The Washington Post, Angsty Teenager

The paper really, really wants to go to prom with you

Reading the text of The Washington Post’s new guidelines for its staff’s use of Facebook, Twitter, and the like, I couldn’t help but think of…John Hughes. Almost every movie the director ever made revolves, in its way, around an axis of insecurity, its key characters so preoccupied with what other people think of them that they risk losing themselves in the angsty inertia of it all—until, by way of an hour or so of zany events, they come to realize that the most noble thing they can be is, of course, themselves.

To thine own self be true, et cetera. It’s a theme that’s not merely applicable to Sam in Sixteen Candles, or Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the entire cast of The Breakfast Club; it’s also a tritely perennial moral in American culture, pop and otherwise: from Tom Sawyer to Tom DeLay, from The Sound of Music to Glee, our cultural artifacts continually emphasize the importance of being true to, you know, YOU. Yet the lesson’s persistence alone hints at the fact that we never seem to learn it completely: Try as we might to be true to ourselves, there are still all those other selves out there. And they have a pesky way of compromising all the you-ness, true-ness, etc.

And that—back to the Post memo—is especially so for journalists. Or, rather, for journalists employed by legacy media institutions, which have often imposed on their members a kind of fractured identity: person (complex, complete) on the one hand, and journalist on the other. Be true to yourself…but only to the extent that the self in question fits in with the ethos of the institution that employs the you. (This above all: to thine own brand be true.)

The Post guidelines, then—articulated with an imperious, high-school-principal-ed tone worthy of a Mr. Rooney or a Mr. Vernon—radiate the tension that will inevitably arise from an enforced disconnect between who you are and what you’re allowed to reveal about yourself. The unsigned document—summed up in a blog post, Friday night, by Post ombudsman Andy Alexander; obtained and published by Paid Content’s Stacy Kramer yesterday afternoon; and the subject of much debate, throughout the weekend, on (fittingly/ironically enough) Twitter—resonates with a journalistic, and yet still surprisingly Hughesian, style of insecurity. Which is to say, one grounded in that age-old adolescent tension: individuality on the one hand, popularity on the other.

And The Washington Post clearly has not seen The Breakfast Club. Ignoring the ‘Be True to You!’ moral, the memo suggests instead that the paper has prioritized popularity over authenticity. When using social networks, the memo warns, “nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment.” Journalists at the Post “must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything—including photographs or video—that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”

That’s fair enough, on the one hand: for journalists on a beat—reporters or editors—bias certainly won’t fly. And the guidelines in question are similar to ones already in place at the AP and The New York Times. But, still. There’s a difference, of course, between bias and opinion: ‘Bias’ suggests entrenchment, while ‘opinions’ can, you know, change. Journalistic credibility comes not from the ability to disguise one’s opinions—or, worse, from a journalist’s lack of any in the first place—but rather from an openness to adjusting those opinions when new information warrants. ‘Transparency is the new objectivity,’ the catch-phrase goes; and it is intellectual open-mindedness, more than anything else, that is the unifying quality of both of those principles.

Yet the Post ignores that crucial distinction, painting its social-media policy instead with a broad—and therefore reductive—brush. In that, it washes over the obvious: that credibility questions about large news organizations have largely been the result not of reporters having opinions, but of those reporters having opinions which they are then compelled to disguise. It’s a kind of institutionalized dishonesty—one made in good faith, to be sure, and one that, in the past, had some validity. But it’s also a relic of the days when a paper’s mandate was to be all things to all people—and thus to narrate the news, both comprehensive and generalized, in Olympian tones of universal authority.

Those days are quickly receding. And the Post seems to be aware of this. There’s an unmistakable defensiveness to the Post’s memo, a sensibility that says, essentially, ‘I’ll be nice to you if you promise to sit with me at lunch.’ Its message suggests that the paper—a paper that, for so long, executed its from-on-high authority with admirable aplomb—has, somewhere along the way, become congenitally afraid to offend.

And that, of course, has to do with a cultural context left unmentioned in the memo itself, but whose presence was well summed up by the Post ombudsman on Friday night: “many readers already view The Post with suspicion,” Andy Alexander noted, “and believe that the personal views of its reporters and editors influence the coverage.” Tweets that represent a point of view—a political one, in particular (though the Post has apparently decided that “political” bias is somehow on par with “racial, sexist, religious or other bias”)—could, Alexander continued, “provide ammunition.”

But: provide ammunition to whom? It’s telling that the memo—to engage in a bit of analysis that may be worthy of a Hughesian high-school English class—is expressed largely in the passive voice. There’s an unnamed bunch of selves out there—the haters, the bullies—whose power is apparently so obvious that it need merely be implied. And those characters are ready to use the revelation of the Post’s “biases” as “ammunition” in, apparently, a battle of perception. They are ready to enforce an old social order that emphasizes superficial stereotypes rather than individual personalities.

They are ready, in other words, to compromise the Post’s popularity via peer pressure itself. As David Carr pointed out, quite correctly, this morning: “Mainstream outlets who gag social media efforts are unilaterally disarming in the ongoing war for reader attention.”

And, so, the Post seems stuck—like the jock who also kinda likes to act in musicals, or the mathlete who secretly wants to be prom queen—between two social worlds: one that pays fealty to objectivity, and one that pays it to transparency. The paper’s problem, here, is not only its decision to conform to the strictures of the former world; it is also its assumption that the two worlds are mutually exclusive. In that, the Post has failed to follow the most obvious lesson of the true-to-you line of logic: The most popular kids are always the ones who don’t care about being popular in the first place.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.