Muzzling the Messenger: How the New York Times still does not quite get this Internet thing
The New York Times is behind the times, and in the age where anyone, no matter how empty-headed and uninformed, can broadcast their shallow-most thoughts, there is no use trying to move backwards. Their new social media "policy" insists their reporters refrain from using social media to broadcast their personal truths, such as the fact they do not like Donald Trump or that their mechanic did not fix their muffler and is doing nothing to remedy the problem.
Okay, what reality does the Times inhabit?
Do they think that muzzling their journalists will hide what they truly believe in their stories?
Of course not. What facts you see and what facts you ignore is guided by your interpretations of reality. There is no hiding that, and don't think you are such a practiced liar that you can fool all of the people all of the time. You are not always the smartest person in the room. The Times has made numerous blunders over the decades. For example, more than one con man got away with fleecing people because that newspaper gave them legitimacy without asking hard questions. Those journalists just assumed those grifters got their wealth by legitimate means, which tells us something very important about their opinions on businessmen.
Objectivity is not pretending you do not have any biases because that is a lie, and everyone knows it is a lie. Objectivity is, in fact, acknowledging you have preferences, and then challenging your own beliefs. There has to be an element of struggle, dissonance, and true analysis as you revise your own assumptions. The simplest way to challenge yourself is by not falling for the confirmation bias: you absolutely have to look for evidence that refutes your theory and then face the fact that issues are more complicated than what your perceptions reveal. The more facts you present, the more you and your audience see that the story, event, or issue is more nuanced than what everyone initially believed.
Journalists are not the only ones with biases that need challenging: so do audiences who also have them. The purpose of a news report is to inform those biased audiences that their narratives and interpretations of reality do not align with the real thing. That is the reason we need to consider an issue from more than one or two perspectives: we can focus on a newsmaker, but while he is a hero to some, he is a villain to others. The point is to view people as human beings, not gods or devils. We can weigh the good and the bad and come with a more realistic view.
Reporting is not about spewing propaganda. It is not about manipulating audiences by fear-mongering, cheerleading, hero worshipping, or demonization. People get whipped into some childish outrage, and then they cannot actually think for themselves, and the worst thing of it all, they don't realize they are not actually feeling that way, but have been talked into those unnatural emotions. They get injected with adrenaline, and then look at the choreographed feelings of others, mistakenly taking those feelings as their own.
Yes, it happens, and frequently happens to you. You are not propaganda-proof.
If done correctly, journalism informs rationally. It gives facts, and the audience can use those facts to make assessments and decisions.
But the Times' policy does something to undermine that simple journalistic mandate: it gives reporters less freedom than the audience they are targeting. If common readers have more leeway to express, then why should they take the Times seriously? Why entrust a censored group who are withholding their feelings?
Because reason is only one-half the information we use to make assessments. We also use emotionality. An emotionally literate person has biases and reactions, but can use the reflection of logic and facts to revise their feelings just as their feelings give context to those facts. It is a feedback loop.
Hiding emotions is deceptive, and worse, the lack of emotions is a sign of an anti-social personality, while the lack of opinion is a sign of apathy.
In journalism, facts come first. We don't need a reporter to meddle and tell us how to think -- but we also need to get some sense of who a reporter is as a person.
A very good example of solid journalism was Ronan Farrow's recent game-changing exposé of Harvey Weinstein in the New Yorker, a publication that usually peddles in arrogant sophistry. There is no question of who Farrow is and his background...and yet his reportage was accurate, truthful, honest, valid, reliable, useful and righteous. It had the balance of both logic and feeling. It did what a good piece of journalism is supposed to do: warn people about the hidden dangers and remind them not to be complacent followers who mindlessly cheer those who are destructive. We know Farrow's stance and personal history, yet far from him being someone who shouldn't have done the story, he became the very person to report it.
The New York Times needs to take a lesson from Farrow. You cannot hide the truth, or else you are as deceptive as those you condemn in your stories. Stop pretending and stop tethering your reporters to the point they have less freedom of expression than the audiences who have the freedom to do so.
It is not about hiding opinion. It is about facing those opinions and learning to channel them through the lens of reality and humility. You do not know everything and you have a lifetime to learn and adjust your opinions as you gain new information.
But the Times chooses to go back in to a less honest era to cover a world that has moved on.