Introduction: Professional Ethics
I am a lawyer. To become a lawyer, I had to become acquainted with legal ethics. Among other things, as I found, legal ethics require immoral behaviors. For instance — as a substantial portion of the public has learned the hard way — deception, facilitating harm to others, is a fundamental part of legal practice in the United States. And as described in the book I published about lawyering in 1991, that was a significant consideration, when I decided to leave legal practice.
Subsequently, I became a social worker. As such, I published articles on social work ethics. That experience contributed to a growing realization that professional ethics are a mix of lofty principles and aborrent practice. Other posts offer 1 2 3 illustrations. That line of learning culminated in suggestions for a more honest social work profession.
I mention those two professions, and their codes of ethics, as backdrop for a look at journalistic ethics; and I mention the glaring contrasts between the principles and the practices to help the reader prepare him/herself for another letdown.
Unlike law and social work, journalism is not a licensed profession in the U.S., though it is in some countries. Here, anyone with a pen can claim to be a member. So there is no law, no governmental control, on what a journalist is, or on what would count as professional unethicality.
We do have multiple ethical codes for journalists, offered by organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Press Association, and the Ethical Journalism Network. The principles found in such codes are admirable. It’s just that they have about the same legal effect as the Code of Ethics of the National Automobile Dealers Association (which is to say, NADA), when applied to used-car salesmen. You know, “We pledge to . . . represent our products clearly and factually,” etc.
Professional Ethics at the Times
In this post, I focus particularly on journalistic ethics at the New York Times. Fortunately, for the Times, I don’t need to wonder which journalistic code they prefer, because they have their own Handbook of ethical principles for their news and editorial departments.
That Handbook adopts a number of positions that should influence how the paper covers controversial topics. Among other things, the Handbook says,
The goal of The New York Times is to cover the news as impartially as possible — “without fear or favor,” in the words of Adolph Ochs, our patriarch — and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and others fairly and openly, and to be seen to be doing so. The reputation of The Times rests upon such perceptions, and so do the professional reputations of its staff members. . . .
For more than a century, men and women of The Times have jealously guarded the paper’s integrity. Whatever else we contribute, our first duty is to make sure the integrity of The Times is not blemished during our stewardship. . . .
These guidelines generally apply to all members of the news and editorial departments whose work directly affects the content of the paper, including those on leaves of absence. They include reporters, editors, editorial writers, photographers, picture editors, art directors, artists, designers, graphics editors and researchers. . . .
The Times views any deliberate violation of these guidelines as a serious offense that may lead to disciplinary action, potentially including dismissal . . . .
Our fundamental purpose is to protect the impartiality and neutrality of The Times and the integrity of its report. . . .
In addition to this handbook, we observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing . . . .
The Times treats its readers as fairly and openly as possible. In print and online, we tell our readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them. . . .
Simple courtesy suggests that we not alienate our readers by ignoring their letters and emails that warrant reply. . . .
Staff members who plagiarize or who knowingly or recklessly provide false information for publication betray our fundamental pact with our readers. We will not tolerate such behavior. . . .
[I]t is essential that we preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias. . . .
The acid test of freedom from favoritism is the ability to maintain good working relationships with all parties to a dispute. . . .
No newsroom or editorial employee may do anything that damages The Times’s reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government. . . .
Op-Ed columnists and editorial writers enjoy more leeway than others in speaking publicly because their business is expressing opinions. The Times nevertheless expects them to consider carefully the forums in which they appear and to protect the standards and impartiality of the newspaper as a whole. . . .
Staff members should think carefully about their own contributions to various causes, bearing in mind the need for neutrality on divisive issues.
As I have seen, it is possible to lawyer anything around until truth becomes fiction. But an ordinary reader of that journalistic handbook from the Times will come away with a very clear impression that the paper strives to maintain a neutral stance in coverage of news, especially in controversial matters. As we are about to see, that is not the reality. The Handbook sounds great, but unfortunately its implementation is terrible.
An Article by Amanda Taub
The New York Times (May 9, 2018) published an article by a lawyer named Amanda Taub, titled “On Social Media’s Fringes, Growing Extremism Targets Women.” The article appears within a column called “The Interpreter.” The purpose of that column is said to consist of “exploring the ideas and context behind major world events.”
The ethical Handbook‘s guidelines (above) explicitly apply to “editorial writers” like Taub. No doubt people will differ in their interpretations of certain facts. But statements of fact, and Taub’s tone of writing about facts, must be impartial in order to comply with the guidelines.
In that light, let us consider a few excerpts from Taub’s article. That article begins as follows:
The recent mass killing in Toronto by a man who once called for an “Incel Rebellion” has drawn attention to an online community of men who lament being “involuntarily celibate” and dream of a social order granting them access to the women of their choice.
The group may seem like a bizarre but tiny fringe, its views the expression of long-held resentments among a handful of lonely men. And it is.
But incels are the latest manifestation of a much larger movement hidden just beneath the surface of polite society across the West. They are just one part of a set of ideologies, now growing in size and influence, that speak to broader resentments among men in Western societies, experts say.
In other words, here’s what Taub says:
- A mass murderer “once” (when?) “called for an ‘Incel Rebellion'” (and what was the response?).
- The Incel group is “a bizarre but tiny fringe,” raising the question of why Taub is covering it in a column that is supposed to be focused on “major world events.”
- Taub says incels are part of a set of ideologies that are “growing in size and influence.” That seems muddled. If the ideologies are growing in size, while the incels remain “bizarre but tiny,” then apparently the incels are actually not part of that set, else they would be growing. If they are growing but still tiny, they are probably immaterial, except for purposes of providing weird and scary examples that don’t reflect what’s actually happening. Being “bizarre” would hardly help them to grow in influence.
- Taub claims to perceive an ominous movement, related to incels, “just beneath the surface of polite society.” But she provides no evidence in support of that claim.
- That ominous movement allegedly arises from “broader resentments among men.” Again, no evidence. We are to simply accept Taub’s assurance that tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of men, throughout the western world, are now implicated in “calls for violence” involving threats that, “more often than not . . . target women.”
- The result: a grossly unethical smear of men generally, based on the words and deeds of one mass murderer.
- Completely unreported by Taub: the fact that the “incel” term originated with a woman, and that she was legitimately expressing the unhappiness of people of either sex who wish they had someone to love.
So far, Taub seems to be trying to invent something. There is no sign of fairness or impartiality in any of this. To the contrary, her article appears to be merely another among the many gratuitious swipes at men published by the Times.
Taub proceeds to explain where she’s coming from:
For white men across the Western world, special rights and privileges once came as a birthright. Even those who lacked wealth or power were assured a status above women and minorities.
Though they still enjoy preferential status in virtually every realm, from the boardroom to the courthouse, social forces like the Me Too movement are challenging that status. To some, any steps toward equality, however modest, feel like a threat.
Again, interpreting the so-called Interpreter:
- Although Taub seems to have no idea who the incels actually are — when, in fact, black men are even more beleaguered, in the areas of dating and marriage — suddenly she wants to make it specifically about “white” men. That is hypocritical. When compared to minorities, white women like Taub have enjoyed comparably “special rights and privileges.” This is precisely the concern of intersectional feminists: feminism has been, too often, the province of privileged white women, indulged at the expense of minorities.
- Taub thinks that the Me Too movement is “challenging” the “status” of men who lack “wealth or power.” It is true that feminists are trying to use Me Too as an excuse to attack powerless men. But as the Times itself has established in multiple articles, Me Too is about “high-profile men,” “powerful men,” men like Harvey Weinstein who used their positions to exploit unwilling (and often willing) women sexually.
- Decades after the professions flung their doors open to women, ten years after the Hecession in which women fared much better than men, at a time when women are becoming a worrisomely large majority in universities, when virtually any woman’s unsubstantiated claim of sexual exploitation has been unquestioningly accepted over that of the male (not only in Me Too situations but also among college students), Taub claims that men “enjoy preferential status in virtually every realm,” and that women are only starting to achieve “modest” steps toward equality. That is not the language of person who just wants a fair deal for everyone. It is the language of a lawyer, falsifying as lawyers do. Taub is a predator, seeking what lawyers seek — which is to say, everything she can get, however unfair that may be.
I don’t know — do you suppose anyone at the Times is able to detect, here, what its ethical principles describe as “any whiff of bias”?
You get the idea. I could proceed through Taub’s entire article, taking apart every paragraph. It is a work of fiction, indulging distortions through multiple levels. For instance: against the female social scientist who accuses men of having a sense of being “owed,” of having their “deserved status” threatened, does Taub cite a female scholar, like Christina Hoff Sommers, who would express an informed contrary view? Not at all. Instead, she cites some anonymous writer, from a Reddit message board. The Times claimed (above) to have an ethical “distaste for anonymous sourcing,” but apparently that wasn’t a problem in this instance — even though there was no way of knowing whether the writer was male, adult, a troll, or a brief indulgent of some fantasy role.
Taub’s article is rife with anti-male belittlement. She accuses “angry white men” of “lashing out,” of being driven by “feelings of anger and loss,” of feeling that “they are owed status.” It is widely understood to be rude and/or unfair to suggest that menstruation sometimes makes women irrational, even though that’s true; and yet Taub feels free to accuse a large number of men of being driven by emotion in this area, when that might actually be false. Moreover, as any impartial social scientist can see, the source of the anger may be, not loss of privilege, but frustration with the sort of unfairness exploited by women like Taub. Honestly: why is Taub accusing white men of being hostile to female advancement, when white working-class women were significantly less likely to vote for Clinton than white male college graduates?
Tell me again about “The Times’s reputation for strict neutrality” claimed in their ethical Handbook. Tell me again how the Times favors equality.
Taub’s article does not contain a single occurrence of “data,” “percent,” “percentage,” “statistic,” “statistics,” “statistical,” “demographic,” “incidence,” “prevalence,” or other words commonly associated with social science. Her argument is nothing but rhetoric. Hot air. Although it deals with matters of social science, it is entirely the work of a lawyer, of one who chose a graduate degree that did not require any ability to use quantitative evidence.
Since data on many of these matters is readily available and not generally disputed, the situation is clear: in the words of the Times‘s ethical principles, Taub “recklessly provide[d] false information for publication.” But I think the paper’s claim, that “We will not tolerate such behavior,” will once again prove to be as false as her writing.
Under such circumstances, it is truly remarkable to read Taub’s remarks about “extremism” among “men looking for a way to explain — and justify — their anger.” Taub is the extremist here. Yes, there are white male nuts. There are black male nuts. Every group has its nuts. But Taub is the one who has the endorsement of the New York Times to engage in hate speech. Those guys online may be reaching a few dozen. Taub and other misandrists at the Times are reaching millions. Which extremism poses the real threat? Which is more likely to stir up ominous and unreasoning sentiment?
Taub’s article eloquently illustrates that equality for men is such an odd concept in today’s New York Times that we might as well be talking about equality for blacks in the antebellum South: people pause, with a puzzled expression indicating they have no idea what you’re talking about, and then continue with what they were saying. That has been my experience: I write these posts; I send links to the Times, inviting them to take a look; their ethical principles (above) say, “Simple courtesy suggests that we not alienate our readers by ignoring their letters and emails that warrant reply.” And yet I get no reply, and nothing changes: the same nonsense comes out in another article, a few days later.
The New York Times claims to follow ethical principles in reporting. In my observation, across numerous articles critiqued in this blog and in others, the Times does not try to live up to that claim. Men (and, not infrequently, women) are hurt and angered by this sort of sexism. Indeed, Taub seems to believe that men are becoming increasingly angry precisely as they are marginalized. If that is true, how does it make sense to publish such inflammatory, marginalizing screeds, unsupported by concrete evidence? It appears that the Times is deliberately seeking to purvey falsehood and promote extremism. Of course, that may make sense from the perspective of selling newspapers. But I was talking about ethics.
The Times is not alone in this journalistic dishonesty. But it is, to me, the most disappointing. For many years, it was my newspaper. I continued to take it as gospel long after I left New York. I can’t say I was a complete fool for doing so. In many regards, it has served me well. But in the specific area of relations between the sexes, the Times did indeed lead me down the garden path. I was unprepared for the impacts that its approved misandry would have upon my own life. I would have been better off if I had been listening to Fox News, or anyway to some source that would have given me a heads-up regarding what feminists wanted to do to me personally.
It was not enough to support feminism. I had to stop being a white male. Since I didn’t know how to do that, being liberal didn’t help at all. The conclusion going forward seems to be that, if I’m going to be manipulated by a rabble-rouser, at least I should try to pick one on each side. That way, I’m less likely to be taken by surprise, trusting in a newspaper that doesn’t deserve my trust.
This article in the New York Times, like many others before it, demonstrates a tendency toward irresponsible public speech by major American news outlets. In a separate post, I have pointed out that such irresponsibility amounts to an abuse of the right of free speech, and that it provides a rationale for an eventual restriction on such speech. I don’t think any such restriction will be implemented soon. I do think such a restriction will be implemented eventually, and that articles like this one, multiplied many times over, will be the reason for it. It wouldn’t have to be that way, but it appears that ideologues are in charge at the Times. They pose a risk of doing a lot of damage to this country and its people and, ultimately, that will probably not be what the public favors.