But even with that seemingly broad consensus that things have changed, many newsroom leaders are dealing with some old questions in some old ways — even as they position themselves as having evolved past those earlier norms.
One example: The public radio program Marketplace. This week, reporter Lewis Wallace wrote that Marketplace had fired him “for publishing a post on my personal blog about being a transgender journalist exploring what it means to do truthful, ethical journalism with a moral compass in this very complex time.” Here’s an extended excerpt from Wallace’s original post, “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it“:
Neutrality isn’t real: Neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you, too. As a member of a marginalized community (I am transgender), I’ve never had the opportunity to pretend I can be “neutral.” After years of silence/denial about our existence, the media has finally picked up trans stories, but the nature of the debate is over whether or not we should be allowed to live and participate in society, use public facilities and expect not to be harassed, fired or even killed. Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity. The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood. On that note, can people of color be expected to give credence to “both sides” of a dispute with a white supremacist, a person who holds unscientific and morally reprehensible views on the very nature of being human? Should any of us do that? Final note here, the “center” that is viewed as neutral can and does shift; studying the history of journalism is a great help in understanding how centrism is more a marketing tactic to reach broad audiences than actual neutrality. Many of the journalists who’ve told the truth in key historical moments have been outliers and members of an opposition, here and in other countries. And right now, as norms of government shift toward a “post-fact” framework, I’d argue that any journalist invested in factual reporting can no longer remain neutral.
It matters who is making editorial decisions: I think marginalized people, more than ever now, need to be at the table shaping the stories the fact-based news media puts out. I think people crave the honesty, the uniqueness, the depth that comes out of bringing an actual perspective to our work. My experience is that audiences want us to be truthful and fair, but they don’t want us to be robots. And they don’t want us to all be white and male, a situation which creates its own sort of bias toward the status quo, male power and white racism.
“I wanted to hear what other journalists might think about it, and start a conversation about how media organizations need to adapt when freedom of information and the press are under attack,” Wallace — who says he was “the only out transgender reporter at Marketplace or, that I know of, at any national radio outlet” — wrote in a follow-up Medium post, “I was fired from my journalism job ten days into Trump.“
“I was asked, when I started there, to occasionally blog for Marketplace on Medium, as well as set up a Medium blog where I would write and talk about some of my own stuff,” Wallace, 32, told me. “I thought that was awesome. The idea that we were going to do digital experimentation, and that there would be more of a voice to our work — it was one of the reasons I wanted to work at Marketplace, one of the things I really liked about working there, and one of the big reasons I didn’t think that what I wrote would be controversial per Marketplace’s policies.”
He added: “I thought it might be controversial in terms of conversations with other journalists, and was hoping to have that conversation publicly. I thought that might be a great thing for Marketplace, in terms of developing the public trust and showing that we’re real people, thinking about things and trying to figure things out.”
Last week, Wallace was told that his post was in violation of Marketplace’s ethics code, and that he would be suspended from air and should not come into work for the rest of the week. He took down the post at Marketplace’s request; later, he republished it. On Monday, Deborah Clark, the executive producer and VP of Marketplace, fired him.
“She said that she felt I had made it clear what kind of journalism I want to do, and that that’s not the kind of journalism we do at Marketplace,” Wallace told me. “I said I thought this decision to fire me was a mistake. I said that I thought I had done great work at Marketplace, and that there was a lot more I could bring. I said the thing I wrote [in the Medium post] about the line between journalism and activism being, to me, not as clear as maybe she feels like it is — especially in this time when we have to stand up for truth, and for our work as journalists, more urgently. Those were the things that I said.”
To be clear, none of the work that Wallace had already done for Marketplace was being criticized. “The journalism that I did at Marketplace was never called into question,” he said. “I really did think that I wanted to do the kind of journalism that Marketplace wanted to do.”
Publications should recognize that trust with Big Media is down, and instead listen to staffers with mouthpieces, in the field.
— Annemarie Dooling (@TravelingAnna) January 31, 2017
What made this incident more remarkable is that, coincidentally, I’d interviewed Clark and other Marketplace staffers — Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood — for a piece I wrote about Marketplace’s renewed efforts to reach beyond the traditional public radio audience recently. And one of the things that we talked about — which I didn’t include in my final piece, but which is in my notes — was how Marketplace thinks about objectivity and neutrality, framed in part through an internal debate over using the word “lie.” Clark told me:
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) January 31, 2017
Marketplace has always been different than other news programs on public radio, and we don’t, as a shop, believe in the view from nowhere. I think that has its real limitations. I think that you see, you can see and hear that in the voice that we have on air, which is different, and you can also see it in social media.
For those who don’t follow the lingo in media studies debates, the “view from nowhere,” in a journalism context at least, is an idea Jay Rosen has been using for years to explain how many newsrooms think about objectivity.
In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.
When I spoke with Clark, she spoke favorably of Ryssdal’s Twitter account, where he is often clearly critical of Trump (though he passes it off in a somewhat impersonal, “just observing the news!” way more than Wallace did) and of the “different audience” that Ryssdal and Wood have built on social media. (Wallace told me it was “expected that we would tweet and kind of develop our own presence and our own voice in that”; when I asked him if he felt that the standard for him was different than it was for more senior Marketplace employees, he said, “I guess I would leave that to others to judge, just based on what I wrote and what they see that’s out there in the public.”)
Ryssdal also said to me when we spoke: “It’s really challenging right now to figure out how…to be as factual and neutral as possible when the whole playbook has changed and the landscape is different.” And he and Clark clearly disagreed on use of the word “lie” on air (“that’s very charged and I can tell you we don’t agree on it,” Ryssdal said. Clark: “We do not all agree on this; I have an issue with ‘lie’ because I think it implies an understanding of intent that is not always apparent. I think there’s that, and then I think ‘lie’ can be polarizing to somebody who might potentially agree with what you’re saying if what you’re doing is disagreeing, whereas if you use charged language, you’re driving them away”).
— Andrew Ramsammy (@ramsammy) January 31, 2017
It’s odd to see the same news organization, on one hand, brag about how it has moved beyond the viewlessness of old norms and given its senior journalists room to express their opinions, while on the other firing a junior staffer who had expressed thoughts that would barely be considered controversial in a Media Studies 101 class.
I asked Marketplace for a comment on Wallace’s piece, specifically in light of Clark’s comments during my previous interview with her. I received the following statement from Clark:
The Marketplace voice is something that makes us unique, it’s that balance of wit and the seriousness of the news that we try to strike. Anyone who listens to the shows we produce knows that’s what makes us special. When I talk about not being part of the ‘view from nowhere,’ that doesn’t mean we do advocacy or biased journalism. We do independent, objective reporting that brings forward a balanced point of view on the news we cover. We put real people on air — our interview subjects — and their real life experience is what helps shape that view, not the personal point of view of our journalists.
Marketplace also offered a company statement:
The broader issue around journalistic ethics is an ongoing one for the industry, with each media entity needing to define what it means for how they report. For Marketplace, it’s very clear. We are committed to raising the economic intelligence of all Americans. We accomplish that with independent and objective reporting that is based on facts, pursues the truth, and covers what’s happening in a fair and neutral way. Our journalists’ mission is to be honest, impartial, nonpartisan and independent in their work. Our team is a diverse group of professionals who have committed to that code of ethics. We don’t discuss personnel matters about current or former employees.
In a recent post arguing why reporters should be able to join the Women’s March — something forbidden by many newsrooms including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and NPR — Iranian-American journalist Shaya Tayefe Mohajer wrote:
It’s hypocrisy for journo organizations to not ask, who and what we are, and what are we doing? While we examine everyone else. @LewisPants
— Al Letson (@Al_Letson) January 31, 2017
This era promises to bring more challenges for diverse journalists, who have been harassed and targeted by Trump himself and by the rabid internet trolls who often back him…Newsrooms can’t selectively pretend away the diversity within their ranks when they feel it doesn’t serve them, only clinging to it when it produces better access and more richly reported stories from within minority communities. I fear the message such a rule really sends is: Welcome into our newsrooms, all you wonderfully diverse reporters and editors. Could you please leave your pesky identities and demands for fairness at the door?
If, through reporting, journalists see that the administration’s actions will change people’s lives for the worse, newsrooms must recognize that those people can include their own reporters. If we agree that increasing diversity within newsrooms is not only the right thing to do but imperative for the future of our industry, then newsroom leaders should acknowledge that straight white men have had the easiest time seeing the merits of — and have benefited most from — dictionary definitions of objectivity. Or, as Wallace put it in his second post:
I hope people understand my messages here: that we cannot have token diversity without making actual space for the realities of being a marginalized or oppressed person doing journalism; that we cannot look to the same old tools to defend truth in reporting; that we must work harder and do more to truly represent the communities we report on and on behalf of in order to build trust and remain relevant. I have always believed these things, but didn’t expect that these beliefs would be put so harshly to the test, so soon after Donald Trump came into power.