On the importance of moral clarity in the news

It’s crucial to stand by our informed judgment of what’s right and wrong when people seek to undermine us by screaming “bias”

On the importance of moral clarity in the news
Peter Parker with his glasses. Via Marvel Entertainment.

The national media industry, particularly the part of it involved in Washington politics, too often self-sabotages in the interest of “balance”: an ostensibly noble if impossible-to-realize ideal of editorial neutrality and fairness. This ideal is not meeting the moment, and that should concern us. The press can do better. It must do better. What we need instead of a show of indifference in this moment is something greater: moral clarity.

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Moral clarity is crucial in any work, and it's essential for researching domestic extremism. Unearthing the nefarious workings of dangerous movements often provokes reaction from an opposition. The blowback occasionally takes the form of violent threats, but more often it comes as efforts to personally discredit those putting in the work.

By this point in my career, I have been on the receiving end of a whole grab-bag of baseless accusations, but the one I see most often is that I’m a simple partisan activist, and that means my trustworthiness as a source of information is in doubt. Being labeled and dismissed like that used to bother me, particularly when I was newer to the line of work I’m in now. I worried that journalists and editors at places where I aspired to work saw the subjects of my research and reporting lashing out at me online, and that it contributed to at least some editors brushing my cover letters off their desks.

But eventually, whether or not I was really losing out on jobs because of my perceived politics, I learned to tune out the possibility. I knew what I was talking about and decided to operate from my own understanding of right and wrong rather than try to predict anyone else’s perception of my work. The largest and most dangerous extremist threat in the US was and still is right-wing extremism, and if sticking to that truth and working against it makes me “partisan,” then so be it. I’ll be damned for wanting the world to be a safer and fairer place, and I’ll slither back to the place I’ve earned in hell with the smile that comes from the joy of a good fight.

I’ve found a kind of peace in that thinking, as have several of my friends and colleagues who also research extremism. It’s a philosophy that I wish I saw more evident in the upper echelons of the news industry, generally speaking. The pursuit of “balance” will keep outlets on a swivel, but moral clarity can make them steady.

There are exceptions. I believe MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan practices journalism with moral clarity. Jon Allsop recently profiled Hasan for the Columbia Journalism Review and spent a few lines summing up what makes him such a compelling interviewer and presenter, noting explicitly that Hasan demonstrates how a TV host “can scrutinize ‘both sides’ from a place of unabashed moral clarity.” (That line inspired this week’s newsletter.)

Hasan is frank about his own progressive ideals, so he defends them with facts, figures, and other research in contentious interviews. It’s what a journalist is supposed to do: challenge the assertions of authority with evidence of reality, and square the difference for the public. Hasan’s work is unflinching in its honesty, because it operates within an ideological framework that demands a moral obligation to reality.

The kind of progressive worldview Hasan works from won’t jibe with the culture in some newsrooms, but the moral clarity in Hasan’s work is something all organizations stand to learn from. And even though moral clarity can apply to several things, some of which are less relevant to news organizations than others, there are some basics I wish were less controversial—that racism is bad, that more people voting is good, that democratic processes matter, and that liars with power are dangerous and should be treated as such.

Trump is no longer president and January 6’s Capitol riot has passed, but there is a pistol still aimed squarely at the nation’s head. There are still those among us who want to burn this nation to its foundation and build on its ashes a government that ensures white, Christian minority rule. Complacency is not an option. When those people eventually try to subvert democracy again, it won’t be “balance” that gets us through. It will be knowing the difference between right and wrong.

Edited by Sam Thielman