing some 1,200 rank-and-file journalists at the paper, claimed the piece promoted hate and endangered the paper’s own reporters in the field. More than 800 staff members signed a protest letter. As a result, a review that examined the piece and its publication process, overseen by Adam Rubenstein, was undertaken. It found a “clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an op-ed that did not meet our standards.” Not only that, but the paper intends to reduce the number of op-eds it publishes.
At the same time that message went out, another, from New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, was sent to the employees stating, “Our journalistic mission – to seek the truth and help people understand the world – could not be more important than it is in this moment of upheaval.” But as a letter to the editor expressed it, Bennet’s resignation simply amplified a message that “left-leaning media... are too sensitive and intolerant of heterodox views.”
LET US BE clear about this: The NY Times claimed that some facts in the article were unproven and should not have been published. This claim comes to the Israeli audience as being quite strange considering the lies propagated about Israel by various op-ed columnists, such as five-time murderer Marwan Barghouti without identifying him, and Hamas spokesman Ahmed Yousef
The NY Times journalists were justifiably fearful, the lawlessness on the streets did not distinguish between Right and Left, white or black, male or female. However, the demand that the paper capitulate to such lawlessness is perhaps the best evidence for its lack of moral stature.
The whole story has an even more ominous twist to it. In a follow-up development, the Quincy Institute’s Alex Kane used the Bennet story and the Cotton op-ed to launch a vicious anti-Jewish attack on Adam Rubenstein, the person he presumed was the editor responsible for publishing the piece. In fact, Rubenstein was later cleared of responsibility by the Times’ former op-ed editor Jim Dao. But this did not faze Quincy, who also sniped at neo-conservative Barri Weiss for daring to go after critics of Israel. Weiss was then subjected to aggressive attacks at the well-known defender of human rights: Twitter.
A Wall Street Journal editorial lamented that the publisher of the NY Times “failed to back up his editors, which means the editors no longer run the place. The struggle sessions on Twitter and Slack channels rule.”
American journalism, it further posited, “is now dominated by the same moral denunciation, ‘safe space’ demands, and identity-politics dogmas” as had been happening at universities this past decade. Ultimately, there will be fewer institutions, it suggested, “that will defend free inquiry and the contest of ideas that once defined American liberalism.”
This outburst of personal intervention by media employees, inserting themselves and their opinions into the news that is then presented to us, the media consumers, as reliable and factual, undermines the entire objectivity and fairness standards we have been promised. This subversive process has been developing for years.
Here in Israel, Israel’s Media Watch (of which Yisrael Medad was executive director 1995-2000) lobbied in the Knesset and in other public forums over two decades ago. And recently, when the rules at KAN were altered, it lobbied against the intent of public broadcasting oversight bodies to permit employees of state-sponsored radio and television presenters to insert personal opinion comments in the form of on-air monologues, topic introductions or outright statements.
WHAT ONCE was Haim Yavin’s incorrect raised eyebrow has become a veritable flood of sometimes even silly opinions, all aimed at persuading the consumer to think like the media celebrity.
Suzanne Moore, who has worked for left-wing and right-wing papers, acknowledges that she was made particularly uncomfortable in their closeness to the political parties. She wrote in The Guardian on June 1 against “lobby journalism” and what she termed “a new breed of activist/journalists [for whom] “activism came first, truth second and bullying not far behind. Intentionally or not, they have fed straight into the fake news agenda. ”
A sad example of this type of bullying here in Israel is the concerted effort by people in Army Radio, most notably, Yaron Vilensky and Ya’akov Bardugo, to use their program in support of the demands of various sectors, especially entertainment, on the public coffers, even providing advice as to how they should pressure government officials.
We have highlighted in previous articles one of the negative byproducts of Twitter journalism. Journalists use it to become personal and then strident and nasty in their conversation. This then spills over back into their reporting. In The New York Times on June 8, an article reviewing new developments in media reporting by Ben Smith, the paper’s media columnist, noted: “The central vein for reporters, producers, activists and a vast national audience was Twitter, which had already begun subtly shifting the power dynamic in news. It steered coverage.”
He continued, writing that on Twitter, the young journalists received “positive reinforcement, they’re getting thousands and thousands of people saying, ‘Yes, we do like that.’”
For the younger generation of journalists, it is now current wisdom that, as former Washington Post reporter Ben Lowery was quoted by Smith, that “‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment” and that mainstream American media should be driven by “a journalism that is more personal.”
In contrast to that thinking, we recall that former chief editor of the NY Times, A.M. Rosenthal, is buried under a gravestone inscribed, “He kept the paper straight.”
Israel’s media should take a careful look at what is happening to the standards of journalism, not with awe, but fear, or perhaps the courage to show the world that there is something better.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch.