The New York Times story about internal struggles at the ACLU. is an illustration of the futility of clinging to “objectivity.” It parallels the wrestling over the First Amendment and the ongoing fight for equality inside newsrooms throughout the U.S.
The story wasn’t objective. It was framed from a traditionalist point of view. That’s not a knock.
Nothing I’ve ever written has been objective, though I’ve spent my career trying to be as fair and accurate as my particular brain would allow.
Nothing you’ve ever written has been objective, given that it was filtered through your particular brain.
We acknowledge that truth by labeling this column “opinion” while rarely doing so for “straight news,” even though what I’m doing in this space is similar to what I did as a real estate reporter and business editor as well as when I was investigating the South Carolina Department of Social Services.
Then as now, I had to make judgement calls about what to think about, which tips to pursue, which ones to ignore. Should I have told readers a 10% increase in annual home sales was healthy or something to be concerned about? I had to determine what context would help readers understand what those numbers meant, while knowing another journalist might come to a different conclusion looking at precisely the same data.
The through line of my approach to teaching journalism, investigating, editing, and writing — opinion or straight news — is critical thinking, the foundation upon which all good journalism is built. That’s why, for all practical purposes, everything I’ve ever written has been a kind of opinion piece. Though I rely on objective fact as much as possible, the frame in which I place those facts shapes the meaning and message those facts convey.
The New York Times story began with an anecdote about a luncheon to celebrate the career of well-regarded ACLU lawyer David Goldberger. The event turned somber, at least in Goldberger’s eyes. A Jewish man who had defended the free speech rights of Nazis in the 1970s was troubled by colleagues arguing it was legitimate for ACLU lawyers to decline to defend hate speech. “I got the sense it was more important for ACLU staff to identify with clients and progressive causes than to stand on principle,” Goldberger told reporter Michael Powell in an interview. “Liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind.”
Goldberger’s was the first voice the reader encountered under a headline that suggested the ACLU was rethinking its defense of the First Amendment: “Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the ACLU Faces an Identity Crisis.” Headlines that accurately portray the nuance found in articles are hard to come by. Nevertheless, they set the tone for what follows. “Once a bastion of free speech” is not nuanced.
Does that mean the ACLU is no longer a bastion of free speech?
From a traditionalist point of view, it isn’t or won’t be soon. A well-known tradition of the ACLU is defending the free speech rights of people with repugnant views, a stance personified by Goldberger in the Times piece. It is a healthy perspective, but it is not the only healthy way to view the world.
The story included opposing voices, of course, including that of Dennis Parker, who had directed the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program until leaving in 2018. He argued that First Amendment protections are “disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege.”
We call that good journalism because it is good journalism, presenting all relevant voices and facts as accurately as possible. Still, before any of the other voices were allowed on stage, what a real commitment to free speech meant had been determined by traditionalists: defending even ugly speech by hate groups even if it hurts, because that’s the best way to protect everyone’s rights.
Just as you can’t unring a bell, it’s naïve to expect readers to later give equal weight to any other definition when the writer and editor chose to begin with a powerful anecdote that defines the default position on which the story was built.
Again, that’s not a knock, just an observation that “objectivity” in this case — like all others — is a series of choices made by human beings whose backgrounds, biases and preferences affect everything we do, say, and even perceive.
The crafting of straight-news articles by talented professionals is not exempt from that reality.
Consider this: The ACLU still fights governmental secrecy and surveillance and on behalf of whistleblowers. It is expending considerable resources to fight laws in several states designed to ban or limit the discussion of critical race theory, The 1619 Project, and anti-racist measures. How does that align with “once a bastion of free speech” claims?
Given that the writer and editor did the researching, interviewing, and critical thinking that went into crafting that story, maybe the choices they made most accurately portrayed the issue. Or maybe they had a traditionalist mindset before the story was even assigned or a single question asked.
They could have begun with a different anecdote, the one with the provocative tweet that was sent by the ACLU of Ohio after a police officer shot a 16-year-old girl that accused the Columbus police of murdering the teenager.”
The story could have juxtaposed that tweet with Goldberger’s story and asked which was a better illustration of the ACLU’s commitment to free speech: defending the rights of Nazis or the right of an ACLU chapter to express pain because of the killing of a Black girl during a nationwide debate on police shootings of Black people?
That shooting, deemed justified because that girl could have stabbed another girl during a fight, spoke to societal power dynamics that often determine which Americans can rely on First Amendment protections. If the ACLU has an obligation to defend the rights of Nazis to say disgusting things about vulnerable groups, does it also have an obligation to defend the right of ACLU lawyers to speak boldly in tweets, even when those tweets challenge what some of the organization’s lawyers believe is the definition of free speech?
A lead could have been built on that tension. It could have even posited that the tension is manufactured, given that fighting for equality is one way of protecting free speech. The story’s nut graf could have said the ACLU is a diverse organization committed to diversity as evidenced by a multifaceted approach to protecting free speech rights. But that approach disturbs traditionalists who believe their view should be prioritized as it has been for most of the organization’s existence.
I’m not saying it should have, just that the story would have been just as “objective.”
The inability to see such options as equally legitimate is a result of blind spots endemic inside newsrooms because traditional views are our default, so challenging them is often taken as a threat by those defending them, as though it’s a call to lower standards rather than a reexamination of them.
Maybe traditional standards — like the argument in favor of objectivity, which became a tradition in journalism decades ago — are best and should be adhered to in some circumstances. Or maybe they were best for a time that no longer exists and need to make way for new thinking. One way to test that proposition is to ask ourselves what we mean by “free speech,” whose definition has been prioritized, and why.
What was mustn’t always be. Tradition isn’t synonymous with principle, which is why we must be careful when framing stories as though it is.
Issac Bailey, a 2014 Nieman Fellow, is a journalist, race relations seminar creator and facilitator, and the author of “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland” (Other Press, October 2020).