In a New Podcast, Lewis Wallace Is Out to Smash the “Falsehood of Objectivity” in Journalism
He was fired for refusing to choose between journalism and activism. Now, he wants to tell the stories of other reporters like him.
In January 2017, Lewis Wallace, then a reporter for the public radio show Marketplace, wrote a blog post assailing the “falsehood of objectivity” in journalism. “I argue that our minds — and our listeners’ and readers’ minds — are strong enough to hold that we can both come from a particular perspective and still tell the truth,” he wrote. “And I have the sense that this distinction is important in this moment, because we are going to have to fight for and defend what it means to serve the public as journalists.”
One week into the Trump administration, Wallace was deeply troubled by the President’s adversarial stance towards the rights of transgender people and the importance of the free press. “I felt that as journalists, we needed to adopt strategies towards this that were fierce,” Wallace says. “We needed to go above and beyond in calling out white supremacy and transphobia, as well as pushing back against the direct attacks on journalism and free speech and democracy itself.”
Days later, his employers at Marketplace asked him to take the post down. When he refused, they fired him, claiming that the post violated Marketplace’s commitment to objectivity and neutrality. Wallace went public with the story of his firing, sharing it with The Washington Post, On the Media, and the Daily Beast, among others.
Wallace wants to tell the stories of journalists who challenged “objectivity”
Wallace’s commitment to challenging objectivity in journalism led him to write a book, The View from Somewhere, out later this year from the University of Chicago Press. He also plans to start a podcast of the same name; he’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter to produce the pilot episode.
Both the book and the podcast will tell the stories of journalists who have challenged the value of “objectivity” in journalism, interweaving their reporting with advocacy and activism: people like Ida B. Wells, who exposed the barbaric practice of lynching in the U.S. South, and Ruben Salazar, who documented the Chicano civil rights movement in the 1960s. The podcast will also feature the voices of those reporting on contemporary social and political movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too, sex workers’ rights, and disability justice.
Journalists should question what stories get told, how they get told — and why
Wallace points to Black Lives Matter as a particularly poignant example of how advocacy journalism can overturn the status quo. In August 2014, a white police officer shot and killed a 22-year-old black man, John Crawford III, in a Walmart. Wallace, who was working as a reporter at a local radio station in Ohio at the time, put together a perfunctory report about the incident, then moved on. Just a few days later, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking a wave of protests and drawing increased media attention to the nascent Black Lives Matter movement.
Journalists embedded in Black Lives Matter went beyond “objective,” “just the facts” reporting, starting a critical discussion about the systemic injustices carried out against African-Americans in the United States. They called attention to “police shootings that had been treated as routine by the police and by the media and [said], ‘This is no longer acceptable,’” Wallace says.
“John Crawford’s death was a really stark example of how something can just breeze past you if you’re not attuned to the racial dynamics,” he says. “I was really disturbed by my own reaction as a white leader in the newsroom, not taking this report very seriously.”
“These questions about what we cover, how we cover it, and how much we cover it have always been about race and power, and about white supremacy as it operates in our newsrooms.”
Wallace hopes the podcast will pave a path for purpose-driven journalism
With the podcast, Wallace hopes not only to bring the stories of historically marginalized individuals and communities to the fore, but to outline a way forward for purpose-driven reporting that casts aside “the performance of neutrality.” And he wants emerging journalists to feel empowered to create journalism that also functions as a tool for activism and advocacy.
“I have heard so many times from young people with strongly held values — often queer people, people of color, trans people like myself — who have said to me, ‘I feel like I have to choose between being a journalist and being an advocate for my community, because I’ve been told over and over that I can’t be a real journalist if I’m an advocate,’” Wallace says.
But for people who belong to historically oppressed groups, journalism and activism can’t necessarily be teased apart. As Wallace put it in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review: “When your survival is a ‘public issue,’ a clear line between professional life and advocacy is exposed as a privilege.”
“The journalism we need in our communities is always going to focus on the people who are marginalized, because that’s most of us.”
“Journalists of color and others from historically marginalized communities are [always] having to chip away at the barriers that mainstream journalism has put in place,” says Ramona Martinez, a freelance radio producer whom Wallace tapped to produce The View from Somewhere.
And that’s precisely what this podcast aims to do. “Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo,” Martinez notes. With The View from Somewhere, she and Wallace hope to make an irrefutable case for smashing it to smithereens.