The phenomenon goes far beyond politics. It is present on campuses, where college and university administrators fear running afoul of students, faculty or alumni, typically over issues relating to racial, sexual or economic equality.
Little surprise, then, that the trend of fear at the top is also vividly present in journalism. A barrage of episodes have shown plainly how senior editors at some news organizations are afraid of backlash from their own staffs, or from ideological activists in their audience—both of whom have unprecedented ability to make life treacherous for those in leadership positions.
It’s the tug of power within journalism—leaders nervously calculating how much practical power they have to actually lead—that is especially relevant today, which is the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The Washington Post is remembering its landmark work on the scandal while also being buffeted by turmoil within its own staff. Both events are useful markers for reflecting on institutional power and self-confidence.
A half-century ago, leaders of the Post screwed up their courage—amid ample second-guessing and potential recriminations—to confront then-President Richard Nixon with coverage that helped facilitate the events that led to his resignation.
Last week, leaders of the Post screwed up their courage—amid ample second-guessing and potential recriminations—to fire one of its own reporters, Felicia Sonmez, who editors asserted was violating newsroom policies with her frequent and fervent criticism of newsroom colleagues and superiors on social media.
The first example, Watergate, was a self-evidently large event that reflected institutional power at its peak. This was not just the then-formidable power of the Post, and other news organizations, to set a national agenda, but even more the power of Congress and the courts to transcend narrow political interests to hold presidential lawbreaking to account.
The second example, the Sonmez firing, is a comparatively small and transient episode whose significance is principally in what it reveals about an institution as its leaders maneuver haltingly—holding their breath and bracing for impact—to reassert their own leadership.
Sonmez has been drawing coverage, as opposed to merely producing it, for a couple years now. It’s clear many Post editors had long since begun to regard her social media posts as a troublesome distraction. Sonmez sued the publication, unsuccessfully, after then-Executive Editor Martin Baron removed her from coverage of the #MeToo movement (a decision editors later reversed) in the wake of her Tweets about sexual assault victims and her own experience as a victim of sexual assault. The problem for newsroom leaders was that there was abundant evidence that many of Sonmez’s newsroom colleagues sympathized with her case, shared some of her grievances about the Post and demonstrably backed her in confrontations with management—especially concerning her right to speak her mind publicly. A good many readers, including loud voices on social media, did the same.
Baron’s replacement, Sally Buzbee, fired Sonmez only after it became clear that the reporter had lost significant portions of her newsroom support due to the frequency and sharp personal edge of her social media crossfire with newsroom colleagues. The balance of fear had shifted. This left her and colleagues on the leadership team free to act on their belief that Sonmez, in pursuing her individual interest in saying what she thought when she wanted, was not meeting her institutional responsibilities to protect the Post’s internal culture and external responsibilities.
The challenges of leading institutions in an era of cultural disruption have made a certain type of conversation fairly commonplace, in my experience. These conversations typically feature leaders of various enterprises—both in journalism and beyond—venting ruefully (if privately) about “woke activists,” usually at least a generation younger.
As someone who has held daily management responsibilities at both the Post and POLITICO, I usually find myself mildly sympathetic—but no more than mildly.
There are two main problems. One is that with their broad-brush characterizations, the complaints often traffic in stereotypes, or are an example of the overly sensitive, sour mindset that the complainers are attributing to “woke” colleagues. In fact, most of the people challenging institutional leaders these days are doing so on behalf of broadly desirable objectives—not because they have contempt for institutions but because they are committed to them.
The other problem is that the complainers often act like they are passive observers, rather than people with responsibilities for setting the culture and standards of institutions. Leaders who are afraid of their employees, or students, or customers—rather than ready to confidently engage them—are in the wrong job. Buzbee, whom I don’t know, seems to be in the right one.
One voice I’ve missed in the mini-uproar was that of the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos. He’s held forth lately on Twitter about how he thinks President Joe Biden is mishandling inflation, but not about the recent turmoil at the Post, or even the broader cultural challenges the episode represents. This is a missed opportunity. The reality is that editors and other managers at values-based institutions are only as strong as owners allow them to be.
This was clear in an episode two years ago when The New York Times ousted editorial page editor James Bennet after a staff uproar when he published an op-ed many employees found offensive from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in the wake of the George Floyd murder. “Ask for forgiveness, not permission,” publisher A.G. Sulzberger, representing the family who controls the Times, had urged Bennet in a performance review—encouraging him to take more risks to make the opinion pages more interesting. Sulzberger turned out not to be so tolerant during the staff uproar that led to Bennet’s departure—perhaps the most vivid example in recent years of leaders being afraid of the people they are supposedly leading.
In March, the Times wrote an editorial, “America Has a Free Speech Problem,” which, stunningly to me, made no reference to Bennet or the Times’ other controversies. The intolerant spirit of the age, on both left and right, is putting at risk the right of people “to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.”
Both the Bennet and Sonmez controversies show this question is more complicated than it might appear at first blush. So, for that matter, is the Watergate legacy. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein noted in a 50th anniversary reflection this month that Trump remains a major force in political life after violations of public trust more shocking than Nixon’s. The reason gets us back to the central truth—the decline of institutional power in media and across society. The Watergate reminiscences make clear that only strong institutions have even a remote chance of bringing presidents to heel. There is no better time than the present for leaders of those institutions to transcend fear and regain confidence.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism