Small Business

Journalistic Independence Isn’t a Human-Resources Exercise

Of all the signs of the death of free speech—whether the raft of anti-protest legislation that passed in state houses across the country after the summer of 2020, or the much-cited polls that show that free expression is not a primary concern to young people—none should be as concerning as the relative silence around the legitimate free-speech crisis that has unfolded over the past month.

Nearly every corner of American life has felt the chill. On Tuesday night, the House of Representatives voted to censure Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American member of Congress, for her statements on the war in Gaza, including amplifying the phrase “from the river to the sea.” In the corporate world, there has been a bizarre multi-industry campaign to either reprimand current employees or refuse to hire people for participating in a protest or signing their names in support of Palestine.

The media business has seen numerous firings, resignations, and hastily implemented new policies on employees making political statements. These include the firing of Mike Eisen, the editor-in-chief of the biomedical-science journal eLife, after he retweeted a satirical article from the Onion; the firing of David Velasco, the editor-in-chief of Artforum, after he signed and published a letter that expressed solidarity with the cause of Palestinian liberation and called for an immediate ceasefire; and the resignation of the Times staff writer Jazmine Hughes after she signed, in violation of a newsroom policy, a different Palestine solidarity statement, which several New Yorker writers also signed. (The board of eLife said in a statement that it had had broader concerns about Eisen’s social-media use, among other things.) Hearst Magazines also made a truly draconian move to crack down on any political speech expressed by its employees on social media, including “liking” other people’s posts.

Within the news media, these types of censures are seen, by the people and institutions who perform them, as a necessary bit of housekeeping—a way of projecting a type of objectivity. (Some of this is understandable: large newsrooms with reporters spread across the globe have legitimate concerns about how political statements from their employees might cause difficulties for their colleagues.) But the disciplinary actions are best understood as acts of desperation from institutions that have lost much of their power to shape public opinion. Strong media organizations confident in the righteousness of their mission do not need to offer up their employees as sacrifices to an angry mob. They do not need to hide behind weak, semantic rules against “political” statements that restrict and silence their own reporters, yet do little to convince outside observers that they are truly impartial. Journalistic independence—the production of factual accounts free from outside influence—cannot be a public-relations or human-resources exercise, nor can it be maintained through pledges to stop tweeting about “politics.”

Most of us who work in the industry know this. It would be hard to find anyone who truly believes that the censure of political social-media statements leads to a neutral newsroom. Most, I imagine, believe that their former colleagues were fully capable of doing their jobs with dignity and care. Although there’s genuine disagreement about whether explicitly political statements might compromise the integrity of media institutions, or whether the published statements have been sufficiently sensitive to the people who have been killed in the conflict, a strong industry would turn that into an ongoing and transparent conversation and not a top-down censorious action that brings up way more questions than it answers.

These panicked decisions come at a time when the fractures between what some would call “the mainstream media” and the public have clearly expanded. This divide is very real, yet none of the relevant terms can really be defined. What, exactly, is mainstream at a time when so many people get their news through a mélange of social-media posts? And if there is, indeed, bias in this undefined mass media, which way does it lean?

Back when Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman wrote “Manufacturing Consent,” their 1988 study of the “mass media” and how it both spread propaganda and suppressed dissent, the average American’s news diet consisted of the nightly news and a newspaper or two. Opinions could be formed over time and choices could be made within a competitive marketplace. If you lived in North Carolina, for example, and found yourself annoyed by the Raleigh News & Observer, you could pick up the North Carolina Independent, or, in rare cases, you could go read the New York Times at the local library. These choices might have been illusory under some broader context, but they reflected a real consumer choice, one that the consumer took quite seriously and believed said something about themselves.