Editorialized news reporting is worse now than the Bari Weiss controversy

In 2016, James Rutenberg, the media reporter for The New York Times, wrote, “You have to throw out the textbook [of] American journalism…. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, non-opinion journalist… by normal standards, untenable.” 

That was written in response to the nomination of Donald Trump. You can despise Trump for fabrications and divisiveness, but is throwing out journalistic standards the way forward?

For the uninitiated, this is known as “advocacy journalism” or “editorialized news reporting.” Opinion with the goal to convince is what is expected in an editorial or opinion piece, but it crosses a line when it is routinely found where news is supposed to be reported, and it is a profound danger to our democracy.

As Gerald Baker of The Wall Street Journal wrote regarding today’s news media, they are “more entrenched and [have] more enduring power to reshape the way we talk and think about politics than Mr. Trump does. We are facing nothing less than a concerted, sustained and comprehensive effort to re-educate Americans in service of a radical ideological agenda.”

Opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss’s resignation from the Times spotlighted the illiberalism and workplace intimidation at the paper of record. That should, in and of itself, frighten all fair-minded people, especially because her colleagues called her a “Nazi” and “racist” and accused her of not being progressive enough, writing as she did about antisemitism and Israel without the required level of self-loathing.

So, while Ms. Weiss’s description of a toxic environment in The New York Times’ opinion and editorial section is deplorable, the elephant in the room that must not be missed is the activist agenda of the news side of the paper, where like-minded writers and editors inject their high-minded opinions into their news stories. 

You see it in the headlines, choice of stories, the photos accompanying an article blatantly meant to influence you, and the placement of a story to advance their perception of right-minded thinking. These manipulations have been going on for decades, perpetuating a fraud upon the public who thought they could blindly trust their news sources to be unbiased.

This is in part the reason why many pro-Israel Times readers canceled their subscriptions over the past two decades. The Times has been fixated on Israel, with a disproportionate number of news, opinion and editorial pieces written in relation to the minuscule size of the country, most of a highly critical nature. The profound human rights abuses around the world, especially a stone’s throw from Israel, receive proportionally much less coverage.

Seventeen years ago, the Times created the position of a public editor to address the concerns of its readers. Its first editor wrote a column titled “Is ‘The New York Times’ a Liberal Paper?” His answer, “Of course it is.” 

Thank you for the honesty. Yet in 2017, the publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. eliminated the position, claiming it was not needed anymore in the age of social media. So much for critical self-examination.

SO IS news-journalism’s goal in the 21st century to inform the public as objectively as possible, despite acknowledging our innate biases, or is it OK to consciously write copy as a public relations agency would to create an impression in a news story that corresponds to the moral compass of the writers and their colleagues?

Weiss brought a fresh viewpoint to the opinion section of the Times, and was eager for a vigorous debate over the merits of her ideas. She didn’t expect intimidation, delegitimization, and rank illiberalism from her colleagues in both the news and opinion sections, who, like our so-delicate college kids, take offense at challenging ideas, demanding a safe space from any differing or uncomfortable thought.

I was not surprised by Weiss’s allegations. Over the years I have spoken to former and current editors and writers at both the news and opinion desks at the paper of record, who have told me that working at “The Gray Lady,” if you are perceived to be balanced or sympathetic to Israel, you are marginalized. These advocacy news writers were nurtured in universities where political diversity is absent, and where advocating for the victim and oppressed is their holier-than-thou mission.

In November I spoke to students at Berkeley who asked me what newspapers and media sources they should read to get a fair and well-rounded perspective. I told them they must read many sources, as almost all news departments are mission-oriented these days. More disturbing was that the students told me that in their classrooms they were afraid to express a point of view different from their professors, risking ostracism or a bad grade.

For some, the uproar over journalism is much ado about nothing. The new editor-in-chief of The Jewish Week, Andrew Silow-Caroll, who has taken a decidedly left turn in his opinions compared to his predecessor, Gary Rosenblatt. Silow-Caroll, in part in an attempt to attract younger readers, wrote a spirited defense of American journalism in the aftermath of the Bari Weiss affair. 

The New York Times’ opinion section is a singular, and highly influential, showplace of journalism, but it tends to overshadow the more typical work of the thousands of reporters, editors and broadcasters who are trying to provide us with the diet of information that is essential to a healthy, functioning democracy.” 

If only it were so.

Less generously, Silow-Caroll seems to blame Weiss for being thin-skinned. 

“She courted and welcomed controversy, and often her words and assignments seemed calculated to provoke exactly the reactions she now decries.” 

That is some spin, blaming the victim!

Ms. Weiss confronted the worst of progressive journalism at the prestigious New York Times, but she can hold her own. But it is the readers of the paper of record whom I worry about, as well as the students whose professors practice activism over academics, radicalizing the young people who are our future journalists, making them believe it is OK to put the stamp of your opinion in a news article. That is the greatest threat to our democracy.

Bottom line to news reporters: No matter how just your personal causes, to be respected as a true journalist, put facts in one place, opinion in another.

The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, as well White House advisers. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post, and has written for The Hill, JNS, JTA, RealClearWorld, the Forward, and Defense News.

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