There are a number of real threats to journalistic integrity afoot today. A big one is that powerful people will use their value as news sources to dictate what a newspaper can print or a TV network can air.
“Access journalism” is hardly a new phenomenon. It can be particularly pernicious in the worlds of sports and music journalism, where critical columns, harsh reviews, or insufficient airplay can get journalists frozen out of locker rooms and denied interviews with popular musicians. Sports leagues that provide the bulk of ESPN’s content have massive leverage to dictate coverage. Politicians can use this, too, dispensing interviews to friendly outlets and booting critical ones from foreign junkets or the White House briefing room. We know that the New York Times will respond quickly when a Democratic presidential campaign demands changes to articles it has printed.
These tactics tend, however, to be somewhat narrowly focused: Your access to me depends on how you cover me. What is newer and more ominous is reporters’ citing pressure from sources as leverage over a newspaper’s entire business: who it hires, how it frames the news, even what op-eds it publishes. Even worse is the apparent assumption that this is a legitimate thing for journalists to consider in what they write and publish.
During last month’s controversy over the Times daring to publish an op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton, the Times reported: “Three Times journalists, who declined to be identified by name, said they had informed their editors that sources told them they would no longer provide them with information because of the Op-Ed.” This week, a letter signed by 300 Wall Street Journal reporters demanded multiple changes to the op-ed page, including objections to publishing specific people and effectively demanding the muffling of particular points of view, especially articles questioning the premises of critics of the police as systemically racist. The op-ed page fired back with a defiant refusal to be ‘canceled’ by its own co-workers. There’s a lot going on in the letter, but particularly alarming is the front-and-center reappearance of the access-journalism argument: “Some of us have been told by sources that they won’t talk to use because they don’t trust that the WSJ is independent of the editorial page; many of us have heard sources and readers complain about the paper’s ‘bias’ as a result of what they’ve read in Opinion.”
A journalist who takes the integrity of the profession seriously ought to be able to explain that distinction to sources. Of course, the biases and punch-pulling inherent in access journalism can never entirely be eliminated from journalism in the real world, but the real issue with the WSJ and Times news journalists seems to be that they do not even see why it is bad or dangerous to let sources dictate what your newspaper publishes. If you see your job as speaking power to truth, you are in the wrong business.