It may be galling to some, but we need to recognize the accomplishments achieved by the rising generation. (Warning: there is a but looming ahead, so wait for it.)
Millennials have shown that sexuality can be defining, but it doesn’t have to be limiting, and that there is such a category as sexually fluid.
They have made a compelling case to older, self-satisfied boomers (But we marched against apartheid!) that their generation is complicit in allowing racial bias and sexual harassment to persist.
And they have broken down the Establishment’s monopoly on whose voices are heard and whose stories are told: social media and other platforms have freed writers from the restraints of old media and allowed them to strike out on their own as reporters, opinion writers, paid influencers, and sometimes all three at once.
The new structures have created new stars and changed how stories are framed and written. But they have also created a new set of problems, where reporting, opinion, and—occasionally—shilling are journalistically fluid.
It wasn’t always so. Opinion writing used to be the capping achievement of a distinguished reporting career, a perch that was earned. Now it is entry-level stuff. With that have come fresh voices—but also some voices unschooled in the ethical requirements and responsibilities that come with that kind of a soapbox.
Reporting, opinion, and—occasionally—shilling are journalistically fluid.
The price for the blurring of those lines (and here comes the but) is a blurring of the vision of not only the newcomers but also of old-school institutions such as The New York Times (my alma mater). In at least one recent case, involving Times columnist David Brooks, enforcing rudimentary ethical standards appears to have taken a back seat to policing more incendiary stances on race and gender.
In March, Buzzfeed and other news sites reported that Brooks had written columns promoting the Weave Project—a nonprofit he founded that shines a spotlight on ordinary people who unselfishly improve their communities—without disclosing that he was drawing a salary for his work from the Aspen Institute, of which the Weave Project is a part. That’s a pretty serious conflict, but Brooks got away with a slap on the wrist.
On March 6, a tactfully worded editors’ note was tacked on to past columns in which Brooks had extolled the Weave Project, noting that he shouldn’t have written about an organization from which he benefited financially. It noted that Brooks had given up his paid post at the Aspen Institute.
And that was it. Life goes on. On Thursday, Westmont College, a Christian liberal-arts school in Santa Barbara, put out a statement proudly announcing the return of Brooks as a featured speaker at its annual conference on leadership in June. (And, yes, he and other speakers are paid.)
Normally, an infraction like the Weave omission would create a huge stink: The New York Times, like Harvard, or the Goldman Sachs Compensation Committee, is one of those elite institutions everyone loves to catch in error or hypocrisy.
And the rules at the Times are still pretty clear. A friend of mine called me this past weekend with a story idea for Air Mail about an investment fund. I asked him why he didn’t write it for the Times, and he said he couldn’t because he had money in the fund. I suggested he just disclose his ties. As he put it, “Are you kidding? I work at the Times.”
But in today’s overheated climate, it takes a lot more than a financial conflict of interest to stir up social media and the Times’s Slack channels and Facebook groups. The social-media mob seems more excited about persecuting people for wrong thinking than wrongdoing.
These days, members of “the newsroom,” which is management’s shorthand to describe the most vocal and serially pissed-off sub-caste of Times employees, are quick to rise up en masse to condemn colleagues who are, or appear to be, dense, insensitive, or hostile on issues such as Black Lives Matter or sexual harassment. The passions are so strong that most of those offenders end up having to leave the paper.
But the newsroom barely blinked an eye at Brooks, even though he was using his column to promote a cause for which he was being paid.
The revelation was rich for many reasons, but most notably because Brooks writes about faith, ethics, and morality in column after column, has taught a course on humility at Yale (and included his own work in the curriculum), and writes books with titles such as The Road to Character and The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.
In one column explaining why the Weave Project is so important, Brooks decried the Trump era’s “culture of fear [and] distrust” as a crisis akin to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which in 1941 galvanized Americans to make sacrifices for the nation. “Aren’t we all called at moments like these to do something extra?,” Brooks wrote. “My something extra was starting something nine months ago at the Aspen Institute called Weave: The Social Fabric Project.”
It’s hard to read those words and not assume that his “something extra” was a volunteer endeavor. It didn’t help his case that Buzzfeed also reported that Brooks had written a piece for Facebook’s corporate Web site about the social benefits of Facebook groups; Facebook is one of the donors that has supported the Weave Project. It’s also the social-media platform whose algorithms most inflame the culture of distrust Brooks is so intent on mending, so … go figure.
Brooks committed one of the more venal sins of journalism, but he was operating in a new, uncharted environment where the most successful writers wear multiple hats—columnist, cable-news talking head, college professor, board member, late-night-talk-show guest, paid “thought leader” at retreats and conferences. It’s a jumble that creates synergies and also conflicts.
Brooks said he had received prior approval for the Weave Project from his editor at the time, James Bennet, a onetime rising star at The New York Times who, in June of 2020, fell afoul of “the newsroom.” Bennet published a contentious column by Republican senator Tom Cotton that advocated sending troops to quell “Antifa” rioters. Bennet was subsequently forced to resign as editorial-page editor.
Whether Brooks’s editors knew about the outside job doesn’t matter. It was Brooks’s responsibility to let readers know he was being paid by the nonprofit he was showcasing in his columns and at another prestigious news platform, PBS NewsHour, which, incidentally, also pays him a salary. (Brooks did not respond to a request for comment.)
After stories about his conflict surfaced, Brooks took a few moments at the end of a NewsHour episode to explain himself. Rocking back and forth in his desk chair, he denied any wrongdoing, saying there had been “full disclosure, and it hasn’t affected my journalism,” but he also said he would nonetheless make changes so critics are “satisfied.” And for now, it seems, they are.
So this non-scandal begs a question: Are expressions of offensive opinion worse than an opinion writer’s undisclosed conflicts of interest? Brooks made a dishonest mistake, and in today’s culture of distrust, that is apparently more forgivable than any other kind, even an honest one.
Alessandra Stanley is a Co-Editor of Air Mail