Moral struggle at the New York Times

January 12, 2021


This piece, from November, still sticks with me.  It's about the moral struggle that is underway in the media, in this case using the New York Times as an example.  The backlash over Ben Smith's recent piece on media folks opening a new website felt a bit like peak "both siderism" to some.  (It wasn't Smith but the people he was reporting on who seemed to want to go back to an earlier era.)

Certainly, the media like most of the institutions in our world, perhaps all of the institutions in our world, is committed to "normal politics." That is, in terms of their worldview, they are largely committed to the idea that you have rival views, and they are at least plausible, at least inhabitable by a potential majority of the country (and loosely intelligible to most others), and these views are contesting for limited goods within well recognized boundaries. Now, obviously, we don't live in a normal politics world right now. It doesn't seem like there are two sides contesting over a similar reality. Now, there is one side (the Democrats, various centrists) that is tethered to reality, and another (the GOP) that has gone completely over the deep end. 

How should the media respond to this situation?  It pushes them into the realm of moral struggle.  I frame it as a "moral struggle" because it highlights the core issue—these are debates not about execution of policy or about application of standards but about what norms are to be accepted.

The article is interesting on this.  There’s a lot in the article about the infighting, and generational differences, and the like, but to my mind this is the most interesting factoid:

Of all the fronts on which the Times was being pushed to change, the strongest insurrectionary energy was coming from legions of newsroom-adjacent employees in digital jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago. The employees responsible for distributing the Times in the past — typesetters, pressmen, delivery drivers — had never been encouraged to speak up about the ethical questions at the heart of the paper’s journalism. But the app developers and software engineers who deliver the Times’ journalism to the world have held their hands up in just as many Ivy League seminars as their editorial peers. They might be too shy to march over to a masthead editor and complain about a clumsy headline, but #newsroom-feedback had opened a digital door to criticism. Reporters found that suddenly it was the Times’ programmers and developers, rather than their editors, who were critiquing their work. During the town hall about the Cotton op-ed, one data engineer said on Slack, “How many such process failures would be tolerated in tech?”

Many of the techsurrectionists had come from Facebook or Uber or Amazon to join the Times out of a sense of mission, leaving the ethical quandaries of the tech industry for what they thought were more virtuous pastures. “I joined the company for one reason, and it’s because I feel a responsibility to be a part of a mission that I believe in,” a product manager who previously worked at Apple wrote in #newsroom-feedback after the Cotton op-ed. “This feels like the rug’s been pulled out from under us — not just because it feels like that mission [has] been severely compromised by the decision to publish this piece, but even more so because the products we’re building were used to do it.…

Everyone in the newsroom recognized that they were beholden to the techsurrectionists, who didn’t seem to understand the messy humanness that went into the Times’ journalism, but did hold the keys to its business future.

I suspect that this is so because many of these people are tech people—they are less likely to have struggled with rival moral views or with the possibility of rival moral views, and they assume there is a best way, and a reasonably easily publicly consensual way, in which any and all problems can be identified, described, analyzed, and solved, Furthermore, they may assume that moral problems are not problematic all the way down--that is, they may assume that every and any problem has, at base, some sufficient pre-moral "neutral content" upon which moral construals are based but which is unquestionably visible and for all to see in the same way.  But in fact moral problems are often problems rooted in the most primordial descriptions we give of the world.  There is no level at which our apprehension of the world is innocent of moral construal.  Therefore, contestation can happen in terms of base descriptions, in terms of ultimate abstractions, and everywhere in-between.  There's no necessary settling of disagreements.

This is hard to accept, I think, for all of us.  How do you deal with it?  It's not just about accepting differences; these issues are not things we can walk away from.  It's easy to grow frustrated and accuse your interlocutor of bad faith, or blindness.  Maybe those are the only responses.  But how do we do that without devolving into personalizing the issue fairly quickly?  Is genuine moral conversation beyond difference and insult possible?

How are we to have sustained conversations with someone whose views are substantially different from our own?  It's a simple question.  I suspect it will continue to grip us in coming years.

So much more to say here.  I'm disappointed in this post, actually--I don't think I really made clear what I'm saying.  But I'll try again later, I guess.