Ben Smith in the NYTimes: Searching for common ground between neutral reporting and clear moral calls

From Ben Smith’s New York Times column headlined “Inside the Growing News Revolt”:

Wesley Lowery woke up in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 14, 2014, his cheek sore from where a police officer had smashed it into a vending machine. He was also wondering how to get his shoelaces back into his boat shoes, after the police took them when tossing him in a holding cell the night before. Around 8:30 that morning, he dialed into CNN’s morning show, where a host passed on some advice from Joe Scarborough at MSNBC: “Next time a police officer tells you that you’ve got to move along because you’ve got riots outside, well, you probably should move along.”

Mr. Lowery responded furiously. “I would invite Joe Scarborough to come down to Ferguson and get out of 30 Rock where he’s sitting sipping his Starbucks smugly,” he said on CNN, describing “having tear gas shot at me, having rubber bullets shot at me, having mothers, daughters, crying, having a 19-year-old boy, crying as he had to run and pull his 21-year-old sister out of a cloud of tear gas.”

The outburst from a 24-year-old Washington Post reporter provoked eye rolls in Washington. But Mr. Lowery would go on to make his name in Ferguson as an aggressive and high-profile star, shaping a raw new national perspective on racial injustice. Six years later, few in the news business doubt Mr. Lowery’s premise: that American police are more brutal and dishonest than much of the media that came of age pre-Ferguson reported. . . .

Historical moments don’t have neat beginnings and endings, but the new way of covering civil rights protests, like the Black Lives Matter movement itself, coalesced on the streets of Ferguson. Seeing the brutality of a white power structure toward its poor black citizens up close, and at its rawest, helped shape the way a generation of reporters, most of them black, looked at their jobs when they returned to their newsrooms.

And by 2014, they had in Twitter a powerful outlet. The platform offered a counterweight to their newsrooms, which over the years had sought to hire black reporters on the unspoken condition that they bite their tongues about racism.

Now, as America is wrestling with the surging of a moment that began in August 2014, its biggest newsrooms are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls.

The conflict exploded in recent days into public protests at The New York Times, ending in the resignation of its top Opinion editor on Sunday; The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose executive editor resigned on Saturday over the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” and the ensuing anger from his staff; and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And it has been the subject of quiet agony at The Washington Post, which Mr. Lowery left earlier this year, months after the executive editor, Martin Baron, threatened to fire him for expressing his views on Twitter about race, journalism and other subjects. . . .

“American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” Lowery tweeted of the Times debacle. “We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”

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