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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