As American journalism staggers from challenge to challenge, disoriented by competing claims and uncertain what its ideals should be, the central dispute is this: Should news just describe the world? Or fix it?
My journalistic apprenticeship came in the late 1990s at the Associated Press, whose mission was to produce articles that somehow suited the entire country, from the Alabama weekly to the Chicago daily. One result was an institutional terror of seeming to opine; everything short of your byline needed attribution.
But the AP—and the press generally—has always struggled to treat sources equally, and, despite its best intentions, has sometimes attended to the powerful while overlooking the weak. Partly, this is practical. Those in power know much, set policy, and have press offices. This creates a moral hazard: You need them.
When I was a correspondent in Italy, reporting on Silvio Berlusconi’s government, one of his press officers routinely screamed at me, outraged when I wrote simple facts that irked him. He’d complain to my supervisor and threaten to refuse my calls. By contrast, when ordinary citizens find themselves ensnared in news events, they have no staff to harangue the reporter. They may be quoted or deleted as required.
Trust in the official version became an obvious problem after 9/11, when many in the American media accepted the Bush administration’s false claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. During the next Republican administration, journalists had a more acute problem: What to do when the guy with nuclear bombs is a serial liar?
Rather than hewing to impartiality, much of the left-leaning news media took a stand. The shift at major American outlets did not, however, amount to skepticism of authority. Instead, it enforced a partial skepticism, based on politics. Deference to the White House became deference to progressive voices. For some disgusted by Trump, the new moralizing journalism felt timely. To others, it felt dangerous.
If told to pick between justice and truth, we choose both. So progressive journalists who have lately pursued moral clarity insist that this also delivers greater accuracy, while journalists who still aspire to objectivity say their approach is more likely to bring justice. As with many debates today, this feels like an argument at cross-purposes.
In the 18th century, David Hume described the “is-ought” problem, saying that statements of fact are a different category from statements of morality, so one may not leap from what is to a declaration of what ought. Our culture fears the opposite, that what ought may be undermined by what is. Therefore, Fox News personalities downplayed the killing of unarmed Iraqi civilians because American veterans committed the crime, and critics of police brutality failed to note that, when an officer shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, she appeared to be trying to stab another young woman.