Are journalists allowed to be citizens, too?

The case against the newsroom neutrality charade.

When I created Hiatus, one of my core goals was to compile the news you need to be an informed, responsible citizen. Among my early subscribers, many are journalists and writers – because people who value journalism also tend to appreciate being active and engaged citizens.

The Washington Post, apparently, has other ideas. In a recent letter from the paper’s managing editors, they reminded employees of the company policy that it’s unacceptable to attend any sort of political rally or support any legislative policy.

“With these principles in mind, we want to make clear that newsroom employees may participate in celebratory parades or festivals that are not partisan or political. For example, newsroom staff may attend Pride or Juneteenth celebrations, July 4th parades, heritage festivals and other such non-political gatherings. Protests, demonstrations and partisan activities are another matter – we intend no relaxation of our longstanding expectation that newsroom employees refrain from such expressions of public advocacy. As a rule, we are witnesses and observers in the public square, not participants or activists. Context matters: It would be fine to participate in a celebration at BLM plaza but not a protest there or attend a Pride gathering but not a demonstration at the Supreme Court.

We should do everything possible to avoid partisanship or advocacy for specific policies or special interests, or the appearance of such activity. For instance, a newsroom employee would not hold a protest sign at a parade or wear a hat supporting or opposing a political candidate or legislative policy, but might wear a rainbow cap, wave an American flag or wear a t-shirt celebrating their identity. Here, details matter. A shirt with the flag of the District of Columbia is fine. One supporting statehood would not be – that would be an expression of public advocacy on a matter we cover.”

There goes half my wardrobe and all my summer plans.

Last week, I covered a tech company, Basecamp, that lost a third of its workforce after telling employees they could no longer discuss “society” or “politics” at work. The Basecamp founders, like the Post editors, also specifically prohibited “advocacy,” which to me seems to be a nice way to say “progressive ideas” without actually saying it. (In fact, all the examples mentioned in the Post’s letter are progressive ideas.)

When a tech company says “no politics at work,” I think it’s a bad decision, but clearly they have a legal right to define rules of behavior in their office (or in their remote workspaces) to some degree. It’s a bad call, but it’s not an illegal call, even though I think it flies in the face of their separately stated goals of promoting free expression.

I think The Post’s policy goes even further in the wrong direction, specifically because it attempts to constrain employees’ activity outside of work, in pursuit of a bizarre fantasy world in which newsroom employees are entirely devoid of opinions.

You can see this goal in their specific concerns about “the appearance of such activity.” Of course, everyone has political opinions. I am sure almost everyone at The Post votes in every election and feels strongly about a wide variety of legislative policies. But, their bosses say, we have to fake it so we can appear neutral!

I don’t even think the quest for newsroom neutrality solves a real problem or addresses a real risk for the paper. Who is the reader who trusts The Washington Post today, but would suddenly cease to do so if reporters were allowed to wear the t-shirts of their choice? Like the tech CEOs who live in irrational fear of cancellation, the Post editors are vastly overestimating the social and financial risk of letting employees speak their minds.

The Post proudly declares that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” What, then, happens when a company forces its employees to live under that shroud of darkness, unable to express themselves, protest an abusive policy, or stand up for themselves or their neighbors? Should residents of the District of Columbia really be compelled by their employer to pretend that they don’t have an opinion on whether they should be represented in the Senate? If The Post prevents their employees from participating in advocacy – even in situations where their health, marriage or citizenship is on the docket – is The Post really a friend to democracy?

I’ll step back for a moment and say that The Post is by no means alone in this. Most major news organizations have similar policies, and as we’ve seen, many corporate execs in all industries would prefer their employees to think less about the world and more about making their enterprise productive. The Post and Basecamp have both been ham-handed about communicating this idea, but it’s generally considered good for business when employees pipe down. (As I mentioned in my discussion of Basecamp, this is not just abstract theory – I have a dozen employees at my tech company, and I encourage them to say and wear whatever they want.)

The irony here is that all of this is in direct conflict with everything these companies say they want in the world.

The Post wants democracy and sunlight, yet they constrain their employees’ speech outside of work in a way that, to me, seems to conflict with the First Amendment. Basecamp’s founders advocate for Internet privacy and free expression, yet they provide neither to the people who build their products.

I propose that we drop the charade. There is no such thing as a neutral journalist or someone with no opinion on a topic of public concern. This person has never existed, and never will. If you have no opinion, either the topic is extraordinarily boring or you haven’t educated yourself on it enough.

And yet, despite all these people with opinions writing for the newspaper, journalism is pretty good! It was good in the past, too, even when newspaper editors were active partisans (as was the case for much of American history). We admire the pamphleteers of the Revolution and the muckrakers of the Progressive Era. They all had opinions, and they did just fine reporting the facts and proposing meaningful social reforms.

If you ask journalists not to participate in society, they should and will find new jobs where they’re treated with humanity. I’m sure it would be easier for the Post editors if they could replace everyone with unfeeling robots. Fortunately for those of us who paid a lot of money for a communications degree, we’re still a few years out from having the technology for that one.

If The Post truly wants to build an organization that keeps democracy alive and keeps darkness away, they’re going to have to start treating their newsroom employees like humans. Rather than tie their employees’ hands, they should celebrate the fact that they’re informed, educated citizens taking action to build a better world.