By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A leading media ethicist picks up the pieces of the David Brooks story

Edward Wasserman. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Knight Foundation.

The controversy over New York Times columnist and “PBS NewsHour” commentator David Brooks’ conflicts of interest has all but faded away. But before everyone just, you know, moves on, I’d like to share with you a new blog post by Edward Wasserman, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and one of the country’s leading media ethicists. If you’ve forgotten the backstory, Wasserman has recapitulated it for you.

Wasserman begins with the valuable observation that conflicts tend to arise at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum — low-paid journalists caught in the realities of a shrinking news business have to take on outside work, meaning that “every story we read may be an audition for future work (or a thank-you for past employment), and we’re left to wonder how single-minded the writer’s commitment to us can be.” Or, for that matter, they might have an incentive to write nice things about McDonald’s. That, at least is understandable.

On the Brooksian end of the spectrum, though, the corruption is much more clear. Wasserman writes:

Star journalists cash in on notoriety from their day jobs, and the lead commentator for a prestige publication who moonlights on cable TV can make tens of thousands to speak at a trade association confab or corporate retreat. That’s a powerful incentive to pick subjects and grind axes that sharpen the journalist’s brand — which again raises the question, when we read their work, of who else they’re working for.

Another important point Wasserman makes is that the full disclosure Brooks failed to provide until he was caught by BuzzFeed News is no substitute for avoiding the conflict in the first place. Now, I’m among a younger (not that young) generation of media critics influenced by New York University Jay Rosen, which means that I tend to favor full disclosure without worrying quite as much about conflicts as earlier generations did.

But it’s hard to disagree with Wasserman when he writes: “Disclosure can never cleanse work of its bias; it can only alert readers to the possibility that bias exists and dare them to find it.” I would differ with Wasserman on his use of the word “bias.” Of course Brooks is biased. He’s an opinion journalist. But Brooks does owe us his independence, and he compromised that through his entanglements with Facebook and the Bezos family, among others.

I’m not sure whether Brooks could have survived this if he hadn’t apparently disclosed his conflicts to his previous editors (though not to readers or viewers). In any case, he’s still standing, and though he can drive me crazy sometimes, I agree with Wasserman that he is “a lucid and humane writer.” I’d miss him if he were gone. But I don’t know that I’ll ever trust him again — and there were already reasons to approach Brooks’ work with tweezers and a pair of rubber gloves.

Brooks has undermined trust in the Times, the “NewsHour” and himself. I guess the calculation is that he still has value; otherwise, he’d be gone. But he’s definitely moved himself to the discount rack, perhaps permanently.

Previous coverage.

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  1. pauljbass

    I found Brooks’ stuff much more compelling in his Weekly Standard days and early NYT days. Now it seems he falls into that pundit trap — exacerbated by his other gigs — by reaching too far for the Big Point About Meaning And Existence And Dumb Politicians And Community Building three times a week when maybe only one amazing original idea occurs to him per week or month (which is plenty!). I contrast him to Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens, who are humbler about their wisdom (at least Douthat) yet come up with far more challenging and original ways of looking at the world for NYT left-liberals like me.

  2. I used to think that Brooks’s cheerleading about this or that research or researcher was more about how he thought the research or researcher was the best thing since sliced bread, and now I am more inclined to wonder how the selection relates to his building his brand and its benefits. I appreciated Brooks’s eye for astute observation and insight in his earlier work, such as his book Bobos in Paradise, but his thinking when he tried to address big ideas in his later books seemed cramped (and too often mistaken) to me. I think I thought he understood more than I now think he does, that I was taken in by a sort of trompe l’oeil presentation; obviously, some of that is on me (for having been taken in), but I worry that his limited perceptions may mislead others, even if he is making his way to a deeper understanding of things.

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