Journalistic “Objectivity” Is Being Weaponized to Silence Oppressed People

“Objectivity is in itself a slippery slope that can actually lead to not telling the truth, or requiring journalists to withhold statements of fact,” says Lewis Raven Wallace. It was this statement which ultimately led to Wallace being fired from Marketplace in 2017. What was it about this statement that resulted in the public radio show’s leadership feeling the need to take this action? The answer to this is laid out in Wallace’s new book, The View From Somewhere, where the concept of journalistic objectivity is examined closely in an era of Trumpian doublespeak and “alternative facts.”

“Very fine people on both sides,” Donald Trump infamously remarked, a mere eight months after taking office. That was how the president of the United States responded to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 — an event that saw hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists and neo-Nazis gather to march and chant anti-Semitic slogans. The event drew in hundreds of counterprotesters and anti-fascist demonstrators, and resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a peaceful counterprotester who was run over in a car by a white supremacist named James Fields.

It was Trump’s response to this event that compelled many mainstream, corporate news outlets to finally begin characterizing the president as an outright racist, something which they had been hesitant to do up to that point. “Racially tinged,” “racially charged” and “racially motivated” were terms that had been deployed by many news outlets that tried desperately to dance around the word “racist” up to that point — but it seems like after Charlottesville, things began to change. But why?

What is it about the culture and code of ethics in newsrooms that made it so difficult for journalists to use the word “racist”? And going beyond Trump, how has the myth of objectivity — a concept that Wallace meticulously unpacks and dismantles — been used by the media and those in power to maintain the status quo and to suppress dissent? Truthout spoke with Wallace about his time working in public media and how his experiences led him to begin asking some of these important and largely unexamined questions.

Robert R. Raymond: In January 2017, you wrote a personal blog post titled, “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it.” You were fired from your job at Marketplace promptly after. Can you talk about why you wrote that blog post, what it was about, and the series of events that unfolded after it was posted?

Lewis Raven Wallace: Like a lot of people, I was overwhelmed in that time period with a sense of urgency around how journalists and journalism were going to respond to the increasing normalization of white supremacy and transphobia, as well as the scapegoating of marginalized people in the United States. This had, of course, already been going on for a long time, but Trump’s rise to power correlated with a documented increase in violence against people of color as well as with LGBTQ people. I was curious in that moment how journalists were going to stand up to the Trump administration and what that would look like given the constraints of traditional objectivity. And so the blog post was written in the spirit of both understanding that I, along with a lot of other journalists, don’t actually think of ourselves as objective. We think of ourselves as having a purpose and recognizing that being transparent in this moment about what that purpose is could actually help us to build trust with audiences — particularly people who have been traditionally underrepresented in the media.

So the blog post explores that idea and comes at it from my perspective as a transgender person who has seen trans issues move from not being covered at all, to being covered in some really crappy ways by mainstream media, to eventually getting more fair coverage over time. But I’ve always seen journalism as an activist project — or at least something that can’t really be separated from activism.

The blog post addressed all of that and called for other journalists working in public media alongside me to explore these ideas in public. After I posted it, I was asked by Marketplace to take it down. Initially I did, but then I realized that this just wasn’t a moment to be compromising on whether it’s biased or partisan to say that Trump benefits from white supremacy. I thought, and still think, that that’s just true. And so I decided to put the blog post back up in defiance of my employers. So they fired me.

I’m sure it’s not just Marketplace — a lot of people probably raise their eyebrows when they hear a journalist questioning the idea of journalistic objectivity. Can you outline your broader critique of this somewhat nebulous term for readers who might be thinking, “What’s wrong with being objective?”

I think there are at least two senses of the term “objectivity.” One of them is a narrow, scientific sense of something that is externally verifiable. But then there is the broader interpretation of objectivity that says that journalists themselves should be as unbiased, neutral, impartial and really as detached as possible in their approach to storytelling. It’s primarily the second, broader interpretation of objectivity that I take issue with — although I think there are also philosophical questions about the matter of “objective truth” itself. But my project is really about looking at how “objectivity” has been used to enforce and uphold status quo opinions and points of view.

Pretty much since its inception, the journalistic interpretation of objectivity [in the U.S.] — or of being impartial or neutral — has meant reflecting back the status quo, so therefore generally white, male, cisgender views of the world. Views of the world that come from outside of that status quo are [viewed as] inherently suspect, biased or not impartial enough. So ultimately, my critique of objectivity stems from the way that it has been weaponized against marginalized and oppressed people as a way of silencing them.

Can you give some examples of how journalistic objectivity has been weaponized against journalists who want to effect social or political change?

We see a lot of examples of that today in the so-called debates over whether or not to call Trump and his movement racist or white supremacist. Multiple journalists, mostly journalists of color, have been wrist-slapped, punished, or in some way pulled back from the podium for simply stating that. It’s a perfect case study for how objectivity is in itself a slippery slope that can actually lead to not telling the truth, or requiring journalists to withhold statements of fact.

And then historically there are many fascinating examples. One of my favorite ones is a story about a woman named Sandy Nelson, who was a reporter at the Tacoma News Tribune in the 1980s and who was also working to fight against discriminatory policy against LGBT people in the city of Tacoma, Washington, [in] her off time. She was gay herself and an activist for gay rights in her non-work capacity. After the Tacoma News Tribune got bought out by a big conglomerate called McClatchy, the new leadership came after her and said, “You have to stop your activism or you can’t be a reporter here anymore.” She defiantly responded by saying, “I can’t separate my activism from who I am as a gay woman, so I’m not going to stop my activism.” She ultimately ended up having to leaving journalism. So, she is a case study — albeit a sad one — of one of the many people who have been told you need to choose between either standing up for your own humanity or being an “objective journalist.”

Her story also can’t be separated from the fact that she was also a labor organizer involved with union organizing and was duly targeted because of that. There are actually a lot of examples of that throughout history, where this guise of objectivity has actually been a form of social and political control of workers as a way to keep workers from organizing.

An interesting question that your work brings up is: Who gets to define objectivity in the first place? What perspective does it tend to come from and how does this inform what the term means and who it benefits? You conclude your book by writing, “Mine is not an argument against the rigorous pursuit of facts, or even an argument that the job of every journalist is to write opinion pieces all day and then protest by night.” So, what are you arguing for when it comes to journalism in a world now contending with the reality of “alternative facts” and a deep mistrust of the media encouraged by the Trump administration? How do we balance truth-seeking and journalistic rigor with the knowledge that there is always going to be a “view from somewhere?”

Anything that encourages us to know less and to be less curious is a dangerous thing. This rhetoric of the post-facts era in the hands of people like Donald Trump or any authoritarian is extremely dangerous. It’s not the same as an assertion of the existence of multiple truths or an assertion of the necessity to explore the world through the lens of multiple subjectivities. The latter is really an act of curiosity and openness, whereas the former — the idea that nothing at all can be true — represents a very dangerous cynicism.

In my book, and also in my public talks, I avoid presenting a clear-cut path forward. I avoid being prescriptive in talking about this is the way that journalism should be or should not be. I think that our solutions to capitalism, power and oppression have to be developed collectively and have to be developed from the ground up through grassroots work and community organizing. In that sense, I see myself as part of a movement not just to change journalism, but to change the country and the world toward liberation and justice for people. Anything that we can envision, we can eventually collectively create. But the path forward itself has to be crafted collectively and with the leadership of the people who have been the most marginalized.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.