Journalism Is Activism | Defector

Journalism Is Activism | Defector


We are a few months into The Great Will Lewis Experiment at the Washington Post, and everything there is fucked. For those who haven’t been following the story, a quick primer: Holy Amazonian Emperor Jeff Bezos brought in former Dow Jones head Will Lewis in January of 2024 to run the Post. Lewis’s orders were to use all of his naughty British cunning to turn around a company that had suffered a huge decrease in revenue over the past year. Bezos wanted Lewis to get Post’s subscription base up from 2.5 million and closer to the owner’s reported goal of 100 million.

That’s a pretty outlandish number that Bezos is shooting for, one that could only realistically be achieved through modern forms of corporate fuckery. So perhaps Lewis is the right man for the job. Before landing at the Wall Street Journal and then the Post, he spent years working for Australian marriage addict Rupert Murdoch after Murdoch’s U.K. tabloid empire under NewsCorp was at the center of a massive phone-hacking scandal. In May, a judge in London’s High Court ruled that Prince Harry, who has an ongoing civil lawsuit against Murdoch’s publishing company, could add Lewis’s name to the suit. While Lewis is not a defendant in the suit, the judge’s ruling cleared the way for the plaintiffs to air allegations that Lewis helped carry out a plan to delete millions of emails shortly after his publication was asked to turn its “electronic document archive” over to British police.

According to the New York Times, when recently departed Post executive editor Sally Buzbee told her new boss that the paper was going to write about his name being added to Prince Harry’s lawsuit, he insisted that it wasn’t a newsworthy matter. The Times reported that Lewis was also planning to demote Buzbee before she resigned on June 2. Buzbee will soon be replaced by another Brit in Robert Winnett, who has shady Murdoch ties of his own.

The upheaval inside the the Post triggered an inevitable Streisand effect, attracting coverage of the infighting from other outlets and reporters around the country, including highly accomplished NPR reporter David Folkenflik, who revealed that Lewis once promised him an exclusive interview in exchange for not bringing up all that silly hacking business. Folkenflik refused, and when he made that negotiation public, here’s how Lewis responded, (emphasis mine):

In his email to The Post, Lewis called Folkenflik — who published a book in 2013 on Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — “an activist, not a journalist.” Lewis added: “I had an off the record conversation with him before I joined you at The Post and some six months later he has dusted it down, and made up some excuse to make a story of a non-story.”

Now where have I heard that spiel about journalism and activism before? Oh right, I heard it from Bret Stephens, who currently serves as the New York Times’ worst op-ed columnist (despite stiff competition). I also heard it from Peter Limbourg, the Director General of German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle, who told an industry panel that any journalist who might align themselves with any activists was straying from “the path of journalism.”

“Journalism is complicated,” Limbourg told the audience. “We have to show the full picture; and that means it is complicated.”

This is obfuscation of the snottiest kind, used by many of the central villains in the objectivity vs. editorializing tussle that journalists have been having since the invention of the profession, and one that has only intensified over the last decade. In 2015, the industry’s self-defeating need to avoid the label of activism led to overly cautious coverage of then-candidate Donald Trump from legacy outlets like CNN and the New York Times. These activism-free stories served to obscure, if not hide, Trump’s worst qualities. A reasonable journalist couldn’t just say that Trump was a racist, and a liar, and a fraud. That would mean that the journalist had an agenda, which would taint the story.

Never mind that we needed a fucking jury to finally, and officially, acknowledge all of those basic truths eight years, two impeachments, and one insurrection after Trump was elected in 2016. Never mind that Trump has prospered this whole time from a right-wing media that has an EXTREMELY obvious agenda of its own, with zero compunction about skirting the unwritten rules of American journalism to achieve it. And never mind that some stories aren’t complicated at all. We live on the Earth. Days are 24 hours long. Donald Trump is craven scum. All of those facts are known, and to frame them as a mysteries wrapped inside riddles inside enigmas is to tacitly deny them. It’s objectivity perverted, all in service of ensuring that journalists never be confused with people who actually care.

But what IS journalism then? What does it mean to discover the truth of vital matters, and then convey that truth as accurately as possible to the masses? No one I know in this business got into it for the money, because there is none. They didn’t get into it for the job security, because there isn’t any of that, either. Chances are they got into this field to make a difference, and what is that if not activism? The Washington Post’s own motto, “Democracy Dies In Darkness,” is itself a call to action: an urgent missive stating that an uninformed population is destined to become a repressed one.

That’s why the Post broke news of the Watergate break-in half a century ago. It’s why they published a full series on the AR-15 assault rifle’s devastating impact on American citizenry. It’s why they published the government’s 2,000-page study of the War in Afghanistan and found that the war, which lasted 20 years, was a fundamentally worthless endeavor. The best journalism in American history, of which the Post is often a source, has had an implicit activist mission behind it.

So when people like Stephens or fusty J-school professors say that journalists shouldn’t be activists, they’re being transparent hacks sucking up to institutions of power to curry favor with them. But in Lewis’s instance, we have a publisher who is the institution of power using the “activist” line to dismiss necessary examinations of his professional record. Maybe Lewis is taking this stance out of self-preservation, or as a way of ensuring access to Trump should he be re-elected, or because he’s an arrogant piece of shit. Most likely it’s all three, because Lewis is beholden to a class of powerful people who, like his former boss, are eager to be protected from scrutiny, and who have long used the press to further their own ugly ambitions. More than that, Lewis clearly fancies himself as one of those power brokers, and is behaving accordingly.

If Lewis truly believes that what journalists like Folkenflik do should be derided and dismissed, then he’s not fit to run a newsroom. Whenever someone in charge pushes back on the very thing that makes journalism journalism, I hear the same message every time, delivered to everyone who relies on journalists to accurately inform them about the world: Fuck you.




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