ERNEST OWENS Editors saying things to me like, you know, we have to be very careful about your reporting on this, and I would say, well, shouldn't we be very careful with every story?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Standards for thee, others for me. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. On this week’s show, how journalism selectively judges objectivity and bias.
BRUCE SHAPIRO In my experience, no one has ever said, let's say to a combat veteran, you're too close to war, you can't be a war correspondent, or you can't cover veterans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, Court TV made celebrities of lawyers and judges when it covered the O.J. Simpson trial. It's back with gavel to gavel coverage of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin.
HOST So who had a better day, was it the prosecution or defense? Let's bring back in our think tank.
JUDGE 1 Prosecution all day.
JUDGE 2 Absolutely, the prosecution.
JUDGE 3 It's not even close. It's the prosecution. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The comeback and the impact after this.
MICAH LOEWINGER Hey, this is Michael Loewinger, I'm a reporter / producer with a little show called On the Media. Heard of it? Before we get into today's pod, I want to thank somebody that has done a lot for me and our show. I'm talking about you. And not only because you listen to the show, which honestly is a kind of an awesome, mind boggling thing on its own, but because you support the work, we do as well. It's your support that allows our entire team, that's Brooke and Bob, all the producers, engineers, to spend hours and hours reading, watching, listening to the news, boiling it down to that bullion cube of insight and criticism that we aim to deliver to your ears each week. To keep the show strong, to keep the lights on, to keep the mics on, we need all of our listeners to participate. So here's what we're looking for right now: we're looking for new members. If you've never supported the show, now's honestly a perfect time. Returning members, many of you have given in the past, but maybe you haven't in a little while. Well, we're here to welcome you back into the OTM fam. And sustaining members, there are a ton of you, thank you so much! But maybe you could chip in a little extra. 50 bucks, 75 bucks, or you could add on 2-3 dollars to your monthly gift. That would do a lot for On the Media. No matter who you are, we could really use your help right now. To support On the Media, today, go to onthemedia.org/donate or text OTM to 70101. Again, that's onthemedia.com/donate or text OTM to 70101. And now onto the show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, Bob Garfield is out this week, I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's been 10 months since former police officer Derek Chauvin was captured on video with his knee on the neck of George Floyd. Who died pleading for his life in what the county coroner determined was homicide. This week, Chauvin sat on trial for multiple charges, including third degree murder. In the courtroom, he locked eyes with several witnesses he has not likely seen since that fateful day, May 25th, 2020. First responders, teenagers with cameras and cries, passersby trying to intervene, and the young grocery store cashier who confronted Floyd about using a counterfeit bill. The testimonies were studded with sorrow and guilt.
WITNESS It's been nights. I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The decision to televise these wrenching testimonies was a rare exception to a law prohibiting cameras in Minnesota courtrooms. Writing in The Washington Post, entertainment business reporter Steven Zeitchik explains how Court TV became the world's window into the trial and how the controversial but largely forgotten legal affairs network is using it to make a comeback and also, it says, to bring transparency to the criminal justice system. Steven, welcome to the show.
STEVEN ZEITCHIK Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In its heyday, Oprah Winfrey described Court TV as the hottest soap going filled with murder, nasty divorce, nail biting suspense. And it turned witnesses and prosecutors and defense attorneys into celebrities.
STEVEN ZEITCHIK Of course, they hit their heyday with the O.J. Simpson trial back in the fall of 1995. Must see TV from Barry Scheck, the DNA expert, to Lance Ito, the judge to, of course, Johnnie Cochran, the defense attorney.
COCHRAN You look at O.J. Simpson over there, and he has a rather large head, O.J. Simpson in a knit cap from two blocks away, is still O.J. Simpson. It's no disguise, it makes no sense, it doesn't fit, if it doesn't fit, you must acquit. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In '92, the network reported on Jeffrey Dahmer's trial. That was particularly gruesome, it was about cannibalism and serial murder.
STEVEN ZEITCHIK Yeah, the Dahmer trial was definitely an early entree into the form for them at the very tabloid end of the spectrum. They also had the trial, the officers accused in the beating of Rodney King in Southern California. That was a more serious foray into criminal proceedings.
PROSECUTION Also during the tape, you're going to see, while Mr. King is on the ground lying on his stomach as his hands are moving back toward putting them behind his back, Officer Briseno walks over and delivers a stomp to the head and neck area of Mr. King. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Court TV disappeared for a decade up until a couple of years ago when it was picked up by the E.W. Scripps Company, it's the big news conglomerate, and the network saw the Derek Chauvin trial as the big comeback opportunity. How did the network convince Judge Peter Cahill to give it exclusive filming rights?
STEVEN ZEITCHIK Court TV did not make a formal argument. They were working behind the scenes. The defense ultimately is who filed the motion. The argument was that Derek Chauvin is entitled to a public trial, and in the time of Coronavirus and Lockdowns, that is going to be severely compromised because people can't come into the courtroom as they please, as they would in a normal time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I thought that typically live TV coverage of murder trials hurts the defense.
STEVEN ZEITCHIK You're exactly right, and I think there are a lot of theories for that. That it can really hurt their case if the crime and the victims are seen in full relief. One person I talked to offered an interesting theory that because the death of George Floyd was so visible and was seen by so many people around the world that there was nothing that the defense felt could be lost from seeing this reenacted. Maybe they had something to gain, in fact, by showing Chauvin and maybe trying to humanize him, which, of course, is typically a defense strategy. So I think we can only speculate on that, but that was one theory that was offered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Could you summarize quickly the restrictions the judge placed on the cameras of Court TV, that may have the effect of making the broadcast less tabloidy?
STEVEN ZEITCHIK He did allow three cameras in the courtroom. Listeners may remember O.J. only had one, but one big restriction he did put on the cameras was he did not allow them to zoom. So anyone who's seen the trial will basically notice that if they're watching the witness stand or anything else, they're seeing it from one distance point, but not anything further. Another restriction we put on is who can be shown. He is not allowing any members of George Floyds family to be shown in the gallery. And if the camera could zoom and capture that, that tends to heighten the drama and potentially heighten the soapiness affect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Court TV ultimately will deliver a rich document for historians and journalists, but not everyone you spoke to bought the idea that criminal justice transparency is really Court TV's goal. Obviously, it's a business, these cases are a big part of their product. In fact, Todd Boyd, professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California, told you that the notion of bringing transparency to the criminal justice system is bull.
STEVEN ZEITCHIK If something is happening behind closed doors, there's a natural skepticism about whether what was happening there was fair. When it's more out in the open, when there are cameras, that tends to make us believe that everything was fair. That tends to reduce our skepticism about the system and about the process. And I think what he was really kind of warning against was that let's not let the fact that there are cameras here allow us to lower our guard about potential unfairness in the system to people of color. That's what he was warning against.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Steven Zeitchik is an entertainment business writer at The Washington Post. Thank you very much.
STEVEN ZEITCHIK Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Neither televising the trial nor watching it is an inconsequential act. For many Americans, it's a painful reminder of countless failed attempts at police accountability and the racist violence so often excused by our criminal justice system. For many others, it is a trauma, relived. The TV spectacle has tapped into a well of complex feelings for Ishena Robinson, staff writer for The Root. She began her piece this week with a confession. She's never watched the video of George Floyds death.
ISHENA ROBINSON Quite frankly, I just couldn't watch another video of a black person being killed on camera. I have seen quite a few. It does something to anyone's soul, anyone's humanity, I think, when you're watching another human being being killed on camera. You know, I remember after I watched the Ahmaud Arbery video, I couldn't sleep at night. I was so distressed, so upset, I broke down the next day. And so there's always a balance for me as a person, and as a writer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said you began watching the trial with a sense of anxiety. A feeling that you're being asked to invest hope in a justice system that you don't believe will serve justice. How has the experience been watching the first week?
ISHENA ROBINSON It's been complicated. The piece I wrote was really centered on the witnesses whose testimonies I have appreciated so much because when you're hearing that a person could kneel on another human being's neck for nearly ten minutes while they are crying out for life, it gives me a deep sense of hopelessness. You know, where is the humanity? And so to be reminded that humanity was all over that scene. There were children, people who are older, people of different races, trying their very best to get the people in power to recognize this man's life and to save it. That has given me some heartening, while it has also saddened me to just see the ways that they were traumatized having to witness this in front of them. But in terms of, you know, hoping or believing that this trial will result in a conviction, I can't put my faith in that. It will just be another deeper heartbreak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can we talk about Donald Williams? The clip of Williams' exchange with Chauvin's defense attorney went viral on day two of the trial.
DEFENSE It's fair to say that you grew angrier and angrier.
WILLIAMS No, I grew professional and professional and I stayed in my body. You can't paint me out to be angry. [END CLIP]
ISHENA ROBINSON Williams, in that incident, he is already deeply aware of the stereotypes against black men that are used in this country. You know, the stereotypes that are being used against Floyd in the case of his death. You know, the sense that black men are especially angry, especially physically forboding or threatening, and on the stand, as well as while he was watching this happen to Floyd in front of him, Williams keenly understood where he stands in this country as a black man and how people would stereotype and perceive him. And he has to hold those ideas and defend against those ideas while trying to argue for the humanity of someone who looks like him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You were also greatly moved, you wrote in your piece, by the testimony of Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old credited for filming the video.
ISHENA ROBINSON Yeah, as was the other testimonies. There was an 18-year-old who also witnessed what happened. She said at one point she felt like she wanted to walk away because she couldn't handle it. She was seeing someone be killed in front of her eyes, but she stood there, and she filmed it. Frazier stood there and she filmed it. There was a 9-year-old, I believe who was related to Darnella. She felt sad and mad because she could see that the breath was going out of this man, and they're all holding that. Frazier to the point where she says she stays up nights sometimes thinking, you know, what could I have done? How could I have done differently? Could I have physically intervened? It's just heart wrenching. And again, it brings in all the complexities. The complexity of the fact that it's a trial. We need this trial. It has to happen, but there's also the sense again, that we've seen this before. This is just another inflection point. And in the interim, what's happening, is black people reliving, re-seeing this evidence that our lives are treated like they don't matter in America. And we have to reckon with that. We have to hold that in our bodies when the trial is over, whatever happens. And that is hurtful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So that raises the question, given how it causes wave upon wave of trauma. Are you glad it's being televised? Are you glad you watched some of it?
ISHENA ROBINSON I mean, I'm a trained journalist, right? And so, I can’t not feel in some way, you know, gratified that I'm able to witness something of this magnitude. It's a history making story, whatever happens. And of course, I think it's necessary for it to be televised. There are a lot of people who need to see it. Maybe they have been able to dismiss other incidents, or they've been able to explain away and they've been able to justify. And people will certainly continue to do that in this case as well, particularly as they hear the arguments that the defense puts forward, but there's something to be said about this is what happens. We have evidence of this. But I'd also say that black people like myself have every right to determine how much of this they subject themselves to, if any, because, as I said, we don't have a choice most of the time. I have focused on avoiding the actual video footage of Floyd, while I've seen clips, pictures, screenshots directly of Chauvin's knee on his throat. But I'm trying to hold on to whatever agency I have in not watching this ten-minute video, because that's all I can control in this maelstrom of trauma that continues to batter me. And so any black person who chooses to do that in the event of this case completely and totally has the right to do so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ishena, thank you very much.
ISHENA ROBINSON Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ishena Robinson is a staff writer at The Root.
Coming up, which produces better reporting: proximity to the community you cover or distance? Who gets to decide? This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Now we talk about who gets to speak and who doesn't. Case in point, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez. Since 2018, she's been barred on and off from covering stories about sexual assault because her manager said, she herself is a sexual assault survivor. The first big story she missed was Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court nominee alleged to have committed a sexual assault in high school. She's missed many since, including the #MeToo movement. Tension escalated with her editors again when Kobe Bryant died in 2020 and she linked to a story about a rape charge Bryant had settled out of court. She was slammed with an online barrage of rape and death threats. Forcing a brief move to a hotel. She was also suspended for, quote, "poor judgment." After hundreds of her colleagues rallied to her defense, Sonmez was reinstated, but the ban remained in place until this past Monday after Politico ran a story. The argument over who is and who isn't objective enough or strong enough to report on subjects they know too well, like rape or racism, still roils newsrooms. And since it is those in power who determine exactly what objectivity is, the view from the marginalized is the one most often silenced. Trauma can also disqualify you. But the thing is, exposure to trauma inducing events is an occupational hazard in journalism.
BRUCE SHAPIRO Journalism is a trauma facing profession. A lot of what counts as news are the worst experiences that happen to people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bruce Shapiro is executive director of The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School.
BRUCE SHAPIRO You know, we think, pretty obviously about the stuff that reporters may witness on the front line. Whether it's the front lines of conflict or covering a disaster or civil unrest, the insurrection on January 6th, that's one kind of traumatic event, but the reality is that journalists spend a huge amount of time also listening to engaging with absorbing the stories of people, describing the most difficult experiences of abuse and loss that they've had in their lives. Every study that's been done to journalists in the last 20 years says that over the course of their career, between 85 and 100 percent of all journalists will contend with major trauma exposure in the course of their work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meaning a potential for trauma that they see bad things?
BRUCE SHAPIRO There's the slow drip, drip, drip. The accumulation of crime scene after crime scene, murder trial after murder trial, which a lot of research now shows can have a profound effect. Of course, if people then bring to that biographical experiences of trauma, whether it's experiences of family violence as a child, of bad things that have happened to them as adults, sexual assault, all of those things accumulate and eventually your sort of personal levy can be overtopped. And what's more, a lot of research says that when we cover events with which we have a close identity, whether that's because of race or gender or sexuality, parents of small children covering school shootings, those kinds of traumatic events are more likely to have a big impact on us and turn into a risk factor for PTSD or other psychological injury.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But obviously, the choice of who to disqualify from reporting is never neutral because what is impartial is determined by people who also have, consciously or not, a particular worldview.
BRUCE SHAPIRO Look, in my experience, no one has ever said, let's say to a combat veteran: "oh, you're too close to war, you can't be a war correspondent," or "you can't cover veterans." No one's ever said to someone who became a reporter after being a law enforcement officer and I know several people in that category, you can't cover cops. This only comes up when it's about people who are part of communities who have been left out of the traditional news equation or whose communities are at the center of national debates over injustice. It comes up with women, it comes up with trans folx, and gay and lesbian communities. It comes up, in recent weeks, with Asian-American journalists. It never comes up with the kinds of groups who traditionally have dominated the editorial power structures in newsrooms and for whom the news agenda is so often built.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Shapiro says that discriminatory or merely oblivious workplaces can heighten the risk of trauma. As in the case of Sonmez, who tweeted that the ban and having to explain to editors again and again why she had to turn down an assignment prompted the same debilitating symptoms she had when she first came forward about her assault 3 years ago. She didn't respond to our request for comment. More broadly, though, screening out for trauma makes little sense, given that all journalists are likely to encounter trauma inducing material in their personal lives and at work, if not both. So how can newsrooms operate with that information in mind?
BRUCE SHAPIRO There are still too many managers, I think, who believe that trauma is not an issue the NEWSROOM can deal with or who are so afraid of it that they then begin taking perfectly able reporters and pulling them off of beats because they're worried, oh, you're too close to this, it'll freak you out. There's no evidence to support that. And in fact, it's quite destructive. All the research says that the single most important factor associated with journalists’ resilience is their strength of collegial relationships, the strength of their social relationships. I think we need a broader awareness within the profession of journalism that a little bit of self care, our own attention to how we're doing, getting help when we need it and being good colleagues to others actually strengthens our capacity to report. Being aware of the occupational mental health risk of trauma exposure is as central to the reporter's toolkit as how to do an interview.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Shapiro says that it's the responsibility both of managers and reporters to be aware and prepared.
BRUCE SHAPIRO I can think back to Hurricane Katrina. I spent some time in New Orleans after the storm and there was this one reporter at the Times-Picayune who was responsible for covering FEMA and the agencies. And I would go out for drinks with this friend, and he would periodically go on these f-bomb laced rants about FEMA and Bush and the Army Corps of Engineers and the huge damage to his beautiful city. And at one point I said to him: "you know, you seem pretty angry, how are you managing to cover these agencies?" and and he sat up straight, I'll never forget this, and said, "Oh, you better believe I'm angry, but because I know it and can acknowledge it, I know I need to lean over backwards to be clear and rigorous with myself and the story. The problem would be if I didn't acknowledge this and didn't say what does this require of me as a journalist?"
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bruce Shapiro is executive director of The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School where he also teaches ethics.
On May 31st last year, after days of protest over the police killing of George Floyd, and some destruction of property, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson tweeted out four photos of trash and debris with the caption horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish looters who don't care about this city. Oh, wait, sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.
ERNEST OWENS It's always race that ends up revealing the biggest double standards, right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ernest Owens is a journalist and the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
ERNEST OWENS Think about Philadelphia, when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, finally, they tore down City Hall. The Ritz Carlton sign was torn down. People were climbing up the polls, people were pretty much passive about that. But then when the protesters were out during the 2020 racial uprisings, all of a sudden people are being tear gassed. So there's always been a double standard in how people have addressed black outrage compared to white people who express similar types of action and behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was this double standard that Alexis Johnson lampooned and one that she confronted herself the next day.
JOHNSON I was taken off of coverage of the protests following the death of George Floyd because of a tweet that I thought was funny. [CHUCKLES] I thought it was clever, I thought it was food for thought. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexis Johnson, who declined our request for comment, spoke to the press on June 8th.
JOHNSON I was told that I violated our social media policy, which in fact doesn't exist. They're just a set of guidelines that the guild never agreed to. I argued, I pushed back. I felt like my voice was being silenced. I asked how that tweet showed any opinion or bias, and I never really got a clear answer. But I think based on where we are today, I think we kind of know what that answer is. [END CLIP]
ERNEST OWENS It doesn't surprise me that a white senior editor or a white publisher would go hard on a person of color talking about racism. It would not surprise me that a cis het man would be critical of a woman talking about rape or sexual assault. There's a pattern here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How would the paper benefit by sidelining Alexis Johnson?
ERNEST OWENS You have to think about the other external interests that shape the publication. Even though they won't admit it out loud. Some of these local publications do struggle with trying to maintain access to political figures, to private interests. And so I wonder how people like Alexis, who are doing coverage that would challenge the status quo, that would buck against institutions, would not pose a threat. I mean, people have to remember journalism is a public service, but it's still a business. How these publications are being supported might bleed into how they cover the news we read and watch every day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when you see the experience of Alexis Johnson, it reminds you of other experiences you've heard.
ERNEST OWENS So Alexis' situation was very drastic. We don't really hear of these types of reports where people are completely taken off a beat. Like I haven't been told I couldn't write a story, but I will say that in my earlier years when I was covering racism in the LGBTQ community in Philadelphia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're a black man, you're also a gay man.
ERNEST OWENS Yes. I was remembering editors that I was working with that were saying things to me like, you know, we have to be very careful about your reporting on this. And I would say, well shouldn't we be very careful with every story? I have had young black journalists who are coming to visit that said, you know, I've been turned off from covering race because I feel like it's going to be an uphill battle with my editors to pitch to them or convince them that I can take on the story without them double downing on every single word, syntax, quote I use. When I'm having these conversations with newsrooms, I'm not just only talking about hiring practices and pay equity and all those matters, but I'm also talking about how black journalists should be given the agency and the respect to be able to cover race without feeling surveilled and intimidated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What was the impact on you?
ERNEST OWENS When I started doing this work, this was 6 years ago, so I was like 23, I was wondering to myself, like, is this going to be the norm every time I do a story that involves a community that I am connected to? Let's be clear, race and identity are the headlines of our time. So the fact that we're sidelining journalists of color when they cover race, or LGBT journalists when they cover things that impact their community? Who else is left except white people, straight people? So basically, you're reinforcing the same discriminatory policies and practices that we have been claiming to want to eradicate, especially given what has happened last year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But things are changing, aren't they?
ERNEST OWENS As a black queer person, I'm saying the progress is just glacial. I'm not seeing the structural changes. I'm not seeing enough diverse individuals in positions of power and influence. I want to get to the point where I have to stop relying on the same people that have been a part of the problem to be a part of the solution as well. I mean, the fact that we're touting the Romney rule of: we're going to guarantee at least one person of color will be interviewed. So what does that mean? Are you suggesting that black and brown people aren't already qualified for these positions, and that you're doing us a favor by giving them an interview?
BROOKE GLADSTONE When will you feel that there has been progress?
ERNEST OWENS Progress to me looks like women being paid at the same rate as men, that black and brown people are being paid equitably and being given opportunities and promotions at the same fast rate as their white counterparts. That LGBTQ journalists do not have to only be the spokespeople for their community but get to cover various issues because those issues impact them beyond their sexual orientation, gender identity. Where we don't treat diversity, equity, inclusion as a chore, but as something that we can fully embrace that will save this industry rather than to put it in controversy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I should add here that the paper did ultimately permit Alexis Johnson to cover Black Lives Matter protests, but two months after her initial tweet and one month after she sued her now former employer for discrimination. Reinstating her to do what she wanted to do was ultimately not enough to keep her at the paper. What's the lessons learned? Or should have been the lesson learned for the Post Gazette?
ERNEST OWENS There was an opportunity for someone like Alexis to tell the stories that matter. She's now at Vice News. She's really killing the game right now, I must say. They lost talent, they lost credibility. I don't know that many black journalists in the region that are interested in working for them. The overall publication's reputation has been soiled and their hiring decisions since then has doubled down the notion that this is not a safe place to work. I mean, this is an organization has been recognized and noted by the Pulitzer Prizes. And now look where they are today, and it's just a shame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
ERNEST OWENS No, thank you. I just really hope that listeners understand that there are countless local black journalism associations across the country created to help make newsrooms and the media ecosystems in their communities better. So lean on them, you know, have these conversations. And I think that needs to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ernest Owens is a journalist and the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
Maybe the theme here is a simple one. Journalists are human beings, they face trauma, conflict and stereotyping. But unlike most professionals, the job often offers the peculiar opportunity to, in effect, cover themselves and their communities while being at least traditionally unknown to the audience and also maybe not entirely known to themselves.
Steve Friess is an editor for our Detroit and a contributor for Newsweek. In 2015, he reflected in a piece about his coverage of cases related to gay marriage the previous year as a kind of self-examination. Welcome to the show.
STEVE FRIESS Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the summer of 2014, you found yourself sitting next to a friend and an old colleague you hadn't seen in 14 years. She saw the gold band on your hand and she said: "Oh, are you married now?" and you said, lowering your voice "That actually kind of depends on what happens in this courtroom today." And you called it an uncomfortable collision of the personal and the professional.
STEVE FRIESS So the case in Michigan became a big deal. It was an actual trial with witnesses which we had not seen since the Prop 8 case in California. And then it went up to the appeals court and eventually the Supreme Court. And it was one of the four cases that ultimately reversed all of the gay marriage bans across the country. So as this was happening, I was also a person, a human being, a gay person with a partner I wanted to legally marry. We have plans for a child, which we now have, but I didn't see any reason why I couldn't cover these cases.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did anybody else suggest that you were too close to the material you would be covering?
STEVE FRIESS No. One irony of it is that I had been trying so hard to stay out of the gay politics arena as a journalist that I didn't want to get married until it was just legal in my state. I was in Nevada and then I was in Virginia and then I was in Michigan. And every time I left the state, the state before me would make it legal. But I didn't have the right to do that in the state I was in. And to my mind, it seemed like a political act for me to go to another state to get married when that marriage license wouldn't have any force of law in my state. So I was actually trying really hard to take advantage of laws as they existed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And not to do explicit political acts. I get that.
STEVE FRIESS Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet, 15 years before you were sitting in that courtroom with your long-lost colleague, you wrote a piece. This is back in 1999 for the Sun Sentinel's Sunday magazine about your own wedding with your first partner. And in it, you wrote about how the guests appeared oblivious to just how radical an event this was. You were writing a piece about yourself, personal journalism.
STEVE FRIESS The fact that my first wedding was actually so ordinary felt to me like a bit of a revolution at the time. You're right. Absolutely. There have been zigs and zags in the ways that I approached these things. I just felt like when I became a point person covering the legal developments of the time, I needed to be extra conscious of what that meant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did you then approach the reflection you wrote in 2015, the year after you're in the courtroom with your friend? Was it personal or was it strictly journalistic? Tell me the process?
STEVE FRIESS I reported it out. I went back and I called up some of the people I had talked to. One of the people I spoke with was John Eastman. He is a very conservative lawyer, one of the architects of the anti-same sex marriage legal framework. I talked to him over and over again. He was an important source for that point of view, and I never talked about myself. I was just another voice on the other end of the line. So I called him up and I said, look well, I was just wondering, did you know I was gay? He said, no. I said, did you think that I covered the case fairly? And it was very clear that I wanted the truth. I didn't want him to just say what he thought I wanted to hear. And he said, you were fair. I felt like I was being quoted in context, I didn't have any problem with your journalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what actually was the point of this return to the story of the year before and this return to the sources for that story?
STEVE FRIESS I don't think that journalists do this enough. I don't think that journalists own the fact that they sometimes run into conflicts. They can work through if they're honest about it. In this case, I had this very crystal-clear moment that made it obvious to me that there could be some reason to doubt the quality of my work. I just felt like it was a good example. I don't think that journalists need to disclose all of their personal biases in the stories while they're writing them. But I do think that it is useful to the public to know that we're real people. I really do believe that in the effort to sort through it in your own mind, you keep yourself on the right path as a journalist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when you're covering the news, how much of yourself do you disclose to build that credibility and make yourself more trustworthy rather than less? What's the line you have to walk?
STEVE FRIESS I don't think you disclose it at all in that context. I don't know where you would stop if you started. If I'm covering a trial, do I then have to explain that my brother in law is a D.A. or that somebody I know is a cop or that I've been robbed once? You know, I've been in this business a long time and I remember the early 90s, that was the first wave of efforts to diversify newsrooms, which, you know, 20-30 years later really didn't go very well. But nonetheless, it was the first time we really started to talk about it seriously. Then came the conversation of, well, can they cover their own minority? Well, pick one. Do you want people with diverse opinions and diverse experiences that help the coverage because they know things and some people might feel more comfortable talking to them? Or do you want to play this ethics game that just increases people's suspicion and makes people question things that they don't need to question? If you're a journalist and you're covering a company that you own stock in, yes, you have to say that. You've chosen to buy that stock. I mean, you know, I didn't choose to be gay. The person didn't choose to be a person of color or a woman. Nobody chose to be sexually assaulted or victim of any other type of crime. So those aren't the kinds of disclosures that are, in my mind, required every time you cover something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Steve, thank you so much.
STEVE FRIESS Thanks for having me. This has been fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Steve Friess is an editor for Our Detroit and a contributor for Newsweek.
Coming up, how to cover reality when there is always more than one. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Back in the winter of 2017, journalists were embroiled in issues of objectivity. Donald Trump had just been elected and it seemed like the entire industry faced a reckoning. Could they call the president's lies lies? Could they report clearly and openly on what increasingly seemed to be democracy in peril? Into that set of questions walked a marketplace reporter named Lewis Raven Wallace, who penned a medium post called Objectivity is Dead and I'm OK with it, promptly leading to his firing. Then Wallace published a book delving deep into questions of journalistic objectivity called The View from somewhere in which he deconstructs the notion of objectivity. I asked him, So what's the prevailing argument for objectivity?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Well, it obviously it depends on your interpretation of what we mean by objectivity. But there was this idea that emerged early in the nineteen hundreds and was really codified in the middle of the century, that a reporter would be most accurate and fair if they were detached. You know, journalists were basically news scientists who just investigated news in a very neutral way. And of course, objectivity in science has also been debunked. But I think the overall concept was we use this methodology, we use it without bringing ourselves in. And that gets us closer to the truth and that differentiates us from people who do propaganda. That's the positive reason for objectivity. The more negative reason that I see is this perception thing of we want people to think that we are neutral, that we are unbiased, and so we strive for that appearance no matter what.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is what NYU Professor Jay Rosen calls the production of innocence.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Yeah, and in my book, I talk about it as a sort of purity ritual that we're going to take these people who might make us seem like we are ideological, you know, these gay activists or Black Lives Matter advocates. And we're going to make sure that they are outside of our doors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this notion of objectivity, of at least the perception of it is paramount. That's what got Linda Greenhouse, the longtime New York Times Supreme Court correspondent, in hot water in '89 when she attended a march in Washington for reproductive rights, she was completely open about it, told her bosses, she invited them. But her friends over at The Washington Post, they were prevented from going to the march. They said the Times were letting their people go. The Post ran a story with Howell Raines, who was the editor of The New York Times, who suddenly did an about face and says that Greenhouse had been out of bounds. She was asked to apologize and refrain from future demonstrations, and that flap received international coverage. One of the headlines about the Greenhouse story was one in the L.A. Times. It was in 1990. Can women reporters write objectively on abortion issues?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE You could ask the same question about men who clearly have an investment in the outcome of abortions. And I think we see the same sort of double standard around race. Right. So many black reporters have told me stories about being either taken off a story or sort of inherently viewed as kind of biased around an issue of racial justice, where white people like myself aren't being approached in that same way by an editor. And white people have a lot of bias around that. That's the conversation that I want to have. How do we talk about power and oppression in newsrooms, not just in terms of kind of personal identity, but in terms of all of us having a stake in these big questions of race and class and gender. And oftentimes the privileged perspective, you know, the white perspective or the male perspective is the one with the most bias because it's allowed to go unchecked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You couldn't raise a question like, should women report on abortion anymore in an L.A. Times headline? But in some ways, we're still stuck in the same paradigm. Up until this past week, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was barred from reporting on sexual assault for the very reason that she is herself a sexual assault survivor.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE It wasn't that she had been sexually assaulted. It was that she had been out about it, right, and disclosed that, that led her to be taken off those stories and these publications who talk about, you know, we value diversity and we respect everybody and whatever, they're more concerned about protecting their own reputation than protecting people who are actually vulnerable. Like women who are being trolled in really violent and scary ways who work for them or something that I've talked about a lot is transgender people, I just, I don't think that you can go around saying we want to be trans inclusive workplace and whatever, but we won't allow our reporters to take a stance on the oppression of trans people. I'm not going to accept this paradigm that I can't be a reporter and also choose to speak out and say that's not OK. It's asking folks to choose between their livelihood and their humanity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For all the people in the publications that cry conflict of interest. When someone with an identity at stake in an issue reports on the issue, there is another loud voice that says, hey, wait a minute, there's no one better equipped to report on it.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Yeah, and there's a whole tradition that we can look to going all the way back to people like Ida B Wells, who covered lynchings, and the way she got interested in it was that a friend of hers was lynched and then she was targeted by white mobs. Her newspaper office burned to the ground for deciding to cover this. So she very clearly had a stake in it, but her stake in it was also what allowed her to do such powerful reporting and what motivated her to do such powerful reporting. White reporters weren't doing those stories. They couldn't even see how horrible this thing was because they weren't close enough to it. And now I think it's easy to look back 100 hundred years and say, oh, lynching’s bad. Everybody knows that's bad. But at the time, that wasn't the conversation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There are tremendous advantages, but still some risks in covering a story to which you are very close. What are the risks?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Conflicts of interest are real. As a trans person, yeah, I might on the one hand have more access to the community and more information about the conversations happening within that community. And a more nuanced take than your typical cisgender reporter on a trans issue. On the other hand, the community is small enough that I might sometimes be trying to cover my friends or my idols, and that can be a conflict of interest. But the same issue comes up in other types of reporting. I mean, a lot of financial reporters are friends with the guys on Wall Street and nobody's bringing that up as a problem. That's like, oh, you're working your sources, you're doing a good job being a reporter. Again, it's the double standard that I take issue with and the lack of self determination to sort of say you as a trans person might be uniquely qualified to cover this story. You will be allowed to if you want to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do you manage the reflex to give maybe more space than you would normally to an idol and deny space to a point of view that might be informative for the reader?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE In any story there's a really good conversation happening between the writer and editor about what viewpoints are we centering and why. Because somebody is making those judgment calls anyway.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah!
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE You know, they just might be less conscious of why in some cases. We have to have some courage and integrity, I think, as reporters, when we make those choices about which things we see, what we focus on and how we tell the stories. We're shaping what's possible in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what about for you? The debate over trans issues, the presence of trans issues, in presidential lists of groups to be protected? Does your head sometimes spin with how it was? Nothing, nothing, nothing. And then suddenly so much of something?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Yeah, it's weird. I don't even know what to think of it. I have so much privilege as a trans person. Being a white person and being somebody who's perceived as masculine. I've experienced a relative lot of safety and privilege as these things go in my community. You know, there are so many people who are still just in so much danger for being out and visible as trans. So, you know, I--no part of me wants to rest on some laurels of like, well, we've arrived and now we can be in the military or whatever when it's literally physically unsafe especially for trans feminine people and people of color and working class people and people are working on the streets. That said, the cultural conversation is so different than it was 20 years ago when I was coming out. It does kind of make my head spin. And I think that's entirely a credit to trans people who were just so fierce and courageous and said, I don't care that people are going to come for me and call me crazy and be even violent toward me for being open about who I am. That's what I need to do. Today, the Associated Press says we can use they/them pronouns or whatever, and it seems like a small thing, but it's the tip of the iceberg of all this struggle and pain and loss that led to these changes we see now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So now that we've established that neutrality and objectivity can't be the principles at the heart of our journalism. For one thing, they're mythical. What should we place there instead?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Curiosity, for me is at the core, that's like the center, the beating heart of what a journalist does. Asks questions and stays open. And this is where I see the gift that activism can give journalism is the commitment to justice and accountability, and the gift that journalism can give activism is the commitment to curiosity. And that's why it's such a beautiful thing to bring the two together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lewis, thank you so much.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lewis Raven Wallace is the author of The View from Somewhere and host of the podcast of the same name.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanwsworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Adrienne Lily.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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