Following in the footsteps of their journalistic colleagues across the United States, staffers at Politico are trying to form a union. And like other recent media unionization efforts, the push is animated not only (or even mainly) by actual labor concerns like working conditions, benefits, and compensation, but by editorial differences with management. According to a report from Axios, among the grievances expressed by Politico employees as justification for joining the News Guild is “the company’s handling of internal pushback against having Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro guest host [its] flagship newsletter product, Playbook, earlier this year.” Shapiro was one of a rotating cast of writers, including progressive MSNBC host Chris Hayes, a stint that lasted for a single day.
At the time, Politico editor-in-chief Matthew Kaminski stood firm by his decision to invite the conservative firebrand. “What sets Politico apart in this intense political and media moment,” read a January statement, “is that we rise above partisanship and ideological warfare—even as many seek to drag us into it.” And in light of recent news that Axel Springer, the German media conglomerate that launched a joint European venture with Politico in 2014, is in talks to purchase an ownership stake in the Washington-based company, attempts to steer the outlet toward ideological rigidity are likely to suffer an even greater setback.
To understand why, consider what happened two months ago, when Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner ordered the Israeli flag to be flown, alongside those of Germany and the European Union, outside the company’s Berlin headquarters. The order came after a spate of antisemitic attacks in Germany following the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in May. Döpfner’s expression of solidarity with the Jewish state (and with the European Jews who invariably become targets whenever violence erupts in the Middle East) upset some of his 15,000 employees, a small number of whom complained that Springer—which owns several Israeli websites, and whose jewels include the sober broadsheet Die Welt and the lively tabloid Bild, the bestselling paper in Europe—was taking sides in a contentious geopolitical conflict.
Were such a dispute to unfold at an elite institution in the United States, it’s not difficult to envisage what would follow. Seeking to mollify his staffers, students, or some other group ostensibly subordinate to him, Döpfner’s American counterpart would bend over backwards to rectify his grave offense. He would issue a groveling apology, replete with woke buzzwords and catchphrases, promising to “do the work” necessary to educate himself about the “literal violence” he had inflicted on “people of color.” He would confess his “white privilege.” He would ask his Muslim colleagues, so traumatized by his invidious endorsement of “Zionist imperialism” and “settler colonialism,” for forgiveness. And finally, when this litany of self-abnegation failed to appease the people he hired and had the ability to fire, he would resign.
Döpfner took a different tack. “I think, and I’m being very frank with you,” he said on a companywide conference call, “a person who has an issue with an Israeli flag being raised for one week here, after antisemitic demonstrations, should look for a new job.” And with that, the minor uprising at Axel Springer was kaput.
For American observers, this exchange was notable not so much for what it said about media bias, Germany’s ongoing attempt to reckon with its past, or the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in other countries. What made it significant was something more basic and universal concerning the integrity of elite institutions. Put aside your beliefs, for a moment, about the propriety of an independent media outlet appearing to take sides in a war halfway around the world. By flying the Israeli flag while the Jewish state was under attack, and while European Jews were threatened close to home, Axel Springer was adhering to one of its fundamental principles.
Since 1967, the Axel Springer media empire has officially committed itself to upholding a set of values devised by its eponymous founder, which he called the company’s “Essentials,” and which have been updated over time. They are as follows:
1. We stand up for freedom, the rule of law, democracy and a united Europe.
2. We support the Jewish people and the right of existence of the State of Israel.
3. We advocate the transatlantic alliance between the United States of America and Europe.
4. We uphold the principles of a free market economy and its social responsibility.
5. We reject political and religious extremism and all forms of racism and sexual discrimination.
Every Axel Springer journalist signs a contract agreeing to uphold the Essentials, which function less as rigid dogmas than as guiding professional precepts; wide latitude exists, for instance, within the scope of what constitutes “a united Europe,” “the transatlantic alliance,” and “the principles of a free market economy.” But the company rightly believes that a job at Axel Springer is a privilege, not a right, and that if employees are bothered by the Essentials, they are perfectly entitled to find work elsewhere. When Israel is attacked, or when German Jews are assaulted on the streets of Berlin, no Axel Springer journalist can reasonably complain when his or her employer offers a token gesture of solidarity, just as they can’t justifiably object when the company’s media properties decry the far-right Alternative for Deutschland or go after Vladimir Putin.
Much of the recent collapse of confidence in American institutions can be attributed to a lack of such moral clarity, and to the ease with which so many institutional leaders are routinely bullied out of defending the principles of their own organizations. When a group of reporters at The New York Times collectively declared that an op-ed by a U.S. senator put their lives “in danger,” that paper’s publisher could have done what Döpfner did and told them to find employment at a newspaper better suited to their precious sensibilities. Instead, he surrendered to the mob and fired or demoted the editors responsible for publishing the piece—sackings that the News Guild, the union that represents Times reporters, had a hand in pushing.
When a group of Yale undergraduates surrounded a celebrated professor and berated him as a vile racist for over three hours because his wife, also a professor, had written an email endorsing the right of students to choose a Halloween costume, the president of the university could have reiterated his institution’s purported commitment to free speech, open inquiry, and civil debate. Instead, he hung his professors out to dry, and his administration showered the leaders of the mob with prizes for advancing race relations.
When a few dozen low-level editorial employees at Hachette staged a walkout over its release of a memoir by Woody Allen, the company could have explained that it was in the book publishing, not pulping, business, and that their ardor for censorship might be more welcome at any number of third-world ministries of information. Instead, Hachette meekly announced that, while “we take our relationships with authors very seriously,” it would nonetheless cancel Allen’s book.
I could go on. From the American Civil Liberties Union, which has deprioritized its foundational commitment to the politically neutral defense of free speech, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has implemented a newfangled blacklist under the guise of “representation and inclusion” quotas for the Oscars, U.S. institutions are sacrificing values like colorblindness, due process, and free speech upon the altar of the new holy trinity that is “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
One man who was not surprised by any of this was my late Yale professor, the great historian and classicist Donald Kagan, who died earlier this month at the age of 89. Kagan was teaching at Cornell University in 1969 when a group of armed student radicals occupied an administration building and demanded the creation of an African studies center. By deciding to negotiate with the terrorists, Kagan said, the administration “demonstrate[d] all the courage of Neville Chamberlain.” Observing a similar capitulation to mob tactics at Yale nearly five decades later, Kagan observed that, “It’s very hard to recover from this kind of surrender. Surrender to fear, to the prospect of violence and obloquy … that’s what happens when you allow bullies to bully you.”
A precondition for standing up to bullies, however, is the possession of principles. Witnessing the surrender of one elite institution after another these past several years, one detects not so much a lack of courage on the part of their leaders, but rather the wholesale replacement of their venerable liberal principles with a very different set of doctrines based upon sectarian ideologies of division and conquest. Axel Springer may be unique among media companies in promulgating a list of “Essentials,” but only because it does so explicitly. Can anyone still seriously dispute that our vaunted sources of journalistic objectivity subscribe to their own set of (unwritten) shibboleths? Or that our universities are increasingly less concerned with teaching young people how to think than what to think? Or that our centers of cultural production have demoted the pursuit of artistic excellence and beauty below the promotion of agitprop?
All it takes these days for an institution to abandon its principles is for some milquetoast figurehead to be confronted by an aggrieved group of power-hungry opportunists chanting the correct slogans and speaking the politicized language of emotional trauma. Faced with such a test, an entire class of American elites has buckled. Kudos to Mathias Döpfner for saying “Nein” in the face of such contemptible tactics, and best of luck to the employees of Politico.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.