Opinion

Jack Shafer

Why the Yahoos at Yahoo were wrong to fire David Chalian

By Jack Shafer
August 30, 2012

If you’re a journalist and you’ve ever said anything “inappropriate,” as David Chalian got caught doing yesterday — and you know you have — please step forward to be fired now.

Chalian, the Washington bureau chief for Yahoo News, ridiculed Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, during a Monday webcast from the Republican National Convention. It’s not uncommon for bureau chiefs, beat reporters or copy editors to verbally eviscerate politicians, corporate leaders, slumping sluggers or any other notable not in the room at the time, but they usually have the good sense to first check to see if a microphone is on. Chalian did not.

His topic was Hurricane Isaac, which was then bound for New Orleans, and he coached an unidentified guest on how to typify the Romneys:

“Feel free to say, ‘They’re not concerned at all. They are happy to have a party with black people drowning.’”

After NewsBusters.org posted the audio, Yahoo News counted to one and then fired Chalian.

Chalian, of course, was all apologies after his sacking, tweeting, “I am profoundly sorry for making an inappropriate and thoughtless joke.” The apology continued in a non-public Facebook posting, where he stated: “I was commenting on the challenge of staging a convention during a hurricane and about campaign optics. I have apologized to the Romney campaign, and I want to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Gov. and Mrs. Romney.”

Whatever a quip like “have a party with black people drowning” is, it’s not a joke. I suspect that the remarks conform closely to Chalian’s view of the Romneys as a callous couple and accurately represent the direction he hoped his guest would take. As newsroom denunciations go, it was pretty mild. I’ve heard much worse from reporters and editors in my time. I have little idea of what Chalian is really talking about when he rambles on about “campaign optics” other than to assume that he’s the sort of guy who when stuck in a hole thinks he’ll free himself by digging deeper.

Chalian, whom I’ve never met, smeared the red herring of a “joke” all over his comment because the journalistic orthodoxy to which he apparently subscribes maintains that news reporters and news editors must not have opinions, or if they do, they must not state them. He did the red herring smearing for his own sake, obviously, because he hopes to work in journalism again and appearances must be kept. Also, Chalian probably remains loyal to his Yahoo News colleagues and hopes to tamp down the furor so they won’t have to pay for his indiscretion. Of course, if Chalian worked the opinion side of the journalism supermarket, he’d probably find himself on the receiving end of a book contract. But that’s the topic of another column.

The New York Times‘s David Carr speculates today that platform profusion might have been to blame, at least in part, for Chalian’s gaffe, that “sometimes reporters fall into the crevices when trying to cross from one platform to the other.” Carr gives the examples of the broadcaster who got in trouble for a tweet, the radio journalist who got canned for something he said on cable, and the print reporter who was sent to the woodshed for smutty, disrespectful talk on TV about the president.

Carr might be right about unfamiliar platforms jamming the self-censoring capabilities of journalists (I think he’s not), but his piece sidesteps the issue of reporters holding such views in the first place. That’s the real point: Reporters and editors have opinions, and sometimes they’re going to express them, much to their embarrassment and to the horror of their bosses, who want to pretend that everybody on staff resembles Lady Justice blindfolded, holding a balance. Chalian’s crime wasn’t what he said. I’m sure that if he had made the same statement in front of his Yahoo News bosses, some would have nodded in agreement, and nobody would have laughed. His crime was rather where he said it, namely in public. The best reason to ban Chalian from voicing these particular Romney views is that he’s probably wrong.

If Yahoo News had a lick of sense, instead of firing Chalian it would have spanked him or demoted him or berated him in public for breaking the organization’s code — which appears to be “never say anything controversial that will discomfit us” — before suspending him. (I’m assuming that Yahoo News made the decision to cut off Chalian’s head on its own and not to assuage its video partner, ABC News. I hope I’m right.) If it had a barrel of sense, Yahoo News could explain to its readers something I think they should already know: that editors and reporters have opinions and that some of those opinions actually enhance the discovery and reporting of important news.

Proof that opinion-based journalism can break big stories can be found in recent issues of the Nation, Reason, the American Prospect, the National Review, Mother Jones, the Weekly Standard, the New Republic and the New Yorker. An equal claim can be made for the opinion work in the Washington Post Outlook section and the New York Times Sunday Review, the hundreds of opinionated books published each year (some by newspaper reporters!), and scores of opinionated websites. Like a good tip, a strong opinion can guide reporting toward the truth in a work of journalism. And you don’t necessarily have to subscribe to the opinions expressed in a piece to learn something, either.

Having an opinion, especially a stupid one, doesn’t entitle you to a job as a journalist. If a journalist’s boss wants him to smother the views he holds, that’s his prerogative, even if I think it’s wrong to do so. But in any case, I don’t think expressing a poorly considered view automatically disqualifies a journalist from keeping the job he already has. Don’t let Yahoo News’s sudden sacrifice of David Chalian by his bosses convince you that he’s an outlier, that everybody else at the organization possesses a blank slate for a brain. Chalian is the norm — and represents the now-silenced majority.

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