The New York Times is currently going through one of those periodic brouhahas about “objectivity” in the media, thanks to its firing of a freelance editor in the wake of some tweets about Joe Biden. There are several things to be said about this little story, but what it should really remind us of is that “objectivity” is a ridiculous, constantly moving target governed over by people who are making the rules up as they go along.
The story is pretty simple: Lauren Wolfe, a freelance editor for the Times, tweeted last Tuesday that she had “chills” watching Joe Biden’s plane touch down in Washington ahead of his inauguration. A couple of days and some standard conservative outrage passed, and then Wolfe suddenly found that she was no longer employed by the New York Times.
The Times denied publicly that Wolfe was let go from her contractor job—a job she was able to lose so easily because, as the paper’s union pointed out, she lacks the just-cause protections that full-time employees enjoy—because of “a single tweet.” On Monday, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reported that this might be accurate only in the sense that Wolfe was let go because of several tweets, and because she had committed the crime of getting the Times some bad press. Some have pointed out that Wolfe was dumped for a few tweets while Times employees who have been accused of far graver sins have been kept around. Others have said that it’s an example of the paper caving to conservatives in an effort to pivot away from its #Resistance-flavored Trump era.
While I would not have tweeted the kinds of things Wolfe did—mostly because I think saying you have chills watching a politician’s plane land is tacky—it doesn’t seem fair that she was sacrificed in this way, and it’s certainly out of line for the tabloids to be going after her so personally and publicly.
But beyond the consideration of this particular case is the deeper question of what constitutes “objective” behavior by a member of the media. This is where the ridiculousness of the Wolfe situation really comes into focus.
When rulings like this are handed down from organizations like the Times, there is an unspoken assumption that they are because someone has violated a sacred and timeless precept and thus must suffer the consequences. Wolfe tweeted that she had “chills” about Joe Biden. By stating her positive views about his incoming presidency so openly, she was being Not Objective, which, if Pompeo’s reporting is accurate, was the final nail in the coffin.
Saying you have chills about Joe Biden is certainly not apolitical. But here are two things the Times put out in the pages of its newspaper about Biden’s inauguration (emphasis mine throughout).
President Biden’s plea for national unity in his Inaugural Address on Wednesday was rooted in a belief — born of decades working inside the fractious institutions of government — that America can return to an era where “enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward.”
It is the argument of a 78-year-old who has endured tragedy after tragedy in public and who, in a reverse of the usual order, took on the manner of a statesman before he returned to the campaign trail as a politician.
Through a nearly half-century-long political career marked by personal tragedy and forged in national upheaval, Mr. Biden’s struggle with his own words has remained a central fact of his professional life, and of the ambition he harbored for nearly as long, the White House.
Yet over the course of the 2020 campaign, and especially in the two months since his victory, Mr. Biden, the nation’s 46th president, has transformed himself into a steady hand who chooses words with extraordinary restraint.
To Mr. Biden’s friends and family, his success at winning the White House is proof that there is something fundamentally reassuring about his character — his loyalty, his empathy and his experience — that Americans want after four years of an unpredictable and chaotic administration. Even when he misspeaks, they argue, it underscores his authenticity, the journey of a man who moved through the darkness of the losses of his young wife, baby daughter and adult son to remain optimistic about politics, the country and his own destiny.
So saying that Biden gives you “chills” is Not Objective, but writing that Biden has “the manner of a statesman,” is a “steady hand who chooses words with extraordinary restraint,” and is a man whose friends testify to his “loyalty, his empathy and his experience” as “fundamentally reassuring” traits for the nation are just neutral journalists stating the facts. Something about this does not make a whole lot of sense—well, not if you are going on the assumption that there are a set of agreed-upon principles that make up “objective journalism.”
You know where I’m going with this: there aren’t! It is literally just people inventing a framework every day—human beings, with all of their differing personalities and backgrounds and thoughts, getting together and looking at each other and saying, “yeah, sure, this makes sense now.”
We see examples of this all the time—news organizations publicly deciding that something that was a point of contention one day is now objectively stated fact the next. When the Capitol was stormed, we got a hefty taste of how this works:
Four different “objective” outlets, four different ways of referring to a singular set of events. This is how it is, all of the time. It’s not on stone tablets, it’s not messages from above, it’s just people looking around and saying, “yeah that’s good, no that’s bad.” Then sometimes they say, “that would be good except these other people are mad about it, so now it’s bad.”
It’s not just snap decisions on breaking news that works this way. The Times used to have a ban on saying even the word “gay.” Now it runs stories about “queer power and defiance” and “the stories of those who lost decades in the closet.” What happened to its previous notions of what constituted objectivity around issues of sexuality? Simple: the paper used to be run by homophobes, and the world wasn’t the same place as it is now. Eventually there weren’t as many homophobes running things, and the world around the Times changed in big ways, and now running approving stories about queer power is not in violation of its norms.
Before the Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer, the Times put the word “black” in lowercase when referring to African Americans. Now it uses the capitalized word “Black.” What happened? The world shifted, and the Times decided to shift too. Just a bunch of people in the room, deciding to shift.
I could go on and on. There are a billion embedded assumptions every single day that make up a product like the Times, and they all make the paper’s choices around Wolfe ring pretty hollow. Ultimately, the biggest indignity in her situation is that she was cast aside for a principle that the Times itself can barely get a handle on.