Washington Post columnist: It’s ‘acceptable’ for journalists to be activists, ‘they should stand up for civil rights’

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Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan suggested that on Sunday that it’s “acceptable” for journalists to be activists for civil rights.

Sullivan addressed the inner turmoil that took place at The New York Times last week involving the uproar over an op-ed penned by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., as well as obstacles journalists have faced in recent weeks like sustaining injuries from the George Floyd protests and the massive layoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic by insisting that journalists “could come out of stronger and better” if they “grapple with some difficult questions.”

“The core question is this: In this polarized, dangerous moment, what are journalists supposed to be?” Sullivan asked. “Pose that question to most members of the public, and you might get an answer something like this: ‘Just tell me the bare facts. Leave your interpretation out of it. And don’t be on anyone’s side.’ That’s an appealing idea at first blush. It’s also one that doesn’t always work, especially right now.”

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The media columnist argued that every element of reporting is “the product of choice” from the text to the images, stressing “we choose what to focus on, what to amplify, what to investigate and examine.”

“That’s why the simplistic ‘just the unadorned facts’ can be such a canard. And that’s why the notion to ‘represent all points of view equally’ is absurd and sometimes wrongheaded,” Sullivan wrote. “The real answer is to make better, wiser choices — ones that best serve our important mission to find and tell the truth.”

She dismissed the Times’ defense of running the Cotton op-ed that it’s valuable to hear all points of view, insisting that the paper would never give a “prestigious platform” to InfoWars founder Alex Jones to write about the Sandy Hook massacre.

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“What if we framed coverage with this question at the forefront: What journalism best serves the real interests of American citizens? … Using that lens, Cotton’s views should be known, but not amplified and normalized within the prized real estate that is the op-ed page of the New York Times,” Sullivant explained. “Rather than present it as stamped with the imprimatur of the Times opinion pages, why not examine it in a news story that can provide context and can interrogate the facts he advances?”

Sullivan then implied that the “activist” description critics have given journalists isn’t actually a bad thing.

“What about these journalists whom so many want to criticize as taking on the role of activists? I am enough of a traditionalist that I don’t like to see mainstream reporters acting like partisans — for example, by working on political campaigns. … But it’s more than acceptable that they should stand up for civil rights — for press rights, for racial justice, for gender equity and against economic inequality,” she elaborated.”

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The Washington Post columnist acknowledged that trust in the media is low but that the solution isn’t “neutering journalists’ best instincts.”

“Journalists and their newsroom bosses shouldn’t be trying to make their work inoffensive. They should concentrate on how they can best serve their mission. And let the decision-making flow from there,” Sullivan concluded.

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