After more than 280 reporters and editors at The Wall Street Journal signed a stinging letter to the publisher last week criticizing the newspaper’s conservative opinion pages, the editorial board fired back: “We are not The New York Times.”
The previous month, the Times had its own staff revolt via Twitter after its opinion editors dared to run an op-ed about civil unrest by a Republican senator.
Newsroom staff revolts seem to be spreading across media outlets in the United States.
“I think these newsroom debates existed before, but they didn’t play out so publicly prior to social media,” Aileen Gallagher, associate journalism professor at Syracuse University and a former senior editor at New York Magazine, told The Daily Signal.
She added: “The conversations in newsrooms are mirroring the conversations that we are having in a larger society. What you see as the public pushing back questioning norms, that is happening inside of newsrooms.”
Industry layoffs have made way for younger and more diverse news operations, while opinion pages tend to be more old guard, Gallagher said. Social media applies pressure to both the news and opinion sides, she said:
The opinion columnists have much more leeway to say whatever they want on social media than the news reporters do. Yet the news reporters feel pressure from their organizations to be active on social media. What makes for good engagement on social media? It’s not taking a just-the-facts AP [Associated Press] approach to everything. It’s conversation. It’s voice. The news side of things felt that they were working at a disadvantage from the opinion side.
Here are seven big cases of newsroom revolts.
1. WSJ: News vs. Opinion
An internal battle between the news and opinion sides of The Wall Street Journal leaked out last week, and the newspaper’s editorial board ran an editorial assuring readers it wouldn’t fall to “cancel culture.”
The Journal editorial read:
It was probably inevitable that the wave of progressive cancel culture would arrive at the Journal, as it has at nearly every other cultural, business, academic and journalistic institution. But we are not The New York Times. Most Journal reporters attempt to cover the news fairly and down the middle, and our opinion pages offer an alternative to the uniform progressive views that dominate nearly all of today’s media.
Earlier last week, more than 280 reporters and editors had signed a letter to the Journal’s publisher, Almar Latour, complaining about the newspaper’s editorials and opinion pieces. Among the examples the news side complained about was an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence on COVID-19 and an op-ed by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald on the issue of race and policing.
“Opinion’s lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources,” the staff letter says.
The rift has been known to exist for some time, Gallagher said.
“At The Wall Street Journal, there has certainly been long-standing tensions between the news side and the opinion side,” Gallagher said, later adding: “You have The Wall Street Journal on one continuum, where I think the reporters are clearly more progressive than the opinion pages are.”
Mac Donald’s column questioned the charge of systemic racism, and the letter from newsroom employees said that “employees of color publicly spoke out about the pain this Opinion piece caused them during company-held discussions surrounding diversity initiatives.”
The letter added that if the Journal “is serious about better supporting its employees of color, at a bare minimum it should raise Opinion’s standards so that misinformation about racism isn’t published.”
This message is part of a bigger narrative pushed by the dominant media, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group.
“It’s one thing to want to ‘educate’ the country on racial misunderstandings. It’s another to beat the country over the head about ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white fragility,’” Graham told The Daily Signal in an email. “At a time in which the media-consuming public is seeing a very divergent and ideological press, this is going to exacerbate the issue.”
Latour, chief executive of Dow Jones & Co. and publisher of the Journal, issued a statement striking a conciliatory tone:
We cherish the unique contributions of our Pulitzer Prize-winning Opinion section to the Journal and to societal debate in the U.S. and beyond. Our readership today is bigger than ever and our opinion and news teams are crucial to that success. We look forward to building on our continued and shared commitment to great journalism at The Wall Street Journal.
2. New York Times and Tom Cotton
The case that possibly garnered the most attention was at The New York Times, where the newspaper’s writers objected on Twitter to an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., calling for the use of federal troops to quell looting and violence in American cities.
Times writers said the June 3 op-ed, headlined “Call in the Troops,” put them in danger. Cotton, an Army combat veteran, noted that military forces were used to stop domestic unrest in the past, including in his home state when President Dwight Eisenhower sent troops in 1957 to enforce desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The fallout included the resignation of James Bennett, the Times’ editorial page editor.
3. Washington Post Editor ‘Athwart Twitter’
The Washington Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, has had a generational clash with staff, in large part over social media but also over issues of diversity, according to one national competitor, The New York Times.
The Times described Baron, 65, as an old school journalist who, along with other editors, dissuaded celebrated reporter-editor Bob Woodward from outing Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 when the appeals judge was facing a contentious Senate confirmation battle for a Supreme Court seat.
Kavanaugh, who had been part of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s team investigating President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, reportedly was a source for Woodward’s 1999 book, “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.” However, Kavanaugh denied it publicly.
Not running the Kavanaugh story upset several progressive Post staffers, the Times reported. Baron was not acting as a Kavanaugh supporter, but as an institutionalist who believed confidential sources must be protected, the Times reported.
Separately, several black staffers at the Post used Twitter to express disappointment at the newspaper on racial issues. Their tweets came after several high-profile former employees publicly criticized the newspaper.
Baron isn’t fond of news reporters using Twitter, the Times wrote, describing him as “standing athwart Twitter yelling, ‘Stop!’ and nobody’s listening.” (The phrase echoed National Review founder William F. Buckley’s famous 1955 description of his new conservative magazine as “standing athwart history yelling, ‘Stop.’”)
An internal survey of reporters in April resulted in a memo describing Post management as “ill-equipped to deal with social media in the modern era.” The memo said newsroom staffers believed that managers are more forgiving of mistakes “by white men and newsroom stars than they are of women, minorities and less high-profile reporters.”
The Washington Post Newspaper Guild, the union that represents newsroom employees, assembled 32 pages of concerns from current and former Post employees of color. Black staffers want a Twitter campaign to draw attention to their concerns, the Times reported.
To a lesser extent, the rise of unionized newsrooms have prompted more outspoken newsroom employees, Syracuse University’s Gallagher said.
“In the past five years, we’ve seen a move toward unionization in the media,” Gallagher said. “Certainly legacy newsrooms, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, have been unionized for several years. But that move toward unionization has emboldened and empowered newsroom employees to speak up to management in a way that I don’t think they did in the past.”
4. Los Angeles Times’ Internal Uprising
The Los Angeles Times’ executive editor, Norman Pearlstine, appears likely to keep his job despite a reported “internal uprising” over a lack of minorities on the news staff and angst over coverage of unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in police custody in Minneapolis.
The LA Times has covered the protests and riots across the country. In an internal Slack exchange that went public, Times film reporter Sonaiya Kelley said the newspaper focused too much on looting and argued: “We can’t constantly pander to our primarily white audience with stories like this that affirm their biases.”
Pearlstine pledged a formal review of how the newspaper characterized the protests. He promised to hire more black staff members, and, in writing style, to capitalize the “B” in “Black Americans.”
In-house lobbying creates a media bias problem, Graham said.
“On a purely numerical basis, minority journalists can still complain about their representation,” Graham said. “But what’s happening in these newsrooms isn’t a mere employment issue. It’s obviously an ideological revolution. These in-house lobbying groups are demanding ‘more muscular’ reporting on racism and inequality. That sounds like more leftist crusading.”
5. A Philadelphia Inquirer Resignation Over ‘Buildings’
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s executive editor, Stan Wischnowski, resigned from the top editing post in June after the newspaper published an architecture column with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.”
Many on the Inquirer’s staff apparently found the headline offensive or insensitive. The piece argued, in part, that rioting causes urban decay and this particularly harms some African Americans by damaging neighborhoods and making development and economic opportunity less likely.
The Inquirer issued an apology and said: “The headline offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement, and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans. That is unacceptable.”
As editor, Wischnowski was credited with doubling the number of minorities on the paper’s editorial staff in the past four years.
Wischnowski had worked for the Inquirer for 20 years, 10 of them as executive editor. He also was the newspaper’s senior vice president before his departure.
6. Top Public Radio Station
WNYC, the most popular public radio station in the nation, faced its own revolt this year, The New York Times reported.
It began last year, when New York Public Radio, WNYC’s parent organization, hired Iranian immigrant Goli Sheikhoeslami, who had worked at both Chicago public radio and Condé Nast, as chief executive and Vox Media’s Andrew Golis, who is white, as chief content officer.
The new bosses had “listening sessions” with staff and asked who should be the editor in chief leading the daily news coverage. Staff responded that it should be a woman of color.
But, the Times reported, employees were “blindsided” and “befuddled” June 11 when Audrey Cooper, the first female editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was hired as editor in chief. She is white.
In a July 1 letter that eventually gained 145 signatures, WNYC staff told top management that they felt betrayed.
With this major exception, most of the newsroom revolts have hit traditional newspapers, not broadcast and cable outlets.
“With cable news outlets, I think there is less ideological difference between the news and operations sides,” Gallagher said, adding: “If you look at MSNBC, it’s probably more equally aligned. There is a big difference between local and national broadcast [outlets].”
She said the bulk of broadcast reporters work in local news, where blatant opinion is rare.
“On local news, there is just not that much opinion,” Gallagher said. “There is sometimes commentary, but it’s not that common. People aren’t looking to their local news broadcast for opinion. They’re mostly looking to see what’s going on in their community.”
7. Protest Over Protest Coverage in Pittsburgh
At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a staff clash with management occurred over what reporters and photographers may cover the demonstrations and riots.
The confrontation pitted top editor Keith Burris against much of the staff. The Post-Gazette is among the last major dailies still under family ownership; most newspapers are owned by chains.
Post-Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson scoffed May 31 on Twitter at the idea that protesters in Pittsburgh were destructive or looting.
After this, three editors informed Johnson that she could not cover the protests after having expressed an opinion, The New York Times reported.
Post-Gazette photographer Michael Santiago tweeted June 3 in support of Johnson. Editors also told Santiago that he couldn’t cover the protests.
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union that represents Post-Gazette employees, called for readers to send letters demanding that Johnson and Santiago, who are both black, be allowed to cover the unrest. More than 4,000 letters flooded the newspaper, including letters from Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, also a Democrat.
More than 80 Post-Gazette staffers, out of 160, made social media posts in favor of Johnson and Santiago, according to the union.
Burris, the newspaper’s editor, responded in a June 10 column that denounced “a propaganda campaign against this newspaper,” writing:
Editors at this newspaper did not single out a Black reporter and a Black photographer and ban them from covering Pittsburgh protests after the killing of George Floyd.
And we certainly did not single out two people and keep them from covering local protests because they were Black. That is an outrageous lie—a defamation, in fact. …
What our editors did do was remind colleagues of a long-standing canon of journalism ethics: When you announce an opinion about a person or story you are reporting on, you compromise your reporting. And your editor may take you off the story.