David Brooks addresses the Weave controversy

Move ahead to 8:48

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed the Weave matter Friday evening durng his regular appearance on the “PBS NewsHour” — which places Judy Woodruff and company several steps ahead of the Times when it comes to transparency.

Brooks was nervous through the segment, which began with his usual back-and-forth with Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. At the end, in the clip that I’ve bookmarked above (start at 8:48 if it doesn’t happen automatically), Woodruff gave Brooks a chance to explain himself. I thought he seemed sincerely interested in trying to set things right, but that he wasn’t entirely forthcoming.

He began by saying, “First, we did totally disclose it,” referring to his salary at the Aspen Institute, where he runs Weave, a civic-engagement initiative. Later, he seemed to say that what he meant was he’d disclosed it to his superiors at the Times. Certainly his readers and viewers didn’t know it.

He also said he had “not meaningfully written” about any of Weave’s funders, including Facebook, even though BuzzFeed News — which broke the story — has presented evidence to the contrary. Nor did he mention a post he wrote for Facebook’s blog in which he sang the praises of Facebook Groups, also revealed by BuzzFeed.

“It has not affected my journalism,” he insisted. Nevertheless, he conceded that his critics have a point and said he’ll be making changes over the next week.

How will this end? I suspect the Times will announce a policy pertaining to all of their in-house opinion journalists, and that will be the end of it — especially if Brooks can prove that management knew about his Weave salary.

Earlier:

Update: BuzzFeed News reporter Craig Silverman rebuts Brooks point by point in this Twitter thread:

Update II: Brooks has resigned from his position at the Aspen Institute as more conflicts of interest surface. BuzzFeed News reports.

17 thoughts on “David Brooks addresses the Weave controversy

  1. nahantjim

    I don’t quite get what the big deal is, here. For instance, the fact that he wrote on Facebook’s Blog is hardly a secret, It’s signed. It has his picture. Does all of Aspen Institute’s funding come from Facebook? Is everyone associated with the Institute a corporate shill? And what is the big deal about The Weave project? He writes about it in his book “The Second Coming” and I fully understand his distress about anomie and atomization. Finally (for now) he is not a “reporter.” He is involved in the journalistic world, of course, but he is a pretty honest guy who, as a thinker, reflects and reflects upon what he sees. He interprets. He puzzles. And, as I commented earlier, it has been fascinating to see him evolve.

    Yes…I am sure he could have done things a little differently but it all seems relatively minor compared to honest explorations of his life in history. He and I are different in a thousand ways but, in days past, I would have loved to sail with him from Gloucester to Nahant in my old catboat to see where the conversation might have gone…

    Jim Walsh

    1. Thanks for your comment. I am not a journalist but I think the “big deal” is that journalists are not supposed to be getting paid by people/organizations they write favorably about; and they’re especially not supposed to write favorably about people/organizations who are paying them, and then not disclose that to the public.

      Shifting to a matter of opinion, it strikes me that this episode is further confirmation that Brooks is *not* “a pretty honest guy”, at least intellectually and journalistically. He regularly writes columns breaking with Republican orthodoxy and then within a matter of weeks, reverts to that orthodoxy. Unlike, for example, the Globe’s Jeff Jacoby, he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, and therefore is far less interesting (imho) as a thinker and interpreter of contemporary politics and society.

      Luke Hill

  2. MagellanNH

    I have to admit my bias because I generally like Brooks and despite not always agreeing with him, I look forward to his commentary on the Newshour each week. Still, while Buzzfeed’s reporting on this seems generally robust, they just couldn’t help but veer slightly into “hit piece” territory with this:
    >> Two people who work for the Times and who asked to remain anonymous said they were embarrassed by BuzzFeed News’ previous report on Brooks’s writings for Facebook’s corporate site, in which he extolled the potential of connecting people via Facebook Groups.

    OMG. Stop the presses. This just in! Two anonymous coworkers were embarrassed.

    I’m not a journalist and don’t know the code, but to me, that paragraph doesn’t fit with the rest of the article.

    Also, Buzzfeed’s linked article from a week earlier contains the phrase “ode to facebook groups.” This reminds me of some of the James Damore Google memo coverage where reported pieces in respected outlets used words like “manifesto” and even “screed.” Maybe I just don’t get it, but words like ode, manifesto, and screed may be fine in opinion pieces, but they don’t really signal objective journalism to me.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It strikes me that “ode to Facebook Groups” isn’t an unfair (or inaccurate) description of what Brooks wrote, and that ‘s especially so given that he didn’t disclose that Facebook was one of his funders.

      Luke Hill

    2. Dan Kennedy

      Objectivity requires us to seek truth with an open mind and then report it. It has nothing to do with using neutral words. The use of “ode” here seems factually accurate.

      1. MagellanNH

        I completely agree about objectivity not requiring neutral words and I worded my comment badly in that it’s really not the non-neutral word that bugs me.

        I think of “ode” as a loaded word that doesn’t lend itself to a straightforward fact check. It requires a fairly high bar to justify. Brooks’ post wasn’t fawning, uncritical, or dripping with devotion and I’d expect an ode to have at least some of these characteristics. To this reader, the use of ode left the impression that the writers have ax to grind.

        That said, at this point I’m outvoted two to one plus I’m being pedantic and I should probably just gracefully concede the point.

  3. I understand that the narrow issue of adequate disclosure of the compensation, and its source, was being addressed, but even if I get beyond the “I always do what’s right, I never do anything wrong” (that’s a quote from a song from an old children’s program) attitude of the apologia, I think I will be left with residual concern going forward about whether there’s anything else going on behind a Brooks column that I should know about and don’t.

  4. Pingback: The David Brooks matter comes to an end (probably) – Media Nation

  5. linda Falkerson

    We have a global pandemic. A mainstream Republican Party that supports white supremacy and votes against aiding millions of low income Americans who’ve lost their jobs and are facing eviction. We’re supposed to care if a columnist posts a positive comment about Facebook Groups?

    1. Dan writes about journalism. In the journalism world Brooks’s behavior is a big deal. How big? Brooks’s behavior would have gotten him fired in every shop I worked in over a career of almost 30 years. Why? Because it undermines credibility and audience trust in both Brooks personally and the news outlet for which he works. (Not that Brooks hasn’t done a lot of other things to undermine his credibility, but that’s a subject for a different post.)

    2. We could try to evaluate the extent to which Brooks and his repeating the talking points of Republicans during the Obama Administration helped bring us to where we are. I am thinking, for example, about what I consider to be the spread of misinformation about the way health insurance (or any insurance system) works, as he questioned why younger healthier people should buy health insurance that pays claims for older sicker people. And then later he went on to criticize Obamacare for the trouble it was having getting younger healthier people to sign up. Since Obamacare was largely Romneycare (and Heritage Foundation Care, if I’m recalling it correctly), there was no reason I could see why Brooks couldn’t have played a more positive role, even as a conservative, in Obamacare’s acceptance. I inferred that there were other considerations that carried more weight for Brooks, despite his earlier enthusiasm for Obama’s candidacy and such. So to the extent that Brooks is influential, I don’t see him as outside of how we got here, I see him as part of how we got here.

      1. MagellanNH

        >> what I consider to be the spread of misinformation about the way health insurance (or any insurance system) works, as he questioned why younger healthier people should buy health insurance that pays claims for older sicker people.

        I don’t see anything misleading about Brooks’ criticism of the young-to-old subsidy that’s built into Obamacare. It costs about 6 times as much to insure a 64 year old as it does to insure a 20 year old and Obamacare collapses this down to a 3 to 1 ratio. This is a non-means tested subsidy from young to old. Is it good to have a system where a struggling 25 year old subsidizes a 64 year old early retiree? Full disclosure – I’m a direct beneficiary of this subsidy. This seems like a thing reasonable people can disagree about in good faith. Surely it’s reasonable for an opinion columnist to voice concerns about what they perceive is an unfair aspect of the law.

        >> there was no reason I could see why Brooks couldn’t have played a more positive role, even as a conservative, in Obamacare’s acceptance.

        I’ve never seen Brooks’ role at the Times to be a cheerleader for Democratic policy positions. I thought the role of people like Brooks, Stephens, and Weiss was to break up the ideological echo chamber at the Times to help give readers a better understanding of how the “other side” thinks about various issues. Even though I’m a strong Obamacare supporter, I was eager to learn about legitimate concerns of people on the right like Brooks. He was one of the few reasonable voices on the right who wasn’t repeatedly lying about Obamacare.

      2. I don’t see what you mean about “subsidy;” is that how you see how premiums are set for homeowners insurance, too, that those without claims are subsidizing those with claims, rather than seeing all subscribers as paying into a pool from which whatever claims arise are paid?

      3. MagellanNH

        Homeowners insurance is a good example. My homeowners premiums are based on crime rates in my zip code, fire prevention equipment I have installed, and how many claims I’ve made in the past. We could pass a law that prevents home insurers from discriminating based on these things, but I’d expect there to be a lot of debate about whether that’s a good idea.

        Prior to Obamacare, individual health insurance in most states was more like homeowners insurance or better still, more like life insurance. Insurers asked detailed questions about your medical history and set your rates accordingly (or decided not to insure you). Obamacare made it illegal for insurers to consider past medical history or sex when they set rates and limited how much more they could charge old people compared to young people. This means healthy young people subsidize older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions. Again, this is all compared to the rates insurers used to charge before Obamacare.

        All that said, the subsidies built into Obamacare seem reasonable to me. It’s a tough problem with many tradeoffs. Still, I understand some people don’t agree and I’m eager to hear honest arguments about why they disagree. Who knows, maybe they’ll change my mind.

      4. Is a homeowners claim likely to be smaller than the subscriber’s premiums paid in for the period in question or will it be paid out of pooled funds? If it’s larger, is it “subsidized”? Brooks was advocating an alternative of something like self-pay through health savings accounts, as if insurance is not needed to pay what may turn out to be overwhelming costs to the patient, even with savings. I think we need insurance systems to cover events such as illness and calamity. I don’t think it’s best left up to the individual to self-pay. I thought (and think) that the way the issue was being framed by Republicans at the time was undermining the basic idea of insurance, namely that subscribers pay in and create a pool to pay claims, with no guarantee of a direct correspondence between amount a subscriber pays in and amount they receive out. My understanding has been that one of the reasons Medicare was developed was because the insurance system at the time was not viable for older subscribers, so I take the creation through Obamacare of a big pool including younger as well as as those closer to age 64 as a way to not simply recreate such a scenario. If it is impossible to create a self-sustaining insurance system for health care that more people find acceptable, perhaps due to the high costs charged for health care, then maybe we need to reform the health care system and not just the ways we pay for it (I know, not a new idea).

  6. MagellanNH

    >> Brooks was advocating an alternative of something like self-pay through health savings accounts…
    You make some good points and I’d love to keep volleying back as a devil’s advocate on this stuff but I don’t want to clutter up Dan’s comment section with my ACA opinions.

    I don’t have a strong opinion about how serious Brooks’ missteps were in this case. It seems like maybe he “did the minimum” to keep the Times informed and it was mostly the Times that dropped the ball, but I’m not sure.

    My main point is that I think Brooks serves an essential role for the Times and is fast becoming a very rare bird. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is yet another coordinated attempt by the youngsters (similar to the McNeil case) to open up another spot at the top for them to advance into and further purify their ranks. I fear that many Times staffers, especially the younger ones, think their primary role, as well as the Times’ role, is to advocate for their left-leaning policy objectives, with some journalism thrown in on the side when it’s convenient.

    I see this as a really unhealthy culture for a newsroom and it seems to be getting worse, to the point where the Times and its readers are fast-becoming a left-elite echo chamber that has much more in common with Fox News than they’d ever admit, and also is completely out of step with 70-80% of the American public.

    This newsroom-readership ideology convergence optimization loop may be inevitable for news outlets to stay viable in the new-media age, but imo it’s not a good thing.

    1. I am happy to discontinue this dialogue, however enjoyable, especially if we are ending it on a point on which we apparently agree: what i might call the deterioration of the Times into an outlet for a specific audience.

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