As President Trump continues to issue aggressive executive actions of frequently dubious legality, a look at whether journalists must revise the age-old mandate to remain neutral on all political matters.
First, Bob talks with Lewis Wallace, a former reporter for Marketplace. Wallace was fired earlier this week after publishing, and standing by, a piece on Medium declaring that in the age of Trump, "objectivity is dead, and I'm OK with that."
Then, Bob speaks with Kerry Lauerman, executive news director for Mic, about how the millennial-focused media outlet is in the process of crafting a new ethics policy for a new era: one that is less restrictive and allows for certain kinds of political expression.
You'll also hear from some of our listeners, who have a range of views on journalistic neutrality. Is it more important than ever now, or is it a luxury we can no longer afford?
Finally, Bob talks with WNYC's Vice President for News, Jim Schachter, about how he sees the role of the journalists at WNYC and whether our current political moment demands a reconsideration of traditional ethics.
Lullaby by Chargaux feat. Soft Glas
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. So many words aiming to describe journalistic fairness: balance, impartiality, objectivity, neutrality. Each is alone insufficient but together they are at the core of many news organizations’ policies on how journalists must comport themselves at work and off the clock, as well. We can't post political opinions on social media. We can't put a politician’s bumper sticker on our car or a sign on our lawn. And our spouses can’t either. We definitely can’t contribute to a political campaign. And if you are seen at a protest march, you had better have a notebook and pen in your hand. The point is to preserve dispassionate coverage but, even more, to keep you, the public, from doubting our motives and our reporting, itself.
But things have changed, haven't they, and some journalists, including some of the ones who make this show, have been questioning not only whether neutrality is possible but whether it is even the correct journalistic value versus perhaps intellectual honesty and rigor? And that includes Lewis Wallace. Until this week, he was a reporter for the public radio show Marketplace. Last week, he wrote a post on Medium raising questions about the viability of neutrality in the face of a post-fact administration and imploring journalists to fight back. Wallace, a transgender man, wrote, quote, “Neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you, too.” His Marketplace superiors suspended him for that, saying that the post violated the show’s ethics guidelines, and they demanded that he take it down. He complied but upon further reconsideration he republished and then Marketplace fired him, which he also wrote about on Medium.
Lewis welcome to On the Media.
LEWIS WALLACE: Hi.
BOB GARFIELD: “Objectivity is dead, and I'm okay with it,” at least in the context of public broadcasting at this moment in history, is on the provocative side. But, but I poured over the Marketplace ethics policy, looking for what part of it you might have violated and came up mostly empty handed, except for one thing, and that is the admonition to, quote, “keep your political opinions to yourself.” Now, you obviously steamrolled all over that one, but the question is, and I think it’s the fundamental question of your piece, is it possible to honestly discuss journalistic values of truth and being proxy for the powerless and identifying injustice, and so on, without being in some way political?
LEWIS WALLACE: Right, and I think what we do is political and that, in particular, under the Trump administration, it's become more so because we have people in positions of authority saying phrases like, “alternative facts,” routinely lying to the public about things. So the questions, I think, I was raising were about where is our moral center and the urgency of deciding where that is, you know, on the editorial side, essentially on the backend? But I would also argue on the front end, in terms of how we interact with the public, that I think the days where people believed that journalists are neutral and objective and sort of out of the mix are largely over, and that doesn't mean we should all become advocacy journalists and only do opinion pieces. We still need to do real hard reporting, and that's what my job was and I loved it, but I don't think that we’re benefiting the public or that we’re building trust with the public by pretending that we’re not asking these questions about what do we stand for in this moment when things are changing really fast.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I’m not suggesting you were out looking for trouble, however, [LAUGHS] Marketplace is in public broadcasting, and there is a line in your piece that goes as follows, “We will be called politically correct liberal and leftist. We shouldn’t care about that nor work to avoid it.” And, you know, I can see how one of your managers would say, oh yeah, sure, go ahead, Lewis, why not put a stake in the heart of public radio because this is exactly what the Republicans in Congress believe as they attempt to zero us out and get Radio Castro off the air, once and for all?
LEWIS WALLACE: I mean, I do think that that was the fear, in part. There was a fear about how that line would be perceived, and the argument that I was making is that the thing that we should be afraid of is a departure from truth and facts and a departure from reporting on the communities that public radio is in and is trying to represent and that if one of the byproducts of having a moral center is that we’re called “politically correct” or we’re called “liberals” or we’re called “leftists,” we just shouldn't worry about it. And I think part of why I feel comfortable saying that is because I have been called politically correct many times just because I'm a transgender person speaking up for myself kind of routinely in different situations and I really don't have time to care. Like, I'm a busy journalist, I can't worry about that. Those of us who are marginalized can bring a lot to the table, in terms of how do you be fair and honest and have integrity and also, when you need to, fight back? And I'm used to sort of knowing where that moral compass is, for me, because I've never had the privilege to have a really clear line between who I am and activism.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there's another irony of your circumstances that’s - kind of jaw dropping. It's my understanding that your employers at Marketplace actually encouraged you to have a personal blog, to think out loud about subjects exactly like this. Was this the first piece that raised anybody's hackles?
LEWIS WALLACE: It was, yeah, and I, I had been encouraged to keep a blog on Medium. I blogged a couple of times for Marketplace about my process of reporting in the field and had written about being trans and being a reporter, had written about thinking about racism and anti-blackness, while working in the field as a reporter. This was the first post that I’d written that was controversial, controversial with my managers, at least. [LAUGHS]
I do find it ironic. I think what Marketplace is trying to do right now is what a lot of organizations are trying to do, which is have more of an identity and be known as more of a cutting-edge organization. The idea of having its reporters keep a blog and be out there is a piece of that. And I was talking to another trans reporter who said, you know, what are you gonna blog about, if not these things? And that's kind of how I felt; you know, that's who I am.
BOB GARFIELD: What’s been the reaction?
LEWIS WALLACE: Overall, what I've been hearing is journalists saying, hey, yeah, we all know that objectivity and neutrality are shape-shifting ideas that in some ways have been sort of conceptually debunked long ago, and we do need new strategies and we need to be talking about it. So that's largely been the reaction, which to me has been really inspiring. And that is why I decided to be public about this, because I never had any desire to disparage an organization that I believe in the mission of, that's full of hardworking, incredible smart people. But I do think this conversation is important and, if anything, that has been echoed many times, including from people who said, I've been afraid that I would be fired or my integrity would be questioned, if I brought this up, but it's something I've been thinking about.
BOB GARFIELD: Lewis, thank you so much.
LEWIS WALLACE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Lewis Wallace, until a few days ago, was a journalist for Marketplace.
Marketplace’s senior vice president and executive producer, Deborah Clark, declined our request for an interview.
Marketplace decided to hold tight to a traditional ethics policy. Others are rewriting the rules, among them Mic, that’s M-I-C, short for “microphone,” a liberal-minded news and commentary website aimed at and run by millennials. Kerry Lauerman is Mic’s executive news director. Kerry, welcome to the show.
KERRY LAUERMAN: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, back in the old days – and by “the old days” I mean, November [LAUGHS] – your team wouldn’t have been permitted to go to the Women’s March and hold signs and otherwise display solidarity with what is fundamentally a political movement. That's changed, no?
KERRY LAUERMAN: With the Women’s March, it did allow staffers, when they came to us and asked if it was okay to participate in it, we said yes, you know, within reason. In that case, while clearly a response to the election, the larger tenets of the Women’s March were so broad and covered areas [LAUGHS] kind of so universally accepted, from, you know, wage equity onward, I think it's a little ludicrous to expect people, you know, even journalists, to not engage in the democratic process.
BOB GARFIELD: I get it that these are areas that you've identified as broad-based consensus issues, but some would argue that they’re not consensus issues at all, that they cleave very much down standard political lines. So, how do you make that list?
KERRY LAUERMAN: [LAUGHS] Sure, I think some of the ones would be pretty easy to mark off right away. You know, basic women's equity, that's pretty easy. Mic is a pretty modern company, in terms of supporting LGBTQ rights and so somebody who wanted to attend a basic speech promoting that, we would feel perfectly comfortable with. But I think, you know, a march for immigration rights may be one thing, a march that’s specifically attacking Donald Trump's executive order from last week would be another.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the publication itself, to scroll through it, offers a lot of, if not explicitly partisan content, at least content that very much holds Trump and his administration up to criticism, disparagement, even ridicule. I guess what I'm wondering is do you cleave to ethical purity more by being open to your inclinations or by hiding them behind a veil of supposed objectivity?
KERRY LAUERMAN: I think faking it for objectivity’s sake is a big mistake, and we encourage people to be incredibly transparent and clear about where they're coming from. We have a reporter, Erin Morrison, who has been deeply embedded over the course of the last year or more in the movement for Black Lives, and he's done it pretty dispassionately and very clear-eyed. I don't think you could read his coverage and feel he's creating a false sense of objectivity. He’s simply trying to get at the truth. And I think that's still the greatest goal.
BOB GARFIELD: Mic, like many newsrooms, makes its business to have a diverse staff, for a variety of reasons, not just social equity but for journalistic ones too, to bring a lot of other life experiences and, and worldviews to bear on the coverage of events. Another way of saying that is to have subjectivity in your very staffing, which is maybe antithetical to any notion of objectivity itself?
KERRY LAUERMAN: Yeah, I - you know, Mic is a unique case because it really started off as a media company with diversity as a clear tenet. Unlike big media organizations that I know I’ve belonged to in the past, it's not something that you have to try to suddenly embrace decades and decades after ignoring it. Mic’s staff is incredibly diverse in every way possible. I see that nothing but a huge advantage of ours. I do [LAUGHS] think it’s exactly those virtues which make the idea of objectivity as though it’s this sort of, you know, most pristine goal that anyone can achieve, it makes it seem a little ridiculous. We’re stronger by having people with different points of view approach things with those points of view. That doesn't mean that they can’t approach them open mindedly and fairly, so, yeah, it probably does further erode the sort of old-fashioned notion of objectivity, but I think that’s better for journalism too.
BOB GARFIELD: Kerry, thank you very much.
KERRY LAUERMAN: Thanks a lot, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Kerry Lauerman is executive news editor for Mic. That’s m-i-c.com.
Now we want to know what you think, and what we most want to know is do you want to know what we think? Should journalists strive for balance, objectivity and impartiality? And what if that disturbs our job to provide meaning and context? Should we pipe down on Twitter or should we be transparent about our viewpoints so that audiences can evaluate our journalism, accordingly? And is the Trump regime occasion to discard the rulebook altogether? We asked you to call in with comments, and [LAUGHS] we got a lot of responses. For many of you, objectivity, or at least the outward appearance of it, must be preserved. So say Laura Rosenberg, Jordan Lieb and Tess Sterling.
LAURA ROSENBERG: It would affect my opinion of a reporter if I knew they were at the March for Life or the Women’s March because you can't be in that environment and not be swayed.
JORDAN LIEB: I'm sure some members of the press have very strong personal views about certain issues, but more important than marching for those issues is reporting on them and arming the rest of us with the truth so we know exactly what we’re marching for.
TESS STERLING: We need more neutrality in the way that news is presented in order to combat fake news and to give this populace that is, for the first time in maybe a long time, really, really engaged, something to hold onto and something to make their own decision based on.
BOB GARFIELD: But for a lot of you, including Tebby Davis, Adam Lewis and Penny Gage, the time has come for a change.
TEBBY DAVIS: Journalists are human beings and they must, by living, have an opinion, have a preconceived notion of right and wrong. Yes, I do believe the journalists would be well within their rights, as an American citizen, to protest, voice their opinion, whether it's on the air, off the air.
ADAM LEWIS: They are members of a society whose very existence is currently under threat and they, they should be afforded the opportunity to participate.
PENNY GAGE: Allowing reporters to peacefully and respectfully express these opinions in marches or by contacting their elected representatives helps them feel like their voice matters, even outside of their job.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of you said that the pretense of neutrality was far more irksome than the expression of opinions. Here’s Gail Gatchalian, Elizabeth King and Mark Otal.
GAIL GATCHALIAN: When a reporter says, I am objective, I am almost more suspicious but if they express their political opinion, I at least know where they're coming from and can use that information as an additional data point when interpreting the reporting.
ELIZABETH KING: Knowing that journalists do, in fact, have biases, I think that as consumers we deserve to know what those biases are. Let us know how you really feel so that we can be better critical media consumers.
MARK OTAL: This idea that because you’re a journalist you need to be 24/7 serious, straight down-the-line just the facts, ma'am, that just doesn't make any sense to me.
BOB GARFIELD: And finally, some of you said that neutrality was all well and good once upon a time, but for Greg Davis, at least, it's a luxury we can no longer afford.
GREG DAVIS: The rules have changed a little bit since November, and we have to consider that quote often misattributed to Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintained their neutrality.
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BOB GARFIELD: To all of you who sent us voice memos – and there were a lot of you – thank you very much.
Okay, now we get meta because On the Media is itself subject to all of the same concerns as the people we cover. And we’ve made some choices of our own that, criticism show or not, fly in the face of public radio norms. So we sought an audience with our boss, WNYC's Vice President for News, Jim Schachter, who has been obliged of late to clarify these issues in his newsroom.
JIM SCHACHTER: It’s hard, and I think that we have to be honest about the complexities of this and, and kind of compassionate in our thinking about it. I’m, I’m going to tell you a story about how this has gone through my mind over the last couple of weeks. So, earlier this month, my wife and my three daughters all set off to, to Washington to the Women’s March with their pink knit hats on their heads, and I said to them, you know, I'm going to in public ignore this. I'm not going to be posting on Facebook or tweeting or putting pictures up on Instagram that you send me from Washington because you're going to engage in an act of politics and of criticism of the Trump administration that is anathema to me as a journalist. It's your right but it's not my privilege as a journalist. And I was very clear on that in my own head.
A week later, the restrictions on refugee resettlement and, and travel from Muslim countries came down the pike and my head was, was a mess. My mother was a, a refugee from Nazi Germany, my wife's father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and I found myself thinking, well, this is a human rights matter, this isn’t a political matter, and then had an honest discussion with my wife and daughters where I said, you know, a week ago you were telling me that the Women’s March was about human rights matters, too. So I think we have to acknowledge the complexity of all this and we have to be honest with our audiences about the complexities in our own mind and be decently transparent about that and then make sure that we have not damaged our credibility in a way that stops us from doing the important work of journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder if there is some sort of inherent deception in the pretense there for the public's view that we have no personal views, that may or may not influence our coverage or that we make professional judgments all the time that explicitly do influence our coverage? Is there a dishonesty in our attempt to portray ourselves as journalistic automatons?
JIM SCHACHTER: I think there’s less and less evidence of our portraying ourselves that way. I was reading The New York Times this morning on my train ride to work and read a beautiful short piece by Helene Cooper, their Pentagon correspondent, telling the story of her family's exodus from Liberia after her mother was raped in the midst of a civil war there, and Helene clearly chose her words very carefully but was telling a story about why she was empathetic to the people who found themselves last weekend stuck at airports around the world because of the, the President's executive order. Does that mean that Helene has now made it impossible for herself to continue covering the Pentagon for The New York Times? I don't think so. I think that her editors, in allowing her to write that piece and then to publish it, is saying, I'm a human being who is processing these events through the prism of my experience, both as a person and as a professional. And I think I see more and more and more of that going on, as opposed to what might be a past generation’s pretense of neutrality.
BOB GARFIELD: In your earlier answers, if I am characterizing this right, you were couching it in terms of what outsiders might think if they see certain behaviors, see certain tweets, Instagram pictures of family members in pink knit caps, and so forth. Not to suggest that our reputation doesn't matter – obviously, it does – but how much do the various ethics rules at news organizations, like WNYC, concern the perception of partisanship or unfairness versus the, the best way to gather and contextualize the news? Are we excessively focusing on the optics?
JIM SCHACHTER: I don’t think that I'm overly focused on the optics. To disclose to the audience of On the Media, a few days after the election in November, there were a lot of bruised feelings at WNYC. People were quite concerned and upset and, you know, there was a little bit of existential fear in the air, as I think there, there was in many newsrooms. And I didn't talk to the staff about the optics. I talked to the staff about what our, our role was in society. And our role in society is to do work in a way that people will believe what we’ve found and what we’ve reported.
BOB GARFIELD: We have, on our program, done something closer to the primal scream that many people in the newsroom were suppressing the day after the election. How – [LAUGHS] how can I put this in a way that doesn't –
JIM SCHACHTER: “Is it hard to be your boss, Bob,” is that the question?
BOB GARFIELD: No, [LAUGHS] well, I mean, yes, I know the answer to that question.
I know our audience really appreciates this; they really respond to this. Is there a risk of feeding up more of what the audience seems genuinely to crave?
JIM SCHACHTER: Well, if you're asking, is there a risk to journalists switching from a path of honest inquiry about matters of consequence to being dispensers of red meat to an audience that they train to be evermore bloodthirsty, I believe that question answers itself.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] That was – withering. On the other hand, the times they are a changin’, and based on what we are experiencing now and the fact that we're even having this conversation, is this occasion to revisit the rules of ethics and conduct that have governed us for decades?
JIM SCHACHTER: Here's what I've been saying to my staff: Can I imagine a time in America when we should lay down our pens and microphones and take up our swords, ‘cause I think that's essentially what you're asking? Do we set aside the principles and values of journalism and engage in advocacy because we are at a, at a moment where we need to, you know, mount the battlements? I can imagine that. Like I said, my mother is a refugee from Nazi Germany. It’s not hard for me to imagine it at all. But once you've done that, you can't go back.
So I think that vigilance and constant discussion and conversation about how we do our job, what our job is, how the job evolves is absolutely in order, but it's - not time.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim, thank you very much.
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JIM SCHACHTER: You bet, I’m always happy to come talk to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim Schachter is the vice-president of news for WNYC.
Coming up, automating ourselves to death. Are secret algorithms undermining democracy? This is On the Media.