Understanding the David Brooks Scandal
Access to corporate and non-profit side-hustles are part of what it means to be a celebrity journalist--and that has been true for a long time.
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Photo credit: Patrick Farrell, 2019
In 2003, in response to a reporter being credibly accused of fabricating stories, the New York Times created a public editor position. In charge of integrity, best practices, and ensuring that reporters and editors work to the highest ethical standards, a public editor also serves as a liaison to readers when the newsroom's integrity is challenged.
A public editor is a handy person to have around when there is a crisis of public confidence in the paper. The latest crisis to afflict the Times is that, for several years, columnist David Brooks has drawn a salary from the Aspen Institute for an initiative called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. Facebook has been cited as a prominent Weave sponsor, as is Jeff Bezos (otherwise known as the founder of Amazon and the richest person in the world.) Why is David Brooks taking money from billionaire media corporations? Why does it matter? And most importantly, why is this only being revealed years—and many thousands of dollars—after the fact?
One thing that seems relevant to understanding a scandal that has shaken the journalism world is that the New York Times no longer has a public editor. That position was eliminated in a money-saving restructuring in 2017. Significantly, perhaps, Brooks began his position with Weave in 2018, and I have seen this mentioned exactly nowhere.
But there is even more useful context you won’t get in the news coverage: part of being a celebrity journalist today is to have an income stream that can far exceed one’s full-time salary at a major media outlet. Brooks was probably genuinely surprised when Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac outed him on March 3, 2021. Why was there anything to discuss? He was not sneaking around, and he had not taken the Aspen Institute position without permission from the editors he reported to at that time.
Here’s the problem, though: once Brooks had that permission, no one with any clout was in charge of making sure that there was no ongoing conflict of interest between Brooks’s work for the Times and the Aspen job. In fact, no one was even in charge of passing the information about this special relationship on once the editors to whom Brooks reports left and others replaced them. The current editors of the New York Times opinion page claim that they were not aware of Brooks’s side hustle—and again, there is no reason not to believe them.
The problem is not, of course, that Brooks had two jobs. It’s that his job as a well-paid foundation wallah potentially compromised his job of informing the public about billionaire digital giants who have been implicated in a pandemic of political disinformation. Think of it as a Caesar’s wife situation: we need not disbelieve Brooks when he says that he kept these two roles entirely separate. Rather, his responsibility is to reassure his readers that these fees are not being paid to him to boost projects and corporate philanthropic arms.
It’s that simple. All he needed to do was disclose it in the columns he wrote about Weave, Amazon, and Facebook. But he did not.
There should be no joy in Mudville that Brooks, a conservative journalist, has publicly compromised himself by not making such a disclosure. But in the interests of fairness, we should note that he is not alone. Celebrity political journalists regularly use their positions at news outlets to amplify their incomes. They earn money as television pundits and corporate speakers and as authors of best-selling books. And that income can multiply their base salaries many times over.
This has been going on for decades. As Eric Alterman argued in his book Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics (1992), it’s a structural and ethical problem in journalism. Paid affiliations are inherently compromising: journalists, and particularly opinion writers, are employed, not just to report and analyze the news but to help a range of publics understand the world and its challenges. Columnists are particularly vulnerable to ethical challenges because they are not in charge of producing information: their job is to provide the context within which we understand information.
Context is why it matters for Brooks, who has a wide audience at the New York Times and on several television and radio networks, to be clear where his affiliations and interests end and his role as a journalist begins. Yet he has repeatedly written about Weave, and the ideas that underlie the project, in his New York Times column; and he has guest blogged about the project for Facebook, all without disclosing to his readers—or to the editors with whom he currently works—that he is paid with Facebook money.
Columnists at other liberal outlets constantly call for David Brooks to be fired for far more minor sins, which is probably dumb. He is doing the job he is supposed to do: be mildly conservative at a liberal paper. But, oddly, although journalists have reminded me privately that others at the Times may have been fired for less, I have not seen anyone publicly calling for Brooks’s termination or resignation since Buzzfeed revealed his affiliation with Aspen. You have to wonder if there is widespread restraint from criticizing him publicly because, as Alterman points out in that gem of a book from the pre-cable era, so many journalists are compromised to one degree or another.
How many? It’s hard to say how many other journalists, editors, and opinion writers have contracts with multiple media corporations and pull down lucrative speaking fees from corporations and other organizations. Still, these income streams are pervasive in an industry, like so many others, increasingly split between haves and have-nots, and the fees can be big. In some cases, they are the equivalent of a full-time reporter’s salary at, say, Buzzfeed. Maureen Dowd pulls down $20-30,000 per appearance; Katty Kay and Carl Bernstein get $30-50,000. Rachel Maddow’s fee is enigmatically stated as “under $100,000,” while the price of having Brooks giving a talk at your corporate event begins at $100,000.
In this context, how could David Brooks have thought he was doing anything wrong by accepting money from Facebook that was laundered through The Aspen Institute?
So far, it does not look like he will lose his job or even be suspended for a period of time. On Friday, Brooks did a walk of shame on the PBS NewsHour, presumably because they too were unaware of his affiliation with Aspen. On Saturday, Brooks resigned from his paid position at Weave and will continue as a volunteer. The New York Times will add disclaimers to past columns where it is necessary.
Brooks is old enough and experienced enough to have known better. But the problem is structural: why aren’t employees asked to fill out a form once a year disclosing other paid work and update it when necessary? Most importantly, why doesn’t The New York Times have a public editor, a job which seems particularly crucial in a day and age in which money has infected every form of information the public has access to?
As the last person to occupy the public editor job, Liz Spayd, wrote in her final column on June 2, 2017, when Donald Trump had been in office a little more than five months, “the prospect of major media losing its independence, and its influence” was real if journalists were absorbed into other political and financial interests.
It’s not really about how many critics there are, or where they’re positioned, or what Times editor can be rounded up to produce answers. It’s about having an institution that is willing to seriously listen to that criticism, willing to doubt its impulses and challenge the wisdom of the inner sanctum. Having the role was a sign of institutional integrity, and losing it sends an ambiguous signal: Is the leadership growing weary of such advice or simply searching for a new model? We’ll find out soon enough.
And we did—but, surprisingly, it took this long.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
On March 18th at 6:00 PM EST, the Library of America is hosting a book event to celebrate Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore, eds., Women’s Liberation! Feminist Writings That Inspired A Revolution And Still Can (Library of America, 2021). Register here to join Shulman, Moore, Margo Jefferson, Barbara Smith, and Jennifer Baumgardner.
What I’m reading:
Helen Lewis asks: what happened to Jordan Peterson, a man whose “elevation to guru status has come at great personal cost, a cascade of suffering you wouldn’t wish on anybody”? (The Atlantic, April 2021)
Lauren Harris on what it means for local journalists to cover the pandemic when they are also part of the story. (Columbia Journalism Review, March 5, 2021)
Elizabeth Djinis says that reporters who are let go from local newspapers compete with their former employers—on Substack. (Poynter, March 3, 2021)