"Moral Clarity" Sounds Like A Great Concept In Theory, But Journalists Embrace It In A Wildly Inconsistent And Opportunistic Manner

On Vox's decision to amplify a ridiculous smear against Matt Yglesias

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“Moral clarity” is the big thing in journalism these days. That was the phrase the criminal justice reporter Wesley Lowery used in a June New York Times column about journalism’s traditional dominance by white writers and editors, and these figures’ embrace of a strained notion of ‘objectivity’ that, Lowery argues, obscures more than it reveals, often benefiting those in power.

The piece traveled far and wide, and served to focus and orient a conversation that had been percolating for years. Under Trump, media organizations had taken pains to resort to less of the sort of he-said/she-said framing Lowery criticizes, and had become more assertive about inserting truth-value judgements into the text of ostensibly ‘objective’ news articles. Stories about Donald Trump’s endless lies, for example, were increasingly peppered with phrases like “he said without evidence, “a claim he could not provide any evidence for,” and so on. (Of course this wasn’t the first time this conversation rolled around — the oftentimes lackluster coverage of George W. Bush’s claims about Iraq was a formative moment for many journalists my age.)

Lowery and many others extend this imperative to speak plainly and truthfully in news coverage to matters that can be slightly more subjective, like identifying when a given utterance is racist. “Moral clarity would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes — however cleverly — be labeled such with clear language and unburied evidence,” argues Lowery. Sure enough, by the time his column was published, if a writer or editor described a quote as “racially charged” rather than ‘racist,’ they were going to have a bad time, for a day or two, on Twitter.

I’m sort of juking one way and then going another with this post. I’ve never been able to develop some sort of coherent, easily publishable opinion on this conception of moral clarity because I think some parts of it are important and necessary for good journalism — taking the accounts of cops and other authority figures as near-gospel-truth has sometimes been a problem for my tribe — and others are a little bit more complicated, or at least involve more genuinely tough tradeoffs, than Lowery and others are admitting. 

For instance, I think it’s pretty obvious that for a sizable percentage of the utterances treated as racist, or whatever else -ist, there’s actually some good-faith debate over whether they are. I was surprised to see some outlets treat it as prima facie true that when the actress Gina Carano drew a strained and cringey online comparison between American political discord and the treatment of German Jews in the runup to the Holocaust, this was anti-Semitic:

To many people it was obviously true this was anti-Semitic. But I’m Jewish and didn’t view it that way at all. Silly and arguably offensive, yes, but the whole point of the comparison is to treat the Holocaust as a nightmarish example of humanity at its worst, which is something like the opposite of an anti-Semitic sentiment. So maybe my gripe just boils down to believing that the advocates for “moral clarity” overestimate the percentage of cases in which this principle provides unambiguous guidance. The world is often fuzzier than that — my interpretation of “moral clarity” is to very specifically explain the nature of the meme Carano posted and why there’s a missing link or two in the evidentiary chain that it’s anti-Semitic, but clearly other journalists disagree with this intensely.

Anyway, my sense is that when it comes to behaviors or utterances that morally outrage them, many advocates for moral clarity — here I’m zooming out way beyond Lowery, who is a very good reporter — are understanding the term to mean “default to the assumption that charges of wrongdoing are true,” which doesn’t seem like, well, moral clarity! In fact these same journalists counsel the opposite when it comes to, say, a police department’s initial version of why an officer shot someone. There seems to be a bit of a “Moral clarity for me, but not for thee” vibe going on here. That Harper’s letter rejoinder I’ve whined about too much (paid post) which appears to level false claims against a number of people? 

The bottom is littered with the names of big, outspoken fans of “moral clarity.” Who then turn around and launch false accusations against others without fact-checking them. (Disclosure: I’m criticized in that letter in a way I wasn’t thrilled with, either, but I don’t really view that criticism as rising to the level of an arguable outright lie, so that’s not what I’m referring to here.)

All of which brings me, after an interminable windup, to an article Vox’s technology vertical Recode vertical published yesterday headlined “Substack writers are mad at Substack. The problem is money and who’s making it.”

Peter Kafka writes:

First the why: [Feminist writer Jude] Doyle says they left Substack because they were upset that Substack was publishing — and in some cases offering money upfront to — authors they say are “people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry.”

Doyle’s list includes some of Substack’s most prominent and recent recruits: Former Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald, my former Vox coworker Matt Yglesias, and Graham Linehan, a British TV writer who was kicked off Twitter last year for “repeated violations of [Twitter’s] rules against hateful conduct and platform manipulation.”

(I should note that Doyle also accused me of being in this camp but my name doesn’t come up in the article.)

Glenn Greenwald is not a transphobe. He’s been very clear about his disagreements with some trans activists and none of them are in the same galaxy as wanting trans people to be harmed, or to not have access to the rights and healthcare they deserve by dint of being our fellow human beings. With Graham Linehan, I honestly don’t have a problem with that label. He gifted me a subscription to his Subsack newsletter when he launched it, and I think he regularly makes his arguments about self-ID in his part of the world, and other fair policy disputes, in an exceptionally counterproductive manner larded with cruel and unnecessary attacks on individuals, including, at times, trans people online who seem to have no platform or influence whatsoever. 

Before being kicked off Twitter he also accused Grace Lavery, a trans English professor I have my own problems with that I’m not going to relitigate here, of ‘grooming’ her students, which is a disgraceful claim to level with no evidence: 

Then, after Lavery insulted him on Twitter, he sent out a newsletter reading, in part, “I stand by my ‘grooming’ tweet 100%. I didn’t mean to suggest that Lavery is a paedophile, rather that Lavery is grooming the next generation into accepting the many boundary violations celebrated and implemented by Queer Theory.” Okay.

But Matt Yglesias’s name really stands out here, because calling him a transphobe is just an utterly nonsensical claim. Calling Matt Yglesias a transphobe is like calling me a Flemish nationalist. There’s no ‘there’ there, at all. The dude has never expressed an iota of bigotry toward trans people, has never (to my knowledge) even expressed one of the opinions, like measured skepticism of certain approaches to youth gender transition, that get you wrongly labeled a transphobe in the present climate, and just doesn’t seem to have the slightest problem with trans people at all. And yet here is Vox passing on, without comment or interjection, the claim that Matt Yglesias “actively hate[s] trans people and women [and] argue[s] ceaselessly against [their] civil rights[.]” 

I have heard nary a peep from the “moral clarity” crew on this. Are they all out getting coffee somewhere? Or is it acceptable, as a journalist, to amplify a very serious charge against someone without inserting yourself to explain to readers that there is no evidence to support it? If it is acceptable, why? To the extent any operating principle at all can be discerned here, it appears to be something like, “In cases of a two-party dispute in which the evidence overwhelmingly favors one side, sometimes journalists should operate out of the ‘moral clarity’ frame, and sometimes they should operate out of the ‘traditional’ he-said/she-said frame.” If that’s true, what are the boundary lines of ‘sometimes’? 

After all, Lowery notes in his piece that “Instead of telling hard truths in this polarized environment, America’s newsrooms too often deprive their readers of plainly stated facts that could expose reporters to accusations of partiality or imbalance.” This feels relevant here. It’s important for readers of the Vox article to know that there’s no actual evidence Yglesias ever did anything transphobic, despite this accusation, no? Just on a basic journalistic level, in terms of not misinforming them or giving them a false idea about the balance of evidence? I do think there’s a chance that if Kafka had mentioned this in his article, he’d catch some Twitter flack for “not believing victims” or “not listening to trans people” or some other claim that would be, in this context, a total non-sequitur. That is, he’d face accusations of “partiality or imbalance.” But is truth-seeking our primary value in journalism, or is it not? Isn’t the point that you report what’s true and then take whatever heat may come?

I’d just like to know why it’s okay for Vox to use its megaphone to amplify the claim that Matt Yglesias is a hardened transphobe when there’s not the slightest scintilla of evidence he is. In the meantime, I’ll continue to have some reservations about the many journalists self-righteously advocating for “moral clarity” who don’t seem to actually believe in it.

Questions? Comments? Ideas for how to infuse this post with a heightened sense of moral clarity, perhaps by slinging colorfully false accusations at people? I’m at singalminded@gmail.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The “Outback: No Rules/Just Right” screengrab is from here.