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.