NEW YORK: Wesley Lowery woke up in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 14, 2014, his cheek sore from where a police officer had smashed it into a vending machine. He was also wondering how to get his shoelaces back into his boat shoes, after the police took them when tossing him in a holding cell the night before. Around 8:30 that morning, he dialed into CNN’s morning show, where a host passed on some advice from Joe Scarborough at MSNBC: “Next time a police officer tells you that you’ve got to move along because you’ve got riots outside, well, you probably should move along.”
Lowery responded furiously. “I would invite Joe Scarborough to come down to Ferguson and get out of 30 Rock where he’s sitting sipping his Starbucks smugly,” he said on CNN, describing “having tear gas shot at me, having rubber bullets shot at me, having mothers, daughters, crying, having a 19-year-old boy, crying as he had to run and pull his 21-year-old sister out of a cloud of tear gas.”
The outburst from a 24-year-old Washington Post reporter provoked eye rolls in Washington. But Lowery would go on to make his name in Ferguson as an aggressive and high-profile star, shaping a raw new national perspective on racial injustice. Six years later, few in the news business doubt Lowery’s premise: that American police are more brutal and dishonest than much of the media that came of age pre-Ferguson reported.
“I look at everything differently, and would never do that again,” Scarborough told me of his 2014 exchange with Lowery. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
Historical moments don’t have neat beginnings and endings, but the new way of covering civil rights protests, like the Black Lives Matter movement itself, coalesced on the streets of Ferguson. Seeing the brutality of a white power structure toward its poor black citizens up close, and at its rawest, helped shape the way a generation of reporters, most of them black, looked at their jobs when they returned to their newsrooms.
And by 2014, they had in Twitter a powerful outlet. The platform offered a counterweight to their newsrooms, which over the years had sought to hire black reporters on the unspoken condition that they bite their tongues about racism.
Now, as America is wrestling with the surging of a moment that began in August 2014, its biggest newsrooms are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls.
The conflict exploded in recent days into public protests at The New York Times, ending in the resignation of its top opinion editor Sunday; The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose executive editor resigned Saturday over the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” and the ensuing anger from his staff; and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And it has been the subject of quiet agony at The Washington Post, which Lowery left earlier this year, months after the executive editor, Martin Baron, threatened to fire him for expressing his views on Twitter about race, journalism and other subjects.
Lowery’s view that news organizations’ “core value needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity,” as he told me — has been winning in a series of battles, many around how to cover race. Heated Twitter criticism helped to retire euphemisms like “racially charged.” The big outlets have gradually, awkwardly, given ground, using “racist” and “lie” more freely, especially when describing Trump’s behavior. The Times vowed to remake its opinion section after Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed article calling for the use of troops in American cities infuriated the newsroom last week.
They raised their hands
The press corps that landed in Ferguson after a black 18-year-old, Michael Brown Jr, was fatally shot by a white police officer, was blacker than most big American newsrooms. That wasn’t an accident — many reporters had raised their hands to cover a story that unfolded, first, on Twitter. Lowery, a new congressional reporter, asked if he could help out on The Post’s live blog chronicling the aftermath of the shooting, and instead found himself in the streets. Yamiche Alcindor, then 27, saw the news on Twitter, “thought it was something USA Today should be covering on the ground” and asked to go. Akilah Johnson, then 35 and a reporter at The Boston Globe, emailed her editor that “an American city is burning,” and was put on a plane. Craig Melvin, 35 and an NBC correspondent, asked his boss to “put me in, coach.” Rembert Browne, then 27 and writing for the sports and culture site Grantland, was looking at his phone in a bar in Brooklyn, New York, when he felt, “I want to do something,” and bought a plane ticket.
“There was a critical mass of black journalists — most of them young — many to most of them steeped in the history of race and the history of police violence in this country,” said Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker, an elder statesman of the group who celebrated his 45th birthday at a wine bar near the Ferguson police headquarters.
What they found shocked many of them: Bereft, enraged citizens whose anger sometimes extended to the press and police officers geared up for war.
“Seeing police in armored vehicles in riot gear with semi-automatic weapons in a residential neighborhood in America — and seeing them viewing black people not as citizens and taxpayers and people worthy of protection but rather almost like enemy combatants was surreal,” said Errin Haines, then a reporter for Fusion and now editor at large for The 19th, in a telephone interview.
On Aug. 18, after nine nights of unrest, the Ferguson police imposed a rule that protesters could not simply assemble in one place. So Alcindor said she found herself walking endlessly, interviewing tired protesters who were doing the same.
“Walking in circles and then realizing later on that it was simply an unconstitutional rule, it changed the way I thought about reporting — it made me think I have to question everything, including the rules of our reporting,” Alcindor, a former Times reporter who is now White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour, told me in an interview.
The police drew few distinctions between the media and the people they were covering. “There was no sense that I was any different from a protester. I got pushed around, the police pulled guns on me and other people,” recalled Joel Anderson, a BuzzFeed News reporter in Ferguson who now is a writer and podcast host for Slate.
Some journalists, like Adam Serwer of MSNBC, who’s now at The Atlantic, arrived skeptical of the police’s side of the story. Others, like Melvin, had worked in local news relying on police sources.
“The longer you stayed, the more folks you talked to, and the more information that emerged, it became apparent that the official account was a load of crap,” he said in telephone interview.
The central vein for reporters, producers, activists and a vast national audience was Twitter, which had already begun subtly shifting the power dynamic in news. It steered coverage. When John Eligon of The Times published a largely sympathetic profile of Brown that described him as “no angel,” it set off outrage on Twitter, as a symbol of a style of journalism that seemed too ready to explain away police violence.
“They had a point” about the phrase, Eligon recalled last week. Twitter “did make it feel like you’re more accountable to a broader audience and a more diverse audience.”
The platform also gave the younger reporters “freedom to establish their own stilts in ways we didn’t have without someone handing us the keys,” said Trymaine Lee, then 35 and reporting for MSNBC.
“Before you’re at the whim of the newsroom,’’ said Lee, now a correspondent for MSNBC. But on Twitter, the young journalists received “positive reinforcement, they’re getting thousands and thousands of people saying, ‘Yes, we do like that.’ ”
New pressure on newsrooms
Some of the lessons learned in Ferguson — about race and the particular experience of black reporters, among others — carried over into the next challenging era: the arrival of Trump, whose bigoted language and tactics shattered norms. Black reporters were joined by other journalists in pushing, inside newsrooms and on Twitter, for more direct language — and less deference — in covering the president.
That pattern continued last week, as Times staff members began an extraordinary campaign to publicly denounce the op-ed article written by Cotton. Members of an internal group called Black@NYT organized the effort in a new Slack channel and agreed on a carefully drafted response. They would say that Cotton’s column “endangered” black staff members, a choice of words intended to “focus on the work” and “avoid being construed as hyperpartisan,” one said. On Wednesday evening around 7:30, hours after the column was posted, Times employees began tweeting a screenshot of Cotton’s essay, most with some version of the sentence: “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” The NewsGuild of New York later advised staff members that that formulation was legally protected speech because it focused on workplace safety. “It wasn’t just an opinion, it felt violent — it was a call to action that could hurt people,” one union activist said of Cotton’s column.
Times employees sent the publisher a letter, which a reporter shared with me, saying Cotton’s “message undermines the work we do, in the newsroom and in opinion, and is an affront to our standards for ethical and accurate reporting for the public’s interest.” A NewsGuild spokesman said more than 1,000 Times employees signed the letter, but that the names weren’t being made public or shared internally.
The protest worked: The paper veered into internal crisis, and the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, decided he could not continue with Bennet running the opinion section, which had repeatedly stumbled in ways that infuriated the newsroom.
Bennet acknowledged that he had not read the op-ed before it was published, which people at all levels of the Times saw as a damning admission. He said in a virtual meeting with nearly 4,000 Times staff members Friday that he had long believed that for “ideas and even dangerous ideas, that the right thing to do is expose them on our platform to public scrutiny and debate, and that’s the best way, that even dangerous ideas can be discarded.” But, he said, he was now asking himself, “Is that right?” (Bennet declined to discuss the situation further with me.)
At the same meeting, Times executives thanked staff members for their public outrage, and later that day published an editor’s note atop Cotton’s article, saying that it contained allegations that “have not been substantiated,” its tone was “needlessly harsh” and that it should not have been published.
And while those angered by Cotton’s piece dominated the Twitter and Slack conversations and won the day, some staff members disagreed in private and public with the decision.
“A strong paper and strong democracy does not shy from many voices. And this one had clear news value,” Michael Powell, a longtime reporter and sports columnist at The Times, wrote on Twitter. He also called the editor’s note an “embarrassing retreat from principle.”
The fights at The Times are particularly intense because Sulzberger is now considering candidates to replace the executive editor, Dean Baquet, in 2022, the year he turns 66. Competing candidates represent different visions for the paper, and Bennet had embodied a particular kind of ecumenical establishment politics. But the Cotton debacle had clearly endangered Bennet’s future. When the highly regarded Sunday Business editor, Nick Summers, said in a Google Hangout meeting last Thursday that he wouldn’t work for Bennet, he drew agreement from colleagues in a chat window.
How long Sulzberger and Baquet will put up with public pressure from their staff is not clear. In an earlier moment of social turmoil, A.M. Rosenthal, who led the newsroom from 1969 to 1986, kept a watchful eye and heavy hand on reporters he perceived to lean too far left. The words, “He kept the paper straight,” are inscribed on his gravestone.
Minutes after Sulzberger told the staff in an email that Bennet had resigned, he told me not to interpret the move as a philosophical shift. Rosenthal, he noted, had presided over a much less diverse newsroom, and one that focused on covering New York for New Yorkers.
“In this case, we messed up and hiding behind, ‘We want to keep the paper straight,’ to not acknowledge that, would have left us more exposed,” Sulzberger said.
And he told me in a separate interview Friday: “We’re not retreating from the principles of independence and objectivity. We don’t pretend to be objective about things like human rights and racism.”
But the shift in mainstream American media — driven by a journalism that is more personal, and reporters more willing to speak what they see as the truth without worrying about alienating conservatives — now feels irreversible. It is driven in equal parts by politics, the culture and journalism’s business model, relying increasingly on passionate readers willing to pay for content rather than skittish advertisers.
That shift will come too late for Lowery’s career at The Washington Post. After Ferguson, he proposed and was a lead reporter on a project to build the first national database of police shootings and draw lessons from the results. It won The Post a Pulitzer Prize in 2016. He seemed to insiders and outsiders the prototype of the precocious, nakedly ambitious, somewhat arrogant and very talented (though usually white and male) reporter who has risen quickly at American newspapers.
But Baron has been more sensitive than other newsroom leaders to reporters who push the limits on Twitter and on television, as Max Tani reported in the Daily Beast earlier this year. (At The New York Times, social media policy is usually enforced by a passive-aggressive email from an editor and rare follow-up.) Lowery said that when he hit back at a Republican official who criticized his Ferguson coverage on Twitter, he drew a lecture from Baron.
By 2019, the executive editor had gathered examples of what he saw as misconduct, from Lowery’s tweet mocking attendees at a Washington book party as “decadent aristocrats” to one tweet criticizing a New York Times report on the Tea Party.
And after a tense meeting last September, Baron handed Lowery a memo written in the wooden, and condescending, language of human resources:
Lowery was “failing to perform your job duties by engaging in conduct on social media that violates The Washington Post’s policy and damages our journalistic integrity,” the memo said.
“We need to see immediate cessation of improper use of social media, outlined above. Failure to address this issue will result in increased disciplinary action, up to and including the termination of your employment.”
Lowery responded with his own memo, defending himself point-by-point, pointing to specific errors, and arguing that in one case he was joining the “debate about a topic I cover directly — race and racism in America.”
“Generations of black journalists, including here at The Washington Post, have served as the conscience not only of their publications but of our entire industry,” Lowery said in the memo to Baron, which I also obtained. “Often those journalists have done so by leveling public criticism of both their competitors and their own employers. News organizations often respond to such internal and external pressure.”
Washington Post employees said the confrontation between America’s most famous newspaper editor — Baron is portrayed heroically by Liev Schreiber in the movie “Spotlight” — and his protégé was followed by a flurry of efforts by the Post’s national editor, Steven Ginsberg, and others to mediate the conflict. Baron declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the episode or its broader themes. “As editor, it would be inappropriate for him to speak about an individual employee,” the spokeswoman, Kris Coratti, said.
But six months later Lowery left The Post, for a “60 Minutes” project on the new streaming platform Quibi. It was, he said, a great opportunity. But “you have to live outside the realm of reality to think the executive editor of The Washington Post dressing me down in his office and inviting me to seek employment elsewhere didn’t contribute to me seeking employment elsewhere.”
He still has Twitter, though. On Wednesday, he tweeted that he’d canceled his subscription to The Times and demanded that Bennet resign. The next day, he broke some big news: George Floyd’s family and the Rev. Al Sharpton would lead a national march on Washington to mark the anniversary of the 1963 civil rights march.
“American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” he tweeted of the Times debacle. “We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”
That argument is gathering momentum in key American newsrooms. At The Times, staff members are pressing for changes beyond the opinion section. At The Post, a committee reporting to Ginsberg recently delivered a review of staff members’ attitudes toward social media policy. And at The Post’s own tense town hall Friday, Baron apologized for failing in a recent email to address “the particular and severe burden felt by black employees, many of whom were also covering the story” of the protests, according to notes from a participant in the meeting. The Post’s union then sent an email to the staff criticizing Baron’s response. “Most striking of all was that the four voices the company chose to elevate in this moment belonged exclusively to white people. There could be no starker example of The Post’s lack of diversity in management.”
Perhaps most tellingly, reporters I spoke to at The Post said they wished Lowery was still there, breaking news from Minneapolis for the paper.
“When an organization loses a journalist as talented and as fiercely committed to the truth as Wesley Lowery, its leaders need to ask themselves why,” said Felicia Sonmez, a national political reporter who clashed with Baron over a different tweet. “We need more reporters like him, not fewer.”