Trump won’t need to silence journalists if media orgs beat him to it
A few notes on something happening in the media that I think is scary: This week an excellent reporter named Lewis Wallace was fired from his job at Marketplace. Full disclosure!: Lewis is my boyfriend. So I’ll cop to being biased on the “excellent” appraisal (to get a sense of Lewis’s work, see his recent pieces about private prisons in Georgia, Trump voters and opponents in Ohio, and the Detroit housing market), but what I’m actually concerned about is the reason he was fired, and what it says about how the mainstream media is adapting, or failing to, in the age of Trump.
Last Wednesday Lewis, who blogs occasionally about his work, published a post on Medium wondering aloud what the standard journalistic commitment to “objectivity” means right now, when what seem otherwise like established facts are treated by the White House, among others, as anything but. You can read the whole thing here. There’s not particularly a central argument, but mostly an invitation to dialogue, and a few observations: for instance, that “neutrality” is an impossible fiction, particularly for marginalized people, whose very lives are often treated in the media as fruitful sites for nihilistic both-sides-ism.
“Let’s hear both sides,” for instance, is the journalistic ethic that guided the New Republic to famously publish an excerpt of The Bell Curve wondering whether black people are genetically inferior. That was in 1994; for historical perspective here is then New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan defending in 2014 his decision to print the material in question: “I decided we should tackle it head on. We should air its most controversial argument and expose it to scrutiny and criticism.” Also: “In my view, ducking this issue was not an option and even seemed cowardly.”
Just asking questions! Sullivan is now a writer at New York magazine, which goes to show how far you can get in life as an intellectually mediocre white man fearless enough to tackle the tough subject of eugenics. PBS, last year, gave some space to The Bell Curve coauthor Charles Murray to publish a quiz, widely shared on social media, re: whether Americans “live in a bubble.” In short, current journalistic standards of objectivity stipulate that just raising questions about whether black people are subhuman will ruin no white man’s career.
Meanwhile, as Lewis, who is trans, points out, he’s “never had the opportunity to pretend I can be ‘neutral’” with respect to who he is — what’s the counterargument? He doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t? “The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood,” he writes. “On that note, can people of color be expected to give credence to ‘both sides’ of a dispute with a white supremacist?”
Which is a particularly salient question now, of course, given that the executive branch of the United States is, as a matter of policy and resume, full-on white supremacist. I don’t need to rehash all of Lewis’s points, but suffice it to say they are not even particularly radical, and they lean toward arguing for a more transparently honest, inclusive media: “We need to admit that those who oppose free speech, diversity and kindergarten-level fairness are our enemies,” Lewis writes. And: “I think marginalized people, more than ever now, need to be at the table shaping the stories the fact-based news media puts out. … 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.” He comes out against old notions of objectivity but in favor of fairness and truthfulness, a crucial distinction. The “view from nowhere” is a canard that favors power. Fairness and truthfulness aren’t, and don’t.
After he published the piece, Lewis’s bosses at Marketplace suspended him for the remainder of last week and asked that he remove the post. They said it violated the show’s “ethics” policy, which you can read here. Lewis took the post down and, after deciding that unpublishing didn’t sit well with his own sense of ethics, put it back up, writing in a long note to them his reasons for doing so. Marketplace fired him Monday morning; find Lewis’s notes on his firing here.
One imagines that a passage that particularly raised the bosses’ pique was this: “We will be called politically correct, liberal and leftist. We shouldn’t care about that nor work to avoid it.”
Though it might hurt Marketplace’s feelings, these labels inevitably afflict any journalist who treats as fact such radically knowable notions as: Climate change is real. Crime in American cities is historically low. Muslims are people. As we saw this past weekend, The Holocaust was inspired by anti-Semitism is not any longer something the executive branch of the most powerful country in the world will consider settled history—the genocide of Jewish people has abruptly entered into the realm of “PC” as far as our highest institutions of power go. But the fact that treating observable reality as such will cause journalists to be labeled “politically correct” — and this is exactly, of course, what Lewis was getting at — doesn’t mean that we should stop observing reality.
What Lewis was arguing for was an ethics of courage in journalism: Don’t be cowed by people who are brazenly full of shit, as the Trump regime is—and this is not an opinion but a richly, empirically verifiable fact, as plain as a New York Times headline. Do not shift the center of discussion in a way that accommodates their lies. (And keep in mind that the people who tell them are literally fascists and Nazis, who want black and Latino people killed, women subjugated, Muslims eradicated, and trans and queer people written out of existence.)
But at the same time, consider how what’s already established as the range of indisputable public viewpoints mostly privileges a white, male perspective, and what it might take to change that. Envision a world in which we might accept as uncontroversial that trans people should exist, black people shouldn’t be murdered by police officers, rising global temperatures indicate something alarming — and so forth. Imagine what it would look like to have as integral parts of our newsrooms people who took notions like that for granted, not as intellectual abstractions or subjects up for debate, and who didn’t have to pretend the other side was worth entertaining—people whose sense of journalistic ethics grew out of a sense that they themselves deserve to live. This is the opportunity Marketplace had, and that it rejected.
Mainstream media institutions have never acquitted themselves well with respect to heterodox internal viewpoints, particularly from marginalized communities, but at this particular moment Marketplace’s choice seems especially galling, cowardly, a sop to fascism — it’s of a piece with, for instance, NPR’s refusal to call lies “lies,” and the network’s bizarre apologia for white nationalists.
It’s ironic, and maybe inevitable, that Lewis was fired for critiquing this very trend — the drift toward normalizing hate, toward welcoming it into the sphere of both-sides discourse. Despite Steve Bannon’s recent threats to media, we’re not yet being forced into silence; institutions like NPR and Marketplace are affirmatively choosing to lie down to authoritarianism, in hopes of appeasing audiences who place in them no credibility in the first place, indeed, who follow Donald Trump in considering journalists “scum.” These are the viewpoints that Marketplace is choosing to privilege over those of far less actually privileged populations.
I think their cowardice is deeply scary, and if you agree I hope you’ll tell them so: Marketplace’s executive producer, Deborah Clark, is at email@example.com, and you can reach her boss, Jon McTaggart, the president of American Public Media, at firstname.lastname@example.org. (To be honest I think our media institutions need leaders far less cowardly than Clark clearly is, and that’s an opinion I intend to direct at Mr. McTaggart.) We need a media that will not relent in the face of fascism, and decisions like Marketplace’s don’t really impart much hope.