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In newsrooms, 'a raging debate over the role journalists should be playing'

"Newsroom diversity is still awful," Jemele Hill says, and "it has remained a consistent problem in our business." Karen Attiah says "we are still fighting for integration in our newsrooms" and "our industry should be ashamed" by its lack of progress to date. Nikole Hannah-Jones says "newsrooms don't want to be transparent about their own diversity numbers."

Posted: Jun 8, 2020 3:51 PM
Updated: Jun 8, 2020 3:51 PM

A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Who decides?

New York Times media reporter Edmund Lee said over the weekend that "this is the most difficult period for the profession" he's ever seen.

"If you work in a newsroom right now," he wrote on Twitter, "you're probably witnessing or participating in a raging debate over the role journalists should be playing that could end up being very consequential."

The debates are taking place in Slack channels and email chains and Twitter threads and Facebook groups. People are pointing out problems with some traditional journalistic attitudes and arguing for new approaches and new leaders. What should news outlets do differently when leaders spread "enemy of the people" lies? How should opinion sections adapt in the age of information wars? When are "both sides" equally valid and when are they not? Who decides?

I suppose what I'm trying to say is: This is about so much more than a single op-ed.

Readers, subscribers, sources, professional critics, and aspiring journalists are all paying attention to these debates. Lee pointed out that "how leaders respond might make the difference for the next generation..."

"Inside the Revolts Erupting in America's Big Newsrooms"

NYT media columnist Ben Smith has an XL column about the subject in Monday's paper, rooted in the experiences of Wesley Lowery and other reporters in Ferguson six years ago. "Now, as America is wrestling with the surging of a moment that began in August 2014, its biggest newsrooms are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls," Smith writes.

One of his conclusions: A "shift in mainstream American media -- driven by a journalism that is more personal, and reporters more willing to speak what they see as the truth without worrying about alienating conservatives -- now feels irreversible.

Bennet out at NYT

Staffers at The Times say they've never seen anything like this. James Bennet is gone, effective immediately, following days of anger at the NYT about Tom Cotton's "Send in the Troops" op-ed and widespread frustration with the Opinion section's missteps under Bennet's leadership. A.G. Sulzberger said Katie Kingsbury will be the acting editorial page editor through the November election. Op-ed page editor Jim Dao, who oversaw editing of Cotton's piece, will be reassigned to the newsroom.

>> The tectonic restructuring capped a week of turmoil inside NYT. "While this has been a painful week across the company, it has sparked urgent and important conversations," Sulzberger wrote employees. All the details in Oliver Darcy's story here...

Far from Bennet's first blunder

Oliver Darcy writes: The section has fumbled pieces about Brett Kavanaugh and Sarah Palin; apologized after publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon in its international edition; and faced heat amid numerous other controversies. As I wrote last year, Bennet's tenure had been marked by several high-profile debacles. Time and time again, when NYT was igniting outrage, it was Bennet's section at center stage. Sulzberger seemed to reference this series of high-profile debacles in his memo, noting the "significant breakdown" in the editing process was "not the first we've experienced in recent years..."

Staffers stunned

Darcy writes: I spoke with several NYT staffers on Sunday, and they all said that the newsroom was in shock over Bennet's departure. As some of these staffers noted to me, Bennet had been considered for some time to be one of the top candidates to replace Dean Baquet when he retires. So his sudden fall sent shockwaves through the newsroom, even among his detractors.

One of the staffers pointed out that some good has come from this episode because it has prompted meaningful conversations about systemic racial biases and diversity inside the newsroom. The person said such conversations have gone deeper than simply ensuring a diverse staff and have been about larger issues regarding race and NYT's role in society...

NYT succumbs to the woke mob?

That's the narrative on the right, and it's not going anywhere. When I asked Nikole Hannah-Jones about this on TV Sunday morning, hours before Bennet resigned, she framed it very differently: News outlets, she said, "are really struggling to cover, in a way that appears to be nonpartisan, a kind of political landscape where one political party has in many ways has gone rogue and is not following the rules." She said "this adherence to even-handedness, both-sidism, the 'view from nowhere' doesn't actually work in the political circumstances that we're in..."

Cotton to run an anti-Biden ad?

Oliver Darcy writes: "This entire episode could not have gone better for Tom Cotton if he wrote the script himself," Olivia Nuzzi tweeted. She's right. First, Cotton had his op-ed published online. Now he gets to say that his piece has caused uproar inside the paper's newsroom. As Dave Weigel reported via a source, "He's quintupled his fundraising since the NYT fracas started. Around $200k. He doesn't even have a Democratic opponent this year. So, where's the money going? Expect Cotton to run an ad against Biden this week." I'm told by a person close to Cotton to indeed expect an ad that will focus on hitting Biden over China...

NOW, FROM NEW YORK TO PENNSYLVANIA...

In Philly:

Stan Wischnowski, the top editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, resigned Saturday "after discontent among the newspaper's staff erupted" over a "Buildings Matter, Too" headline in the paper, the Inquirer's Craig R. McCoy reports.

Wischnowski worked at the paper for 20 years. His accomplishments are innumerable. He declined to comment on his exit, but it was clearly about more than the awful headline. Per McCoy's story, Wischnowski and other editors held a staffwide Zoom meeting to "discuss race at The Inquirer" and it turned "intense and emotional."

"Critics, black and white, denounced the pace of change at the paper, sharply criticizing both coverage and the racial and gender mix of the staff," McCoy wrote. More here...

In Pittsburgh:

"Pittsburgh Post-Gazette leadership is accused of removing a black journalist from protest coverage after she posted a tweet about looting last Sunday," CNN's Taylor Romine reports.

WaPo's Miriam Berger says the situation underscores "one of the fundamental challenges American media faces with its coverage: a lack of diverse voices, including of black journalists, in newsrooms..."

The need for true integration of America's newsrooms

"Newsroom diversity is still awful," Jemele Hill said on Sunday's "Reliable Sources." It "has remained a consistent problem in our business."

Karen Attiah suggested that integration is the best word for what's needed: "We are still fighting for integration in our newsrooms" and "our industry should be ashamed" by its lack of progress to date. And Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out that "newsrooms don't want to be transparent about their own diversity numbers." Watch the full segment here...

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