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David Brooks’s Double-Dipping

Brooks's potential conflicts of interest seem to defy the precepts of journalistic ethics.

David Brooks is in trouble, probably more than he realizes and certainly more than he seemed to appreciate last Friday during his regular commentary gig for the “PBS NewsHour.” That’s when he sought to answer questions about the conflicts of interest he entered into when he combined his New York Times column-writing with a more recent stint as a paid top official with a nonprofit venture under the auspices of the well-heeled Aspen Institute. He responded in a rather blithe fashion while also, it seemed, raising further questions on the matter. 

The Times reported Sunday that it was adding disclosures to past articles by Brooks that mention his “community-building” nonprofit venture, called the Weave Project, and the project’s donors. These donors include billionaires, billionaire family members, various foundations, nonprofits, and corporate sponsors such as Facebook, Walmart, M&T Bank, and Nextdoor. For example, the enterprise received $300,000 from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s father and $250,000 from Facebook. 

Here’s an example of how it worked: Brooks’s brainchild, Weave (under the Aspen Institute imprimatur) gets tens of thousands of dollars from, say, Facebook. The Aspen Institute then pays Brooks out of those collected funds. Brooks then leverages his status as a Times columnist by writing a blog post for Facebook’s corporate website in praise of a Facebook product. 

Or Weave gets $25,000 from Nextdoor. Brooks then goes on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and urges viewers to get on Nextdoor as an antidote to pandemic isolation. He follows that up by tweeting to his nearly 250,000 Twitter followers, “If you know someone who lives alone, ask them to join NextDoor.” Further, according to BuzzFeed, Brooks appeared on a Walton Family Foundation video without disclosing that the organization, run by the billionaire family that founded Walmart, also helps fund Weave. Finally, it appears that Brooks on numerous occasions touted the work of Weave in his columns without disclosing his association with it. 

Brooks emphasized in his “NewsHour” interview that he never crossed the line by writing about Facebook, except in the most tangential way. But think about that. He’s a New York Times columnist, charged with providing readers with his vaunted thoughts and analyses on the most pressing issues of our time. Why would he cede voluntarily his remit to write about one of the most powerful and controversial companies in the world today? Same with Amazon and so many other companies and individuals who are newsmakers, public figures, and, in some cases, people of folly and transgression—now free from Brooks’s journalistic gaze and critical discernment.

After BuzzFeed broke the story, Brooks resigned his paid position at Weave and will now confine his connection to volunteer work. The Times quoted Aspen officials as saying Brooks had not been involved in day-to-day management at Weave for the past year, since the enterprise “hired a new executive director.” So apparently Brooks had been running Weave until a year ago while also writing his column. The paper, through a spokesman, said that Brooks’s editors had approved his Weave connection, presumably including his executive position and his paid status, prior to his taking the job. But that was before a shakeup in the paper’s Opinion section brought in new editors, who, reports the Times, didn’t know of Brooks’s dual affiliation. 

Here’s an interesting question: What was the Aspen Institute paying Brooks for his services before he resigned under pressure? The Times’s Sunday story doesn’t say, notwithstanding that that simple figure would tell us a lot about just what kind of stakes were involved here. If this were an ordinary conflict-of-interest story involving Joe Schmoe, we’d chalk the omission up to sloppy reporting. It’s more difficult to do that in a situation like this, involving not only Brooks’s professional judgement but also the paper’s regard for journalistic ethics. 

David Brooks is a curious figure in American journalism. He was hired by the Times in 2003 as a conservative commentator, to balance the paper’s many liberal opinion writers. But he never took that role seriously because he isn’t really a conservative. I’ve written about his work a bit over the years and once described him as “a thoughtful and often creative political commentator with some conservative instincts but also an overarching penchant for sidestepping the messy political clashes of our time and pursuing instead ancillary lines of thinking that keep him above the fray.” 

This tendency has contributed to some serious journalistic lapses over the years. An example was his response to the Trump phenomenon. Not surprisingly, he despised Trump and all that he stood for, which was an understandable and defensible point of view if combined with a bit of analytical rigor. But he couldn’t step back and parse in any dispassionate way the underlying pressures and forces that brought the man to the fore. He wrote that the GOP was becoming a party “permanently associated with bigotry,” which put his political sophistication at a level generally associated with Hillary Clinton. He described the typical Trump voter in terms so sarcastic and dismissive as to demonstrate a bigotry of his own. Thus do we see that Brooks’s political commentary is often superficial and tinny, in contrast to the Times’s true conservative writer, Ross Douthat, whose brilliance and absence of dogma frequently penetrate to the essence of what’s actually happening in America. 

But Brooks has distinguished himself as a cultural analyst of rare distinction, beginning with his signature book, Bobos in Paradise (2000), which posited the provocative thesis that bourgeois and bohemian cultures had meshed in intriguing and powerful ways. His subsequent books further explored cultural trends and the inner self, often devolving to his own inner self. His Road to Character (2015), for example, explored what The New Yorker called “how a person might engage in moral self-improvement.” It was about humility, and Brooks once was quoted as saying he wrote it “to save my own soul.” Then came The Second Mountain (2019), about finding deeper meanings to life in one’s later years. The first mountain, as described by Brooks, is the region of life focused on personal status, reputation, material fulfillment. “The second mountain,” writes Brooks, “is about shedding the ego and losing the self”—or, as The New Yorker explained it, “about contribution rather than acquisition, egalitarianism rather than elitism.” This second mountain provides a deeper satisfaction (it is, after all, a “bigger mountain”), and takes people beyond happiness to actual joy. 

Brooks writes that, given his gift of human insight, he can quickly discern whether new acquaintances are first-mountain or second-mountain people. No doubt he would categorize himself as a second-mountain man–particularly, perhaps, in consequence of his exploration of humility in The Road to Character. But the budding saga of David Brooks and his Weave activities and his relationship with The New York Times indicates that his extensive inner-self explorations have inspired him to initiate a second-mountain climbing expedition while remaining in the familiar lucrative territory of the first mountain. That would seem to defy the laws of physics, if not the precepts of journalistic ethics. 

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster). 

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