An ethicist weighs the scales
Illustration by Hunter French

Journalism's Top Ethics Expert Isn't Concerned With Right and Wrong

As journalists wage a civil war, America's leading media ethicist doesn't seem to quite understand what anyone is fighting about.
June 12, 2020, 12:22pm

Last Wednesday, The New York Times published an op-ed in which Republican senator Tom Cotton called for a military crackdown on citizens protesting against police killings of Black people. It was an incendiary argument packed with lies the newspaper's own reporters had already debunked. The decision to publish it led to revolt inside the Times' newsroom, and, four days later, the resignation of Opinion editor James Bennet, until then reportedly in the running to take over the paper.

Outside the Times, journalists would in days to come deride the paper's decision to publish the op-ed. Osita Nwanevu of The New Republic traced the debacle to the Times' insistence on promoting illiberal ideas in the name of liberal ideals, predicting that the paper will "continue to publish the opinions of a right that openly disdains the principles underpinning a free press and a free society." Vox's David Roberts wrote that the op-ed shouldn't have been published "because it reflects a worldview incompatible with the baseline small-l liberal values that make the Times's work, and journalism generally, possible." Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, herself a former Times public editor, criticized the publication of the op-ed and took the occasion to argue that whatever the merits of assiduous neutrality in theory, there is no such thing in practice. "Every piece of reporting—written or spoken, told in text or in images—is the product of choices," she wrote. "We choose what to focus on, what to amplify, what to investigate and examine."

The day after the op-ed was published, Kelly McBride, America's foremost expert on media ethics, shared with me a very different opinion, more in line with that of the people inside and outside the Times decrying the episode as a triumph of "safetyism." McBride wouldn't have published it had she been in charge of the section, she said, because it was "crappy" and “intellectually dishonest.” As she saw it, though, publishing controversial and unpopular arguments, like one that the government should use military force to deny protesters the ability to exercise First Amendment rights, is important in order to ensure a robust "marketplace of ideas."

"How are people supposed to have that argument," she asked, referring to whether the U.S. military should be sicced on protestors, "if they don't see the New York Times facilitating a back and forth?"

By this logic, of course, the Times is unjustly denying the public the ability to debate the virtues of cannibalism, or of the United States becoming a Communist state, or whether people killed in mass shootings are really crisis actors, or any number of other unpopular ideas whose adherents aren't given some of the limited space available in its Opinion section. Further, the issue wasn't whether Times readers should be informed of Cotton's positions, which were already well-known; a news article in which they were described critically and contextualized would have caused no controversy. The issue, as critics had it, was that the paper turned their platform over to him so that he could make an inherently illegitimate argument, unchallenged.

McBride did not see things that way.

"We sent the military in to break up a public demonstration so that kids could get to school in Arkansas, right? There is a history of doing that," she said. "I'm going to get beyond my historical knowledge right now, but you can't dismiss that badly-argued idea as completely beyond the pale, because it's happened in the past for reasons that I would support."

I suggested that using the military to try and promote school integration is different from using it to crack down on protests against state killings of Black people.

"You could," she said, "have somebody make that argument, too." It was a characteristically diplomatic thing to say.

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McBride is not famous even by journalistic standards, but she's had vastly more influence on the state of the field than most of those who are. For the past 18 years, she's worked for the Poynter Institute, the Florida-based journalism non-profit. She writes about journalism and teaches and trains journalists. She's led workshops at newsrooms around the country. She consults for media companies that want to be more ethical, or at least want people to think they do, like Valence Media, which owns The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard. She serves as a reliably anodyne dial-a-quote for media reporters at outlets like CNN, the Times, and the Post. Earlier this year she was named NPR's public editor; previously, she was ESPN's public editor; she's worked with Google and Facebook. She could be said to have literally written the book on her specialty, having co-edited The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, which is what it sounds like, and having once even been tapped to write a guide about journalistic ethics for the Department of State called A Practical Approach to Journalism Ethics.

Over the course of her time as the industry's most established ethicist, the world has changed around her. Journalists from across the industry are challenging longstanding conventions of objectivity and neutrality. Wesley Lowery, a reporter for CBS and a former member of Poynter's National Advisory Board, has been openly scornful of the rules by which journalists have long lived. "American view-from-nowhere, 'objectivity'-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment," Lowery recently tweeted. "We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go." The idea that journalists should be open about the fact that everything they do is the result of a choice, and prioritize doing what's right over being seen as "objective"—objectivity itself being, in this context, a euphemism for advancing the interests of power, and especially of white people—is ascendent. In many ways, McBride's down-the-middle, please-everyone approach feels like a representation of a worldview that's lost its legitimacy.

It's a conflict that would provide endless fodder for any media ethicist. Curiously, though, McBride doesn't see her job as questioning convention, or even addressing journalism's biggest ethical conundrums, but as something else.

"My work is squarely focused," she told me in an email, "on helping news organizations embrace a process for protecting and evolving their core mission and creating ethical guidelines that support that mission."

Even on these highly limited terms, though, McBride's analysis and counsel is often confused, overly concerned with optics and tone and centered not on what's right, but what can be passed off as right. If you want to know why the question of what a journalist should even be has led the field into a state of civil war, you could do worse for an answer than this: The leading authority on this subject doesn't seem to quite understand what anyone is fighting about.

In mid-May, McBride, 53, led a Poynter video seminar from her home in St. Petersburg, Florida, aimed at teaching journalists how to best cover the novel coronavirus. A smooth talker with a calming voice and a habit of dropping the word "right" in the middle of or at the end of sentences, she was explaining what a "content strategy ladder" is. This ladder has an anchor; the anchor is data.

"The other two points on this content strategy ladder that I think are absolutely critical," she said, "are government accountability, here's what your public officials are doing. And then the thing that we do really well in journalism, which is telling you interesting stories showing you something that you couldn't see on your own."

Why an audience of journalists would need to be told that information is key to their trade was at first unclear, but as the session progressed you could see where the "content strategy ladder" was pointing, and where it would allow those who climbed it to ascend: The Ethics.

"The relationship with the audience is built around your content, and you want your audience to trust you. That trust grows from an understanding of whether the information that you're providing is accurate and ethical, so it grows out of your foundational values," she said while concluding the call. "And those ethics should be articulated based on what your core promise is to your audience. So you have to understand your content strategy, and what you're promising your audience, in order to develop an articulation of your ethics strategy."

Under the buzzwords, McBride seemed to be saying that an institution's ethics—its codified sense of what is right and what is wrong—should derive from what it does and how it does it, rather than the reverse.

"You can have values in the abstract, but you cannot figure out how to apply them unless you have first articulated a mission," she would tell me later. "And the mission is often going to go hand-in-hand with your revenue strategy."

If that strikes you as flawed, or less than obvious, or even nonsensical, you're hardly alone. McBride, though, has done well promoting it to and for some of the most powerful institutions in America.

Since 1975, the Poynter Institute, founded by publishing mogul Nelson Poynter, has played the role of journalism's Good Guy. The non-profit, based in St. Petersburg, champions fact-checking; hosts fellowship programs for young journalists, Black journalists, and women leaders in media; advocates for local news, terminal though it is; and provides training, services, and counsel to journalists and newsrooms all over the world, both for free and for a fee. To the extent that journalists know what Poynter is and does, it is largely understood as a well-intentioned, if nebulous, force for good.

McBride joined Poynter in 2002 after following what was at one time considered a traditional journalism path. In 1988 she graduated from University of Missouri with a bachelor's degree in journalism, worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for a few months, and then was hired at Spokane's Spokesman-Review, where she worked for nearly 15 years. In 2000, after taking one class at a time while she worked as a reporter, she earned her master's in religion from Gonzaga University. Political reporter Jim Camden, one of McBride's Spokesman-Review colleagues, remembers her as a good and dedicated reporter, who once, at 9 months pregnant, booked it to the scene of a downtown shooting to get the story.

"I mean, I was the police reporter, right?" McBride said, recalling the incident. "I think it was like two days before I delivered."

In 2000, while still at the Spokesman-Review, she called Poynter's Bob Steele for ethical advice on a story. He was impressed by her thoughtfulness and her "good mind" and invited her to be one of the ethics fellows at Poynter in 2001. In Steele's telling, she was something of a prodigy.

"She may have been the youngest, or certainly one of the youngest, in that group," he said. "It was a very bright, experienced, thoughtful group of individuals. And Kelly held her own very well in that group. She was thoughtful. She asked good questions. She listened closely."

The following year she was hired full-time at Poynter, where she has worked ever since. Bill Mitchell, Poynter's online editor from 1999 to 2009, worked with McBride regularly, as she frequently wrote for the site; the two collaborated in other ways as well, including on what Mitchell described as "a project on entrepreneurial journalism funded by the Ford Foundation." He said McBride's background as a cops-and-courts reporter and her masters in religion were an "ideal combination" for working as a media ethicist.

McBride's most prominent work with Poynter has been as ESPN's ombudsman, a role she filled in 2011 and 2012. She's also done more low-key work advising WBEZ and WNYC and leading workshops at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, and Portland Oregonian. (In an email, she ticked off some of the topics she and her colleagues have covered: "Encouraging more accurate and thorough coverage of sexual assault; teaching editorial directors and social media specialists to allow their editorial judgment to be influenced by digital metrics, without descending into clickbait and other forms of audience manipulation; improving how and when we use language around racial identifiers in news stories; adopting gender-inclusive language; insisting that newsrooms take responsibility for the content of their comment spaces.") Last year, she rose to the level of senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership. The center is funded, to the tune of $5 million, by the eponymous Craigslist founder, and is dedicated to work that will help journalism "evolve its values" and "modernize journalistic ethics."

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"We need pragmatic support regarding journalistic ethics, since trustworthy journalism is the immune system of democracy, in an age where information warfare directed against civilians is a major challenge," Newmark wrote in an email. "Specifically, we need help dealing with the challenges of information warfare, like false equivalence, the amplification of disinformation, and generally, 'gaming the ref.'"

McBride's ascent has been impressive, but the answer to the basic question of how a small-city police reporter became the single leading expert on central questions of journalistic practice is, in her telling, tautological: She is an expert on ethics due to her association with Poynter, which is an authority because it offers expertise on ethics.

"I think it has everything to do with the Poynter Institute and Poynter's brand," she said, when asked why she is accepted in her role. "I mean, Poynter's a place that aligns itself with journalists. And our mission is to advance journalism in service of democracy and to elevate journalism. And so you can't really do that without ethics."

This is a lofty idea, to be sure, but it's worth noting which journalists Poynter and McBride, align themselves with—and which they don't. In 2017, for example, McBride wrote about an instance of Donald Trump's supposedly improved tone, calling on journalists to follow suit and be more polite:

That feeling you get, when you hear the president and his staff repeatedly take a hostile tone with the press? That's probably how Trump supporters feel when they see journalists responding to his rhetoric with tacit or even overt helpings of snark.

There's no doubt that the president's tenor last night slightly reduced the sense of alarm raised by many of his critics.

McBride often appeals to a notion of decorousness. Earlier this year, evaluating the media's coverage of Kobe Bryant's death, she wrote that she agreed with WNBA player Lisa Leslie, who said the media should be "more respectful" when writing about Kobe Bryant's death by not bringing up the fact that he was accused of rape. McBride, who effectively contended with the details of the rape allegation in her post, concluded that it was too late for media to effectively contend with the details of the rape allegation, and so journalists should move on:

Lisa Leslie is right. Those who celebrated Bryant's genius had 16 years between his public apology and his tragic death to tell a fuller story. The only option now is try and do better with other athletes.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this focus on courtesy, McBride is—like Poynter—vaguely esteemed among working journalists who know who she is. Sullivan described McBride as a "principled and positive voice" who is "rooted in what has served journalism over many decades." Lowery said he couldn't speak to McBride's body of work, but that he "appreciated" her recent NPR column on the hidden assumptions behind the phrase "unarmed black man," a rare instance in which McBride challenged the status quo. Former BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith—currently the Times' media columnist—said, for his part, that he could "never quite figure out what her deal is."

More than a few people were wondering about McBride's deal this spring, when she was implicated in something of an ethics scandal at The Hollywood Reporter.

One of the quirks of Poynter's position, and McBride's, is that they position themselves as neutral parties relative to institutions that are paying them for their counsel. Though Poynter has a code of ethics that lays out how it strives to maintain independence and transparency in all facets of its work, things are necessarily messier in practice. As an editor at a major media organization who has worked with Poynter (and who was granted anonymity because of this work) said, the non-profit has to "be careful not to bite the hands that feed it."

This tension came to the forefront in April, when editor-in-chief Matthew Belloni left The Hollywood Reporter after what staffers and news reports describe as repeated editorial interference from executives at parent company Media Rights Capital, owned by Valence Media.These executives sought, according to VICE's own reporting and previous reporting by the New York Times, The Daily Beast, and Los Angeles magazine, to soften and kill stories that posed a threat to business partners and crack down on negative coverage. According to the Los Angeles report, MRC executives Modi Wiczyk and Asif Satchu didn't respect crucial journalistic tenets, with Satchu once trying to kill a story about actress Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Per Los Angeles, this tension bubbled over during a company conference call:

When Satchu heard from sources close to Mnuchin about the story, he contacted Belloni in an effort to kill it, Belloni claimed on the conference call. The editor said Satchu asked him how far along the piece was. Belloni told him it was already printed. Despite Satchu's efforts, the story ran as planned, reporting on numerous allegations of questionable commingling of assets by Linton and Mnuchin, who financed films in Hollywood before joining the Trump administration.

Wiczyk and Satchu also hired executive Deanna Brown, who, Los Angeles reported, "clashed with Belloni over critical coverage." One point of conflict was a story about Jennifer Lopez, who has a business relationship with Valence Media:

Brown also took exception to a January news article about Jennifer Lopez, who had recently returned as the face of Guess Jeans. The story referenced sexual harassment allegations made against Guess's cofounder Paul Marciano. Citing Valence's various business dealings with Lopez, Brown emailed Belloni: "We had an agreement that you would alert me to anything controversial—and this registers…as in the multiple touch points to JLO in the company.

McBride, who was hired to consult for the parent company in 2018 after Billboard suppressed a story about sexual assault, told the magazine, "I have advised MRC that it is ethical to influence editorial strategy. It is not OK to advocate for MRC's other business interests."

She told the Times, "The owners are learning to understand editorial independence, and they really embrace it. They have taken my advice at every turn."

According to sources from The Hollywood Reporter, though—they were granted anonymity for fear of retaliation from Valence Media, which recently laid off more than 100 employees—the problem wasn't necessarily the owners' listening skills, but rather McBride's advice. Two of these sources told VICE that editorial was aghast when McBride didn't immediately denounce the possibility of a "sensitivity list"—a statement of the company's business interests that would help editors determine when they had to alert executives about future stories on those subjects. According to one source, while McBride was "careful" not to endorse the idea, she did not dismiss it either.

"I was looking for common ground," McBride wrote in an email. "I shepherded several conversations between THR editors and Modi about a process to give a heads-up to folks on the business side, not to change coverage, but so that they could prepare for calls from people they had relationships with. Eventually, everyone agreed the best way to manage this is for the legal department to apprise the business side about stories in review." A Valence Media spokesperson confirmed this arrangement—the policy was, in fact, in place before McBride arrived, they said—and asserted that the company "has no interest in interfering with stories that are in process." Belloni declined to comment for this story.

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In McBride's telling, news reports about Valence Media have overstated the friction between the executives and editorial leadership. (One Valence employee who was granted anonymity because they're not authorized to speak publicly about internal communications said they hadn't heard of the "sensitivity list" until it was reported in the press, but said they thought McBride would side with editorial if push came to shove.) Of the dynamic during the disagreement between Belloni and executives over their Linton piece, McBride said that "they worked it out like adults, and it wasn't acrimonious and they didn't see it as an ethics issue."

The Hollywood Reporter sources, though, say the relationship wasn't that smooth. One, describing the conference call in which Belloni raised concerns about the editorial interference, said, "[Belloni] revealed that they were putting this pressure on him and on the magazine to influence content. And they kept sort of in public saying how they don't want to do that, but it turns out behind the scenes, they were doing that. And it was kind of chilling."

McBride recalled the conference call but said in an email that she didn't "recall Matt ever arguing that the editorial strategy he and Deanna agreed to was a problem." She had, however, in our first call, described differing interpretations over the "content strategy" when disputing that the email from Brown about the Lopez story was out of line.

"Nobody said, 'Don't do the J-Lo story,’ right? The conversation about that happened after it was published," she said. "It was a question about, 'Is this in the content strategy or not?'"

It's not clear why the story wouldn't be in the content strategy, or what the point of a content strategy would be if it ruled out such coverage. Nor is it clear why it would be appropriate for an executive to try and meddle in editorial decisions, even after the fact. Doesn't that, I asked, create an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia among the newsroom? McBride said that the people in charge of editorial and business need to have a good relationship and agree on a content strategy. In our second call, I asked her what happens if they simply don't.

"They need to get along or, you know, one of them is going to change positions," she said. "You're asking about The Hollywood Reporter, right? I'm not gonna get into who should have won in that case." Though I was more interested in the hypothetical version, McBride's answer aptly encapsulated her down-the-middle approach, in which the correct course of action is generally to be found at the exact midpoint between two interests.

"She always kind of put forward this sort of like King Solomon [vibe]—you know, 'We can bring both sides together'—but as far as the editorial was concerned, she should have been much more on our side," said the source who described the conference call. I put this to McBride.

"Are you asking if that's what I'm striving for? King Solomon? Yes and no," she wrote, perfectly, in an email. "Like King Solomon, I believe that most people can resolve their own dilemmas. When they get stuck, my goal is to get them to talk through their concerns and see if they can find a solution. But I don't play games. I never suggest splitting the baby."

A THR source said McBride was well aware that editorial leadership was unhappy and frustrated with MRC executives' "inappropriate interference" with editorial decisions, both before and after stories were published. Several sources wondered how much Valence Media was paying Poynter, and whether the arrangement could have made McBride more inclined to compromise with the owner's ideas. (In our first call, McBride declined to discuss specifics about what Poynter charges newsrooms for its consulting work.)

"In my experience," she wrote in an email, "people don't pay a consultant to tell them what they want to hear. It's just the opposite." That said, the company's review of the work it paid Poynter for McBride to do was glowing:

Kelly McBride has helped to create policies that are rooted in core journalistic values and encourage everyone in the organization to embrace a process of critically thinking about issues and working through them in a collaborative fashion. She has helped assess and sharpen the tools we use to better understand our audiences and she's weighed in on specific stories, encouraging more thorough reporting. She has been an excellent teacher and advocate for best practices. She is unafraid to challenge the status quo in the executive suite or the editorial group.

The company's statement said that editorial leaders, in conjunction with McBride, have not yet decided on if and when to make public the ethics policy that McBride helped create.

To McBride, few issues in journalism involve clear rights and wrongs. Plagiarism and fabrication, rightly, do—they are, in her schema, matters of black and white. Nearly everything else is complicated, flexible, contingent. In our first call, she brought up the example of how journalists use social media.

"In some newsrooms, reporters are discouraged or even forbidden from sharing their political opinions on social media, because that will then reflect badly on the newsroom and cause the audience to doubt the balance or the fairness of the newsroom," she said. "But that's not true across the board. In many places, it's perfectly reasonable for journalists to share their political opinions on social media."

I suggested that journalism would be better served if journalists, no matter where they worked, were able to express their opinions freely. After all, reporters are human beings, each with their own experiences, with their own opinions shaped by those experiences. Who is served by limiting whose opinions can be expressed? (Not the reader; being aware of a reporter's biases can help them judge how those biases affect their work.) Who decides what an opinion even is? (A white reporter might take the word "racist" as an opinion-laced pejorative, while a Black one might take it as a neutral descriptor.) McBride herself once wrote that there is a "difference between personal objectivity, which is impossible, and objectivity of the reporting process." If it's impossible to be personally objective, and if the objectivity of the reporting process—where real journalistic values like fairness, accuracy, independence, and truth come into play—is what counts, why shouldn't reporters be free to share their opinions?

I had only made it through part of my spiel when McBride jumped in. "Well," she said, "that's actually outside of what the norm is in journalism. The norm in journalism is that on social media, you should not express an opinion that would undermine the company."

I was well aware of what the norm is and told her so, reiterating that perhaps the norm is misguided and that reporters expressing their opinions however they see fit, rather than unconvincingly pretending to be neutral, would be good for journalism.

"Yeah," she said. "So that's an example where […] you couldn't work at the Washington Post?"

"Definitely not," I said, not sure what my employment prospects had to do with the topic at hand.

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We had a short back and forth. I brought up Times White House correspondent Peter Baker bragging about never deciding anyone or anything was right or wrong while explaining why he doesn't vote; she talked about how ethics are applied within the framework of a company, each company must serve its audience. It's perhaps worth noting that this argument, which usually plays out in rote ways—just look at anything New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet has ever said about reporters' duty to uphold a facade of impartiality—is actually changing. Just this week, Axios, the largely conventional inside-Washington news organization, told staff they could participate in protests if they wanted to, a break from the policies of many media companies.

McBride said in our second call that the "real sin" is that newsrooms lack ideological diversity. She said, then, that if journalists were to reveal their viewpoints, it would be an "added liability that would also create this perception that you can't be fair to whatever cause is not represented by the people in your news organization."

This was a curious argument for an ethicist to be making, concerned as it was with optics and "liability"—with, essentially, how a given journalistic institution's brand is perceived—over how journalism works, or should work. McBride approaches other ethical problems from this perspective as well.

When Poynter took money from the Charles Koch Foundation—one of the philanthropic arms of the right-wing Koch family—McBride defended the decision on Poynter's website and elsewhere. She acknowledged that the Koch family has harassed journalists and perverted American democracy, but assured readers that Poynter only took the money because they had, she said, complete control over how it was used.

"As an ethics specialist," she wrote, "I'm confident that we will uphold journalism values if we engage in a process of vetting projects, rather than sorting potential donors along a continuum of acceptable and unacceptable, then drawing a line." Her post did not address the idea that Poynter was effectively helping to launder the Kochs' reputation, or what the ethical implications of that might be. ("Poynter," McBride wrote in an email, "has a robust policy that clearly delineates a process and strict boundaries for donors of all kinds, including private donors, foundations and sponsors.")

In a similar instance, the Washington Post quoted McBride in a story last fall about former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg's conflict-ridden media empire. She suggested that the company should "articulate a strategy" for coverage: "Transparency is important for their credibility and to manage the perception that they're being fair." This is surely true. It's just as surely true that the real issue isn't how Bloomberg is perceived—its brand positioning—but how a plutocrat uses, or doesn't use, the news organizations he owns to advance his interests. McBride told me that she thinks those organizations should cover him with all the scrutiny anyone else should get. How that would happen, or who would have to go if the editorial and business sides of the empire didn't get along, she didn't say.

If you had nothing but Kelly McBride's work to go by, you might think that avoiding criticism was journalism's highest virtue, and that being able to defend against it was the next-highest. Last week, as the nation was transfixed by protests and images of police assaulting peaceful demonstrators, McBride, in her capacity as public editor, criticized NPR for not fully addressing George Floyd's criminal record in news coverage. "Keeping the facts from the audience almost never works," she wrote. "The listener has a right to decide for herself. The key is to present the facts in full context and without innuendo."

She didn't convincingly explain why Floyd's past—seemingly as irrelevant to his killing as Kobe Bryant's past was relevant to an accounting of his life—was part of the full context. She did explain that not detailing it "opens NPR up to charges that it is trying to sanitize Floyd's history." The ethical issue here, as she laid it out, was not about how to choose the details that would give listeners the information they needed to make sense of the world; it was to prevent some of them—and not those who might hear echos of the Times' infamous line that Mike Brown was "no angel" in a listing of Floyd's crimes—from becoming angry.

Journalism's highest virtue, though, doesn't involve preemptive defense against disingenuous and bad-faith attacks from the very ref-workers whose existence inspired Craig Newmark to fund the center McBride now leads. It involves finding and telling the truth, as best it can be told. That will at times distress people. The truth probably should.

Independence, transparency, accuracy, and fairness are real values, and if journalists at institutions as staid as the Times and the Inquirer are rebelling against the set way of doing things, that's because those values are being failed. McBride is hardly the author of convention in American journalism, but she is one of its greatest exponents, perhaps its embodiment. And even now, as the most basic assumptions on which her work rests are being challenged in the nation's most prestigious newsrooms, she stands where and how she always has—defensive, in favor of how things have always been done, eager for compromise.

"When two people disagree," she wrote in an email, describing her consulting work, "it's rare that one is ethical and the other is unethical. Instead, they are elevating different values and they believe those values are mutually exclusive. My job is to help them figure out if both values can co-exist."

What happens if they can't, she didn't say.

Follow Laura Wagner on Twitter. Photos courtesy the Poynter Institute