← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

Abusing Public Faith: Brooks, Gladwell, and Journalistic Ethics

photograph of newspaper vending machines with businesses in background

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Not long ago it was revealed that David Brooks, well-known opinion columnist for The New York Times, and Malcolm Gladwell, long-time New Yorker journalist, had received financial compensation for lending their journalistic credibility to different corporate ventures. Brooks used his column on multiple occasions to talk up a project to which he had significant financial ties — a fact he failed to disclose to his audience or his editors — while Gladwell continues to feature prominently in General Motors’s recent environmental vehicle campaign. To many, these celebrity endorsements may not seem like grave offenses; Brooks and Gladwell simply leveraged their notoriety to their financial advantage like anyone else might. On what grounds could one possibly object? Surely it would be unfair to demand that journalists be held to a higher standard than their peers and forgo all those financial incentives that so many other professions unabashedly enjoy.

It’s often suggested that over-policing possible conflicts of interest leads to absurd results. We don’t want to demand that journalists be so disinterested as to require their withdrawal from public life. We would be doing ourselves a terrible disservice to bar those often best-informed and civically-minded from public work. We shouldn’t bind the hands of those best-positioned to do the most good. Everyone should have a stake in the social projects of their communities and feel free to get their hands dirty.

Following this line of defense, Brooks and Gladwell’s endorsements have been characterized as nothing more than the benign by-product of a personal hobby. Gladwell speaks of his private passion for autos (a self-professed “MASSIVE car nut”), and Brooks describes Weave as nothing more than a pet project. Their advocacy, then, is simply an immediate reaction to their emotional investment and curiosity in those specific enterprises. There’s no reason to assume nefarious intent; these writers were simply overwhelmed with zeal and couldn’t wait to share the good news with the rest of us.

But there’s a significant distinction that separates championing a cause from promoting a product. Believing in something and rallying support behind it doesn’t require reducing one’s audience to corporate marks. Journalists shouldn’t sully their reputations by engaging in manipulation. Confronted by these allegations, Gladwell has claimed that if he’s guilty of being bought, then all of journalism has been similarly corrupted by relying on advertising dollars to sustain itself. There is, however, a marked difference between the banner ads adorning a periodical’s website and a journalist voicing support and throwing their weight behind a brand. When reporters start delivering the testimonials, the line meant to establish journalistic independence gets blurred and the waters get muddied. (Consider, for instance, this ad presented as an interview and even invoking the name of one of Gladwell’s popular investigative works.)

That said, criticism of Brooks and Gladwell’s behavior tends to draw our focus to the wrong thing. Failure to disclose isn’t the most damning sin Brooks committed, and his after-the-fact admissions can’t rectify the harm. Likewise, the potential for conflicts of interest doesn’t adequately capture the risk Gladwell’s paid endorsement poses. These actions, at bottom, violate the cardinal rule of journalism: Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, and its first loyalty is to citizens.

It would be naive to think Gladwell’s corporate partners fail to appreciate what they are buying. Gladwell’s position is decidedly different from that of his commercial co-stars. He is not a mere entertainer; the value of his endorsement isn’t based on his ability to define what “cool” is. People give weight to Gladwell’s words because he promotes himself (and is promoted by institutions of journalism) as having the inside track on truth. Gladwell’s work weaves a complex story uniting social science and statistics — connections that are unintelligible to the rest of us. He divines the true way of the world and delivers these pronouncements to the masses. What Gladwell is selling, then, is a unique capacity for truth-telling. His trustworthiness depends on the public’s faith in the profession. His credibility and the credibility of the institutions he represents (just like Brooks’s) relies on transparency, accuracy, and unerring loyalty to the public. We believe him insofar as we believe journalism aims to benefit we, the people. To serve another master is to break this sacred bond. It is fidelity to this purpose – pursuing truth in the people’s name – that separates the devoted journalist from the faithless mercenary or fanatical partisan.

This is hardly the first time Gladwell has come under scrutiny for failing to respect the firewall we’ve erected to divide truth-telling journalists from marketing shills. But whether it’s speaking engagements, product placements, celebrity endorsements, or faux journalism, the rules of neutrality never change. The Society for Professional Journalists code of ethics is uncompromising in its guidelines about preserving journalistic independence: “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” The profession’s ethical code exists to defend the virtue of the entire field from those who would undercut it. For journalism to capably serve its necessary functions – as public forum, watchdog, and voice for the voiceless – it must be above suspicion.

It would be easy to dismiss these actions as isolated, one-off transgressions, but the consequences extend far beyond the responsible parties. These dealings undermine not only Brooks and Gladwell’s credibility, as well as that of The New York Times and The New Yorker, but also erode confidence in the profession as a whole. They threaten the finite, shared resource of public trust — a good that we are in greater need of now than ever.

Tom Cotton’s Op-Ed and the Aims of the Opinion Page

photograph of newspaper printing press in operation

On June 3, 2020, The New York Times ran an op-ed by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton calling for the U.S. military to use an “overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain, and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” He was referring to the riots that broke out in reaction to George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police—riots that Cotton depicted as the work of “left-wing radicals” and “nihilist criminals.” The fallout over the piece led to the resignation of the paper’s opinion page editor, James Bennett, with The Times publicly conceding that Cotton’s piece should not have been published. This reversal, and Bennett’s ouster, has itself provoked criticism of The Times by commentators of various political persuasions. For the philosophically inclined, it provides an opportunity to consider the criteria editors should use in selecting the independent opinions that appear in their pages.

Should The New York Times have run Cotton’s op-ed? In order to answer this question, we need to think about the purpose of a newspaper opinion page, and the way that purpose helps realize important values. There is an obvious sense in which an opinion page can share certain features with a public forum: it may serve as a venue for the expression of a multitude of opinions by ordinary citizens as well as public figures. Public forums are valuable because they are spaces in which citizens can deliberate, debate, and voice their dissent concerning important political, social, and cultural issues. Such spaces help citizens make better political decisions and keep public officials accountable.

The public forum conception of the opinion page is not the only one a paper could adopt. For example, a newspaper could decide that its opinion page should speak with one voice, advancing a more-or-less coherent set of positions on matters political, social, and cultural. On this view, only op-eds that are consistent with the opinion page’s strong editorial line would be entitled to a place. For example, this appears to be The Wall Street Journal’s philosophy. Since we are dealing here with private companies and not government agencies, the choice is entirely at the owners’ discretion.

In addition, there is one important distinction between a public forum and a newspaper such as The New York Times. In the latter case, the very fact that the newspaper chooses to run an op-ed lends credence to the views expressed therein: it is an indication that these views are worth considering. One might reply that a view can be worth considering even if it is false and immoral. John Stuart Mill famously wrote in On Liberty that even well-argued falsehoods could aid us in our pursuit of knowledge, pushing us to defend our own views “fully, fearlessly, and frequently” and preventing them from lapsing into “dead dogma.” However, if we are to evaluate the permissibility of publishing an opinion partly on the basis of its tendency to promote knowledge, we must also register the fact that lending credence to false or immoral views can spread factual or moral ignorance.

In light of this consideration, it may be reasonable to adopt a modified conception of the opinion page, one according to which its function is as a sort of refined public forum—a forum in which certain opinions are excluded because they fail to meet certain minimal standards of factual accuracy, moral decency, and other considerations discussed below. Such a forum is still valuable because it promotes democratic deliberation and debate, but unlike traditional public forums in the United States, it also actively works to avoid spreading ignorance. And whereas on the unrefined public forum conception the default assumption is that opinions are worth publishing absent good reasons for their exclusion, on the refined public forum conception an opinion must meet certain criteria in order to qualify as worthy of publication.

Some criteria seem relatively uncontroversial. Since we reason better if our premises are clear and our arguments logically correct, opinion pieces should meet some minimal standards of clarity and cogency. Relevance is another criterion: op-eds should be about a topic of pressing or significant public concern about which there is a need for democratic deliberation and debate, rather than some extremely obscure topic.

The purpose of the opinion page also seems to suggest that editors should avoid printing op-eds that contain any factual errors, since democratic debate and deliberation are undermined when citizens reason from false premises. But more careful reflection suggests that because factual claims can themselves be the subject of reasonable public dispute, an opinion page can better help inform the public about such factual disagreements by allowing the disputants to make their cases on the page, even if doing so risks printing false claims. For example, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, the question whether Iraq possessed WMD was a matter of reasonable debate given the information publicly available, and would have been an ideal subject for opinion pieces arguing both sides of the issue. By contrast, there is no reasonable debate to be had about the reality of the Holocaust. Thus, while there is good reason not to print op-eds containing factual claims that are clearly false, the purpose of the page is better served by giving airtime to reasonable controversies over matters of fact.

A similar point applies to controversial questions of value. On the one hand, it might be argued that democratic deliberation is hindered by false beliefs about what is good or what is right. However, in many cases matters of value are themselves the subject of reasonable public dispute; and in these cases, it is better to inform the public about the various positions being staked out on those questions and the arguments advocates are advancing for them, even at the risk of airing views that may ultimately be widely judged immoral. Twenty years ago, the morality of gay marriage was heatedly debated across the country by people of good will. At that time, it would have been appropriate to run opinion pieces arguing both sides of the issue. So, while there is good reason not to publish op-eds containing clearly indecent moral views, particularly if they do not meet the criterion of relevance, the purpose of the page is well-served by allowing reasonable debate about questions of value.

The goal of fostering informed democratic deliberation also suggests that particularly controversial views ought to be presented in a way that is best calculated to foster reasoned debate. This might involve, for example, a “point counterpoint” format in which op-eds arguing for opposing views are published side-by-side. Meg Greenfield, who edited The Washington Post’s editorial page for over 20 years, was known to employ this technique with respect to particularly controversial topics.

If we adopt the refined public forum conception of the opinion page and judge according to the criteria discussed above, Tom Cotton’s op-ed appears problematic in certain respects. It was reasonably clear and cogent—one cannot claim to be offended by its argument and simultaneously not understand what was being argued. It was certainly relevant, since it concerned events of pressing public concern and was written by a person who wields enormous power. It advanced some unsubstantiated factual claims, such as its claim about left-wing groups’ involvement in the rioting. However, it is possible that at the time it was published, the degree of involvement of these groups was still a matter of reasonable dispute.

Less clear is whether the values that Cotton espouses are a matter of reasonable dispute. In particular, there is the question whether we should take seriously the view that the U.S. military ought to use its enormous capacity for violence against those engaged in the destruction of property. One reason to do so is that this view seems to be shared by a substantial proportion of U.S. adults; this speaks to its relevance. However, given its controversial nature and the risk of lending credence to an immoral view, a different presentation of Cotton’s argument—perhaps in the form of a point counterpoint—would almost certainly have been a more ethically sound editorial decision.

Furthermore, Cotton’s rhetoric seems designed to intimidate. Specifically, Cotton recommends using “an overwhelming show of force” to deter “lawbreakers.” There is a disturbing ambiguity in that statement: are people engaged in civil disobedience included within the scope of “lawbreakers”? If Cotton’s piece can be reasonably interpreted as threatening violence against those engaged in civil disobedience, it could have a chilling effect upon open expressions of dissent, thus undermining democratic debate and deliberation. Surely, if an editor has good reason to think that an opinion piece is intended to silence others, or will have the effect of so doing to a significant degree, the refined public forum conception of the opinion page would tend to favor not running it in its current form.

A newspaper’s opinion page can, at its best, encourage the kind of frank, fair, and informed exchange of views that makes democracies function better. Yet editors have a responsibility to see that they do not spread ignorance by stamping clearly false or morally perverse opinions with their newspaper’s imprimatur. They also have an obligation to present controversial views in a way best calculated to encourage reasoned debate. For all of these reasons, the decision to publish Tom Cotton’s op-ed should be viewed as a challenging one, whether or not it is ultimately justified.

On The Times Op-Ed: Ethics of Anonymous Sources

PHotograph of Trump at desk in Oval Office surrounded by people

In light of a recent op-ed published by The New York Times, the validity of using anonymous sources in journalism has once again been brought into question. The op-ed, released to the public on September 5, was allegedly written by a senior official within the Donald Trump administration, and details an underground resistance against the President within his own staff. “[M]any of the senior officials in his [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” reads the piece. “I would know. I am one of them.”

The author then goes on to detail why this resistance is being executed, saying that Trump has blatantly attacked conservative values of “free minds, free markets, and free people,” and that his notion of mass media as the enemy of the people is “anti-democratic.” Further, the anonymous writer stated the goal of the White House resistance as being “to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing.” Sometimes this could be as simple as swiping papers from the President’s desk. In his book, Fear: Trump in the White House, celebrated journalist Bob Woodward details how Trump’s ex-economic advisor, Gary Cohn, stopped the President from terminating a trade deal with South Korea by taking a letter off his desk in the Oval Office.

Perhaps more intriguing than the contents of the op-ed itself, however, is the shrouded identity of its author. A number of theories about who in the administration could have written it have surfaced, including opinions from filmmaker Michael Moore and former aide to Trump Omarosa Manigault Newman. The President responded to the breach in his administration’s loyalty by lashing out on Twitter and at public events, going so far as to label the op-ed as “treason” and a threat to national security. Trump also told reporters that he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the source of the article.

Despite the current drama surrounding the Trump administration, however, The New York Times has refused to disclose the author’s identity. A statement preceding the op-ed reads:

The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

The Times’ refusal to give up the author has undoubtedly been met with criticism both by the President himself and by his supporters, boiling down to controversy over when it is permissible for publications to distribute anonymously-produced content and when it is not.

Anonymous sources are, at their root, tools for journalists to get closer to exposing truth to the public. Although not preferable, anonymity protects people who hold incriminating or scandalous information from consequences upon revealing this information, which may sometimes be the only way of getting those people to talk. However, in today’s era of intense beat journalism, anonymous sourcing can sometimes be used haphazardly. In May of 2005, Newsweek published an article using anonymous sources who claimed that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran to intimidate Muslim prisoners, which sparked a riot in Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of 14 people. Lawyers later disproved these statements from anonymous sources, and Newsweek retracted its article.

What separates the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times from Newsweek’s Guantanamo debacle are the articles’ respective intentions. Newsweek published their article to establish fact: interrogators at Guantanamo desecrated the Koran to intimidate Muslim prisoners. Conversely, The New York Times’ article, published as an op-ed, serves the primary function of declaring the author’s opinion: Donald Trump is failing as a president, and “there are adults in the room” who want to protect the rest of the country from his shortcomings. The point could be raised that op-eds deserve known sources as well. Opinion articles come with their own claims that, if issued by reputable publications, should be written by verifiable experts. The editors of The New York Times, however, know the identity of the op-ed’s author, and given their reputation as a responsible publication, can be trusted to have thoroughly vetted their source’s claims. Given that The Times is a left-leaning publication, some of this criticism may be indirectly stemming from partisanship. Had this op-ed been published from a right-leaning publication, its relationship with public trust may have looked different. Moreover, it could be argued that the article’s groundbreaking content and consequences that will arise if the author’s identity is compromised outweighs the need for a publicly-known source.

Whether one believes this to be an act of heroism or treason by The New York Times, it is difficult to refute that this piece could change the way the public and journalists view anonymous sources. An anti-establishment culture that has budded in the past few decades has heightened the need for anonymous sourcing in journalism, and facing this phenomenon is essential to rebuilding the relationship between mass media and the public. Even if The New York Times was wrong in publishing this op-ed, they sparked conversations around journalism ethics that need to be had outside of the newsroom.


David Shields’ War Is Beautiful: Did Our Media Fail Us?

David Shields, an American author, has recently released his latest book: War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict. The book criticizes The New York Times, which, according to Shields, was complicit in protracting the Iraq War by presenting front-page photographs of the war in aesthetically attractive ways, blinding readers and making them insensitive to the real violence that happens in war.

Continue reading “David Shields’ War Is Beautiful: Did Our Media Fail Us?”