The NYT’s men’s rights story today is very accurate
By ‘accurately’ quoting bigots, without context or rebuttal, The Times perpetuates myths and endorses discrimination.
The former Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times is a Democrat and always has been. In 40 years, Linda Greenhouse won a Pulitzer Prize, wrote a biography and broke barriers, becoming the first woman sent to run the New York state capital bureau in Albany, for instance. But she also broke the arbitrary, self-imposed, ethical barriers that the journalism industry has honored for a century.
In her new book, Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between, Greenhouse takes the industry—and The Times specifically—to task for choosing accuracy over truth and failing readers by regurgitating information without contextualizing it. In its blind devotion to balance, the industry has sought opposing viewpoints where none are warranted. It has prevented journalists from also being citizens or even educated humans. When Greenhouse, a Yale-educated preeminent expert on the Supreme Court, referred to the Roberts court as “conservative,” the top editor of The Times sent the phrase back for revision so as not to appear biased.
Greenhouse was not a reporter-activist by any means, and in her news career she never received a complaint of bias from a reader or a source. But neither was she a “human microphone stand,” in the gruff words of one of my journalism school professors.
“There is a puzzle,” Greenhouse writes, “a disconnect between journalism practice and journalism commentary. Nearly all critics of contemporary journalism point to habits that disserve readers and viewers: imposing false equivalency on ideas of unequal merit; using distancing techniques to create a semblance of neutrality; and taking the ‘view from nowhere,’ in the pungent phrase of the journalism critic Jay Rosen. And yet those practices persist, even flourish.”
Accurate quotation is not journalism. It’s stenography.
So why was The New York Times content to publish the following passage in a front-page story in today’s paper? Under the headline “Push for Gender Equality in Tech? Some Men Say It’s Gone Too Far,” tech culture reporter Nellie Bowles explains the perspectives of men’s rights activists leading the charge against gender diversity in Silicon Valley.
[Attorney Jon Parsons] said that his clients, Greg Anderson and Scott Ard, had faced gender discrimination in Yahoo’s media teams and that other teams like cars were headed by women, which to Mr. Parsons was a sign of problems.
“No eyebrows are going to rise if a woman heads up fashion,” Mr. Parsons said. “But we’re talking about women staffing positions — things like autos — where it cannot be explained other than manipulation.”
Those leading Silicon Valley’s gender equality push said they were astonished that just as the movement was having an impact, it opened up an even more radical men’s rights perspective.
“It’s exhausting,” said Joelle Emerson, who runs Paradigm, a company that designs diversity strategies. “It’s created divides that I didn’t anticipate.”
Parsons’ opinion of women is almost comically offensive. I read the quote twice, thinking I had misunderstood it. Then I searched the following paragraphs for a cue from Bowles to assure me that, yes, you’re reading this correctly: Parsons is a misogynist prick.
But there’s nothing. The assertion that women cannot possibly be qualified to know about cars is left to stand unchallenged. The subsequent paragraph does describe Parsons’ words as a “radical men’s rights perspective,” but the reporter attributes this characterization to activists, even though Bowles, a subject-matter expert, is perfectly qualified to state this fact herself.
The Times and American journalism have a long tradition of using such distancing techniques. According to Greenhouse’s book, the obsession with objectivity and banishing the journalist’s critical thinking from news reporting began around the turn of the 20th century. There seem to have been several reasons. Reporters wanted to set themselves apart from publicists by appearing reasonable and even-handed. News executives sought to professionalize the journalism trade and, for commercial reasons, appeal to a politically broad range of readers. They may have had another motive, as Columbia University professor Michael Schudson suggests: to break up unions. “How could a reporter be ‘objective’ if he joined the Newspaper Guild?” Schudson wrote.
Seeking greater degrees of objectivity in the decades since, journalists have gone to absurd extremes. “I didn’t just stop voting,” said former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. “I stopped having even private opinions about politicians or issues so that I would have a completely open mind in supervising our coverage.” Is that what we want from our journalists? To detach themselves from their own beliefs and, by extension, from their own sense of right and wrong?
The view from nowhere served an industry purpose. It has not served the public. “The opposite of objectivity isn’t partisanship, or needn’t be,” Greenhouse writes. “Rather, it is judgment, the hard work of sorting out the false claims from the true and discarding or at least labeling the false.” When reporting the words of a public figure, hold them to account, “rather than simply—accurately—summarizing” what they say.
In its page one feature today, The Times accurately summarizes the perspectives of men who believe women are less capable, for biological reasons, of working in the tech industry. The scientific consensus about sex aptitude differences suggests their views are nonsense. “Even if there were well-established sex differences at any level, they’re … certainly not enough to explain the gender ratios of Google programmers,” Aston University neuroscientist Gina Rippon told The Guardian for a story about the real science behind John Damore’s infamous Google rant.
The Times story mentioned none of this, again allowing incorrect assertions from bigots to stand unchallenged.
Often, journalists use the final lines of an article, known as the kicker, as a subtle kind of verdict or as a question mark. If the kicker is a quote, then it gives that speaker the last word, from which a reader might glean the reporter’s own view. Other times it punctuates the unknowable aspects of the subject, looking into the future, or, conversely, it leaves the reader with something concrete and known: If the many sides cannot come together, the kicker might say, “Well, at least we know this.”
I’m not sure what Bowles intended for her kicker to say. Maybe she intended for it to say nothing, letting the words speak for themselves. Here’s Bowles’ kicker, a quote from a men’s rights activist named James Altizer, who gave his interview in a soundproof booth so no one would overhear him:
“It would be nice to have women, but you cannot find applicants.”
That’s it. That’s the end of the article.
While Bowles mentions earlier on that “studies and surveys show there is no denying the travails women face in the male-dominated industry” and highlights some recent sexual harassment controversies, she does not substantially challenge any of the blatant misogyny she quotes. She does not report that tech job listings are written to discourage women applicants. Or that female founders are “86 percent less likely to be funded than a man.” Or that perhaps because of verifiable gender bias in the sciences, women feel discouraged from entering those fields in the first place.
Rather, readers are left to assume the feminists of Silicon Valley really had “formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men,” as Altizer alleges, again without any scrutiny from The Times.
Greenhouse sums up this “you decide” form of journalism amusingly: “Maybe the earth revolves around the sun. Maybe it’s the other way around. You decide.”
Since Bowles’ story went online, there have been scores of comments on Twitter about it. Susan J. Fowler, editor of a digital magazine about software engineering, praises Bowles for getting “these men on record with their sexism and misogyny.”
But these men are already on the record. They’ve been bandying their noxious opinions around the internet for years. By putting those views “on record,” without context, The Times has only validated and amplified them. It’s telling that one user, who self-identifies as “anti-feminist” in his Twitter bio, called the article “fairly objective.”
Other readers picked up on the article’s appeasement of bigotry.
What is the function of The New York Times? Its motto, “all the news that’s fit to print,” was created by Adolph Ochs, the marketing genius who, during the 38 years he owned it, transformed The Times from a minor paper with 9,000 readers to a national institution with a paid circulation of over 466,000. Ochs’ focus on “decency” and “objectivity” distinguished it from the yellow journalism of the late 19th century. This model served the industry and the nation for 100 years.
It doesn’t serve us anymore. Decency now requires a different set of professional standards than the ones today’s practitioners have been taught. Racism and misogyny should not be presented as counterpoints, and supporting equal protection under the law is not activist journalism. If the president of the United States lies, the focus of news coverage should be that the president lied, not about what he said. Seems obvious, but, as Greenhouse points out, “expert sources” and public officials have learned to game the system.
Smart media manipulators understand journalists’ desperate fear of being saddled with the label of “biased reporter.” Some ideologues have even created nonprofit organizations whose primary purpose is to provide quotations to reporters on deadline. Others, particularly scholars at minor universities looking to self-promote, have taken advantage of journalists’ need to distance themselves from the assertions in their stories by availing their opinions on virtually any subject. There’s even a term for those people: “rent-a-quote.”
The more Trump and his supporters turn against traditional journalism, the more anxious news executives become. Some have retreated to the safety of habit, urging their reporters to avoid any activity or public statement that could brand them as biased. The Times has adopted this pose, banning reporters from donating to nonprofit groups or participating in the Women’s March. Others have gone the opposite direction, giving reporters free reign to battle Twitter trolls and crusade for their beliefs.
Greenhouse argues for a middle way, along the lines of what New York University journalism professor Mitchell Stephens calls “wisdom journalism.” To quote him: “We need journalists … who are experts, who are specialists, who are really capable of adding insight and wisdom to the news.”
No news organization in the world employs more experts than The New York Times. Its writers have graduated from the best universities in the world and spend years working to understand the complexities of the subjects they cover. Moreover, they are critical thinkers of the highest order, skeptical and perceptive, and able to explain complicated topics with elegance.
And yet Times employees were apparently the last people on earth to notice Trump liked to tell lies.
There is a deep inertia preventing much of the journalism industry from allowing reporters to be fully human in their lives and in their jobs. (The title of Greenhouse’s book is a reference to her employer’s requirement that she always be “just a journalist,” nothing more.) Things are starting to change, largely because of Trump, but articles like the men’s rights roundup today prove we’re still a long way from wisdom journalism.