Who Is the Media Really For?

Photo-Illustration: Emily Wilder/Twitter/Getty Images

Emily Wilder is a promising young journalist. After finishing a stint at the Arizona Republic, the recent Stanford graduate began a job with the Associated Press on May 3 as a news associate. Wilder could have built a career at the storied wire service or, with the experience she’d gained, leap to a major paper. Instead, the AP fired her two weeks in, days after the Stanford College Republicans pointed a right-wing mob in Wilder’s direction. Wilder, it turns out, has political opinions: In college, she belonged to Students for Justice in Palestine and to Jewish Voice for Peace, two groups that oppose the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israeli forces. On one occasion, she said Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish American billionaire who supports Republicans and right-wing Israeli politicians, looked like “a naked mole rat.” For this, the right branded Wilder an anti-Semite, even though she is Jewish. Now she’s out of a job.

Contrast Wilder’s circumstances with those of Chris Cuomo. The star CNN anchor will keep his job even though he has flouted basic ethical standards that typically apply to other, less prominent journalists. Though CNN once banned Cuomo from interviewing his governor brother, Andrew, it relaxed that when the pandemic hit “and the Cuomo Brothers show soared to popularity,” Margaret Sullivan wrote at the Washington Post. That looked bad, CNN eventually conceded, and it reinstated the ban. Behind the scenes, though, Cuomo’s ethical violations continued. On Thursday, the Post reported that he had advised his brother on how to handle sexual harassment allegations that threatened the elder Cuomo’s popularity and career. Cuomo won’t be punished, CNN said. Nothing can stop the Cuomo Brothers show.

The Cuomos possess something Emily Wilder lacks: power. Outrage derailed Wilder’s career nearly as soon as it had begun. But real ethical violations can’t kick Cuomo off the air. The Wilder and Cuomo stories both impart something vital about cancel culture. “There’s no question I was just canceled,” Wilder told SFGate. Cuomo, meanwhile, reportedly used the phrase to discuss his brother’s sexual harassment problem. In practice, cancel culture cuts one way, against journalists like Wilder or Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was recently denied tenure under pressure from conservatives with links to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, NC Policy Watch has reported. Against a white, male network star or his brother the governor, cancel culture can apparently do little.

But it would be a mistake to reduce either Wilder’s firing or the persistence of Cuomo to a story about cancel culture. The phenomenon is obviously one-sided; the outrage, bogus. This is really a story about journalism and an industry that has abdicated its most basic responsibilities. The Associated Press has claimed that Wilder violated its social-media policies, though she says her bosses were unable to tell her how. In the absence of a substantive reason to fire Wilder, another explanation presents itself: The AP capitulated to a bad-faith political campaign. In doing so, it betrayed its very reason to exist. Wilder’s political opinions have no bearing on her ability to gather news. The AP showed it is not impartial after all; it can be persuaded, if only from the right.

There is no evidence that Wilder is anything but what she appears to be, a talented and committed young journalist. People don’t always enter college knowing they want to be journalists. Indeed, perhaps they shouldn’t. Any definition of objectivity that requires a journalist to pretend neutrality asks that person to lie. Journalists are not automatons. They have opinions, and if they are not male or white or rich or straight, those opinions make them vulnerable to the right-wing outrages that just cost Wilder her new job. The press has one purpose, and that is to report news in the public’s interest. It is not entertainment. It is not propaganda. It is not public relations.

And that’s why Chris Cuomo ought to be out of a job. CNN, too, has forgotten why it exists. Cuomo’s infractions impede his ability to cover the news. By keeping him employed, CNN says the news does not matter and neither do the rules. CNN made a similar calculation in the past with plagiarism, which typically ends careers — unless a journalist happens to be Fareed Zakaria. The current host of CNN’s GPS, he is generally tasked with explaining various foreign-policy matters to a popular audience and once lifted sections of a Jill Lepore column for a column in Time. Though CNN briefly suspended Zakaria in 2012 for the offense, the site Our Bad Media uncovered further incidents in 2014. Yet Zakaria persists, with CNN’s help. He still hosts his show and will likely continue to do so unless another, bigger scandal somehow takes him down. The network’s motivations are not mysterious. It wants to keep its moneymakers and elite influencers. To do this, it’ll ignore the ethical standards that apply to everyone else. At the same time, journalism’s Emily Wilders will scrape for every bit of job security they can find.

The rules matter. They exist to protect the integrity of a news outlet and to protect the public from corruption. Instead, news outlets are failing consumers and journalists alike. They serve power rather than challenge it. The result is a weak press in a nation desperate for the truth. That’s no way to serve the public.

Who Is the Media Really For?