What is journalism supposed to be?
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Two weeks ago, a provocative headline ran in New York Magazine: "Black Lives Matter Secretly Bought a $6 Million House."
The piece was a classic example of dogged journalism. The reporter, Sean Campbell, was exercising strong instincts and was reporting on an organization he knew intimately (from reporting on them in the past). Campbell got access to internal documents, tax filings, and emails in writing his story.
It was a devastating piece. It tied together his previous reporting on the obscure and often hard to follow finances of the Black Lives Matter organization. And, perhaps most embarrassing of all, it shared internal criticism of the top brass at the organization — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Melina Abdullah. It dove deep into how on-the-ground activists questioned the way the larger organization was spending the money they had raised. At best, it exposed the organization for obscuring how it uses its funds; at worst, it implicated them in the misuse of those funds. And it caused quite a stir in the public.
The piece is important, and when you're done reading this, you should go read it for yourself.
What I found more interesting, though, was the response. It came in the form of an Instagram post from BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who was a significant figure in the story but had stepped down from the organization by the time it was published. The post defended the BLM organization from the allegations of any financial impropriety (unconvincingly, in my opinion), and, in part, said this (emphasis mine):
Yesterday's article in New York Magazine is a despicable abuse of a platform that's intended to provide truthful information to the public. Journalism is supposed to mitigate harm and inform our communities. That [sic] fact that a reputable publication would allow a reporter, with a proven and very public bias against me and other Black leaders, to write a piece filled with misinformation, innuendo and incendiary opinions, is disheartening and unacceptable... What's happening to me and to our movement is both racist and sexist. This is bigger than me, it's about a long history of attacking Black people and Black women specifically, creating unsafe conditions for us and our families, scrutinizing our every move publicly and privately in ways that are unfair and unjust. It's dangerous and we should all be trying to stop it, interrupt it, protest it.
When I read this statement, my blood pressure rose a bit. Not just because I found it deeply misleading, but because I suspected it would also be very effective at swatting away legitimate criticism.
For starters, the idea that the role of journalism is to "mitigate harm" is just bizarre. The thought may more aptly be described as detached from reality. A journalist's job is to tell stories fairly, and be balanced and truthful about things in the public interest. Their job is not to mitigate harm. Maybe, sometimes, it is about exposing harm. Maybe, other times, it is about causing harm (to a bad actor, especially if they’re a powerful person or entity) by reporting inconvenient truths. Often it's just about sharing the harm caused to others, to tell stories that inform and alert the public.
But it is not to mitigate harm. It can mitigate harm, and often good journalism will mitigate harm (as exposing contaminated tap water in Flint, Michigan did). But the job of journalists is not to mitigate harm. That might be the job of parents or a therapist, but not a reporter. Journalism is not about protecting anyone, especially not powerful, influential leaders who raise millions of dollars a year.
The next absurdity was the claim that the piece was "filled with misinformation, innuendo and incendiary opinions." Again, you can go read the piece for yourself, but the claim does not appear to hold any weight. It is a well reported piece, and while it does include the opinions of some people who are quoted, it does not frame any opinions as facts. It certainly doesn't spread "misinformation,” unless Cullors can prove something that was published was defamatory, misleading or untrue (she has not provided any such evidence, despite having a team of lawyers at hand).
Her decision to use the word "misinformation" is no accident, either. That word is now a familiar one to many on the left who may support her cause. It’s quickly becoming the left's version of "fake news" for anything they don't agree with. Oxford’s definition of misinformation is "false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive." Unless Cullors can prove that Campbell was sharing false information intentionally, intending to deceive his audience, Cullors is spreading actual misinformation by labeling this article as such.
Then she said, "What's happening to me and to our movement is both racist and sexist." This, too, was an inflammatory allegation to levy. Not just because the story has nothing to do with Cullors’ race or sex (besides the fact that the subjects are leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement), but because the reporter himself is Black. In fact, Campbell, who has now done a few pieces on the unusual and obscure financial practices of Black Lives Matter, has taken the unusual step of publicly discussing how difficult the pieces have been for him to write. Presumably, that’s because he values the movement’s work for racial justice.
Campbell called his first piece on their finances in January "one of the hardest I'd done." He called this latest one "heartbreaking." And, of course, much of the reported criticism in the piece is not from bonafide racists or sexists, nor is it from critics of BLM, but from Black Lives Matter activists. It's from allies of the organization, or members of the movement. Campbell even took pains to distinguish between the organization (which handles the finances) and the movement (which is fighting for racial justice on the ground):
"I’ve said it from the beginning, the Black Lives Matter Global Network is not the movement, despite how much work its leaders and affiliates have put in to conflate the two," he said on Twitter. "The organization ≠ The movement."
Finally, Cullors lands here: "This is bigger than me, it's about a long history of attacking Black people and Black women specifically, creating unsafe conditions for us and our families, scrutinizing our every move publicly and privately in ways that are unfair and unjust. It's dangerous and we should all be trying to stop it, interrupt it, protest it."
To be perfectly clear, at the risk of any misunderstanding, Cullors is right: Our country has a long history of attacking Black people, and Black women especially, and is quite good at creating unsafe conditions for them and their families.
Still, this quote is perhaps the most difficult to swallow.