Journalists Shouldn’t Be Fired for Investigating Their Own Publications

'Newsweek' on the newsstand the week it was put up for sale in 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In 1896, a Tennessee publisher named Adolph Ochs became the majority stockholder of The New York Times, and in a short few paragraphs under the heading “Business Announcement,” he outlined his plans for the paper. One sentence, burned into the brains of journalists throughout the intervening century, announced his aim for the paper “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interests involved.”

Without fear or favor. This was, and remains, a good guiding principle for this profession. Journalists young and old heed it regularly. You swallow your fear of a powerful CEO or politician, dial a phone number, ask the tough questions, and demand a real answer. You force yourself to examine your own biases, to not fall prey to the likability of a subject or a source, to not assume there are good guys and bad guys, and to meet every question with clear-eyed scrutiny.

These are ideals, and by definition, we don’t always meet them. But we strive, and on our best days, we succeed.

That’s exactly what Newsweek reporters Celeste Katz and Josh Saul, and their editors Bob Roe and Kenneth Li, were doing when they investigated why their office was raided by investigators from the Manhattan District Attorney on January 18, quickly turning around a story. Saul and Katz dug into their own company’s finances and history after determining that the D.A.’s investigation was related to the company’s finances. They questioned many people, including the company’s CEO, Dev Pragad, who recently touted record numbers for audience and revenue. Bob Roe, interviewed in the story in his capacity as the magazine’s editor-in-chief, acknowledged the raid had understandably set people on edge, but added, “We’ve got to keep doing our job as long as we can, and part of that job is reporting this story.”

Since that story, Saul and Katz collaborated on two more stories that held their own company accountable, joined by their colleague Josh Keefe: First, on the potential connection of a Christian group to the DA’s investigation; then, on the company’s married chairman and finance director stepping down from their positions. Katz also reported on the company’s chief content officer taking an immediate leave of absence after a past sexual harassment complaint against him was revealed by BuzzFeed.

Then on February 5, Katz, Saul, Roe and Li were abruptly fired. Articles by BuzzFeed, CNN Money, and The Daily Beast reported that staffers suspected the firings were retaliation for their clear-eyed and honest reporting on the company’s legal and financial issues. Another reporter, Matthew Cooper, tendered a letter of resignation to Pragad, criticizing the magazine’s “reckless leadership.”

“It’s the installation of editors, not Li and Roe, who recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness, that leaves me most despondent not only for Newsweek but for other publications that don’t heed the lessons of this publication’s fall,” Cooper wrote in the letter, which he shared on Twitter.

Granted, we do not know for a fact why these four staffers were fired, but that is part of the problem. The company chose to use the convenient and common excuse of a policy of not speaking publicly on “personnel matters,” and given the recent actions within the company, it’s reasonable the remaining employees believe their colleagues were victims of retaliation. Not only is the company not outwardly saying otherwise, it’s also refusing to provide an explanation to its staff.

It is becoming a horrifying trend in this industry, where reporters and editors get fired for holding their company accountable in the exact manner in which we are meant to do our jobs. This happened at the Las Vegas Review-Journal after casino mogul Sheldon Adelson purchased it, and a similar situation occurred at the L.A. Weekly last year.

Investigating corruption is the job of an investigative journalist. For an investigation to be a fireable offense is antithetical to the industry’s entire purpose. This isn’t what journalism should be, and it’s dangerous. We can’t expect people to believe us when we say we are principled if we do not apply those principles to ourselves.

This is why certain reactions to the Newsweek firing were so appalling.

Yglesias’ Twitter profile states “bad takes and fake news,” so perhaps this tweet was simply an attempt at an example of the former. It is a very, very bad take. It is first and foremost unbelievably callous. Four people just lost their jobs and you respond by dismissing all of their work as well as that of their colleagues? It’s also simply wrong. Saul and Katz both have earned reputations as skilled and hard-working journalists, and up to their firing demonstrated a measure of bravery and principle that is admirable.

Anyone who cares about journalism should be appalled by the events at Newsweek. Everyone in this industry should speak out against it and make it clear these actions are antithetical to what we aim to do.

Our industry is terrifyingly volatile and currently under siege by the most powerful person in our nation. Ironic cool-kid tweets or petty “who cares” statements are worse than meaningless here. We would be best served by supporting one another in these times of upheaval and defending the values that help us produce good journalism.