Current Affairs

Should Journalists Have Politics?

If a publication wants to be trusted, it can start by being honest about its perspective.

The New York Times has let go one of its editors, Lauren Wolfe, after a tweet in which Wolfe said she “had chills” watching Joe Biden’s plane land. The New York Times has thus far declined to explain its decision to fire Wolfe in any detail, except to deny that the tweet was the sole factor, but the paper has long had a firm stance that its news division should not be perceived as being in any way politically partisan, and the tweet could be interpreted as a sign that Wolfe was not objective about the Biden administration. (Its op-ed staff, on the other hand, get away with spouting seemingly endless nonsense.) The paper’s official ethics handbook says flatly that “journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics.” While they are “entitled to vote,” they must “do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of The Times.” They can’t give money to political candidates, and the paper even warns that having “a bumper sticker on the family car” may be problematic, because it “may be misread as theirs, no matter who in their household actually placed the sticker.” The handbook speaks with gravity of the “risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides.”

In 2016, Liz Spayd, then serving as the paper’s public editor, wrote a column worrying about the fact that the Times is seen as a liberal paper, quoting executive editor Dean Baquet, who insisted the paper’s coverage does not have a liberal cast, and who said he “want[s] us to be perceived as fair and honest to the world, not just a segment of it.” Spayd agreed, warning that open partisanship “would change everything about what the paper is and the force of its journalism.” “Imagine a country,” she said, “where the greatest, most powerful newsroom in the free world was viewed not as a voice that speaks to all but as one that has taken sides.” Perhaps, she said, this is already the impression people have. But it is one the paper should fight, because it would undermine their journalism. For example, “imagine the stories they might miss, like the groundswell of isolation that propelled a candidate like Donald Trump to his party’s nomination.”

It is easy to see why the Times fired Wolfe so quickly, then. The paper’s executive editor wants to take aggressive action to combat the perception that the Times has a liberal ideology (a perception that is widespread, with independent bias evaluators consistently pegging the Times as liberal). Many have rallied to Wolfe’s defense on social media, seeing it as outrageous that the Times would fire an editor over a single tweet, especially something so mild as offering a sincere emotional reaction to the end of the Trump era. But Wolfe was offering a clear indication that she had a preference for the Biden presidency over the Trump presidency, and in doing so, an argument could be made that she violated the paper’s official “neutrality” policy. 

But the policy is strange. It demands that editors keep their political views to themselves, to avoid public perception of bias. But the paper can’t stop editors from having views, only from revealing them to the public. The theory is that this creates greater trust in the Times’ journalism—if all of its reporters and editors openly admitted they preferred Joe Biden to Donald Trump, the line between “opinion” and “news” would be blurred. But presumably, the reporters and editors do tend to prefer Biden to Trump. If everyone on staff disclosed their politics, and it was a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, the Times could argue that its newsroom contained an accurate cross-section of the voting population, preventing it from being biased in any one direction. I doubt that’s the case, though; urban professionals with elite credentials tend to be Democrats, and it would be remarkable if the Times’ newsroom was 50-50 Trump supporters to Biden supporters. (There is in fact some evidence from internal leaked chats that the newsroom leans liberal.)

The ethics policy of the paper, then, is that a journalist must keep their politics a secret, in order to increase trust among the public. In other words, they must appear to be neutral, even if they are not. I am not sure this makes very much sense. As Spayd notes, the Times is perceived as a liberal paper, and we can surmise (especially from some of its coverage decisions) that it is indeed disproportionately staffed by people who are liberal in their politics. So it’s perceived accurately, but executive editor Baquet wants to try to get the public to believe something false, namely that Times journalists have no political views at all and are dedicated to Pure Fact without ideological sympathy of any kind. 

Does this increase trust? To me, it makes the paper seem dishonest. Spayd and Baquet might argue that coverage ought to be neutral even if editors have personal preferences, but in any case, the coverage should be able to speak for itself. It’s true that Wolfe’s tweet about Biden might imply that she would cover Biden sympathetically, and perhaps not apply the same level of scrutiny to a president whose inauguration gave her “chills” as to one who gave her a quite different reaction. But Wolfe was being honest, and I would much rather she told me her feelings about Biden than feign objectivity. The way she can earn my trust in her independence is through producing critical coverage of the Biden administration, not by keeping her tweets scrupulously free from any indication of having a viewpoint.

I do not actually think it is good or desirable to be free of politics. There is a view among some journalists that it is ethically irresponsible to have a “horse in the race.” Glenn Greenwald, for instance, says he doesn’t even vote, because he believes it makes a journalist “psychologically too connected to a politician.” In this view, a journalist’s job is to be independent, committed to Fact over partisanship. And if publications become too partisan, it will be impossible to know whether to trust them.

But a journalist doesn’t have to be apolitical in order to be independent in their analysis. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible in practice to actually be apolitical, because there are normative judgments about what matters that are inherent to political journalism, so even if one stays away from particular candidates and parties, one cannot stay away from ideology. (For instance, any journalistic expose of wrongdoing implicitly contains a value judgment that what is being done is wrong and worth exposing. A human rights reporter is not neutral on the question of human rights, a civil liberties journalist has a view of how the government ought to operate and what the proper scope of freedom is.) Even if it were possible to be apolitical, it would not be desirable—because in a world full of injustice, it is every person’s duty to take a stand, and the crudest kind of moral relativism is to say that one can be neutral on what the injustices are.

Instead of striving to be apolitical, then, journalists should strive to be accurate. These two things are not in tension. One can want Bernie Sanders to win the primary, and say so, but believe that if there was, say, financial misconduct among his campaign staff, it would be the job of a news reporter to write about it. Knowing the personal views of a journalist can actually help us trust their reporting more, because it means we do not have to wonder whether they are hiding something. The way they can convince us to listen to them, despite having a “bias” or viewpoint, is by showing their work. If they can prove whatever claims they make, then the fact that they have opinions will not undermine confidence in their work, because the audience can see the proof that they are correct. 

Personally, I am not a journalist. I am an opinion columnist and the editor of a socialist magazine. One reason I have never wanted to be a journalist is that I have never wanted to have to conceal that there are political goals I think ought to be achieved and that I want my work to help move us toward them. But even though I have an ideology, I believe deeply in telling the truth. I want people to be able to trust that something they read in Current Affairs is not a lie, and to build that trust, I make sure we source all of our claims as thoroughly as possible, so that people can see where we’re getting them from. I don’t think a devotion to truth above political expediency should be a value unique to journalists. It’s everyone’s job to care both about politics and about truth. The New York Times is questing after something impossible, and the results are absurd. Reporters are expected to pretend they don’t care about things they care about, in order to convince the audience that they don’t have beliefs that they do have, in order to increase trust. The Times’ desire to appear neutral leads it to other strange places, like publishing calls for martial law in the opinion pages in order to appear to care equally about all points of view. But there is no reason to do this. Just admit you’re a liberal paper, with a mostly liberal staff, and write well-supported articles that no honest person can dismiss as being biased, because the facts have been documented carefully. There is no world in which the New York Times is going to be seen as a “neutral” paper, so it may as well let its reporters freely express their actual opinions, so that we don’t have to speculate on what they really are, knowing that they are “ethically” required to be dishonest. Let journalists wear their politics on their sleeve, so long as they can show themselves capable of holding the powerful accountable regardless of party.

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