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Objectivity in Journalism Is a Deadly Myth That Serves Israeli Military and Cops

“The whole Israeli propaganda machine, the hasbara effort, has been so effective,” says Lewis Raven Wallace.

Part of the Series

“If you think about all the cop shows and you think about the birthright tours and you think about all the friendship visits of U.S. officials to Israel, where it’s as if there’s no Palestine, and you think about Coffee With A Cop, these are all in the same school of actually deeply violent, militaristic propaganda that tries to soften something that only exists to control vulnerable people,” says journalist Lewis Raven Wallace. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Raven Wallace talks with host Kelly Hayes about the similarities between copaganda, which launders the image of U.S. policing, and the pro-Israel bias of corporate media outlets.

Music by Son Monarcas & Pulsed

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. This week, we are talking about journalism, the myth of objectivity, and the biases that shape our media landscape. These biases are especially noticeable when certain topics, like policing or Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, are discussed in the corporate press. For example, a report published in The Intercept found that major publications in the U.S. have “disproportionately emphasized Israeli deaths” since October 7, and “used emotive language to describe the killings of Israelis, but not Palestinians.” So, how should we navigate this sea of bias masquerading as objectivity, and how should journalism function amid so much injustice? Today, I will be speaking with author, journalist and Interrupting Criminalization fellow Lewis Raven Wallace. Lewis’ book, The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, and their podcast, which is also called The View from Somewhere are great resources for people who are trying to understand why the corporate press fails us so miserably, and how journalists can do better. This is a tough time to be a journalist, and it’s also a tough time to be a reader who is trying to make sense of the world. As an industry, journalism is in a state of collapse, with endless layoffs, ubiquitous misinformation, billionaires and the garbage speak of AI tearing apart an already troubled field. At its best, journalism can help us develop a shared understanding of our world, what we’re up against, and what we owe to each other. So, how can we make and find that kind of journalism in a world on fire? We’re going to get into that today.

If you appreciate this episode, and you would like to support “Movement Memos,” you can subscribe to Truthout’s newsletter or make a donation at truthout.org. You can also support the show by subscribing to the podcast on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, or by leaving a positive review on those platforms. Sharing episodes on social media is also a huge help. As a union shop with the best family and sick leave policies in the industry, we could not do this work without the support of readers and listeners like you, so thanks for believing in us and for all that you do. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.

[musical interlude]

KH: Lewis Raven Wallace, welcome to the show.

Lewis Raven Wallace: Hi, Kelly. I’m so happy to be here.

KH: Thank you so much for joining us today.

LRW: Thank you for having me.

KH: Can you tell our audience a little bit about yourself and your work?

LRW: Sure. My name is Lewis Raven Wallace. I live on Occaneechi and Eno Saponi land in what’s now known as Durham, North Carolina. I’m a writer and author. I wrote a book called The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity and I’m also the abolition journalism fellow at Interrupting Criminalization.

KH: I have so much love for Interrupting Criminalization, and I’m excited to talk about the work you’ve been doing there. But let’s start with your book, because I think your arguments around the myth of journalistic objectivity offer a necessary framework for discussing what’s wrong with journalism today, and what we have the potential to get right. Like you, I don’t believe that journalistic objectivity exists. I believe that normalizing the status quo is a political position and a bad one. So as a jumping off point, why do you describe objectivity as a myth?

LRW: One of my primary collaborators on the book and the podcast, Ramona Martinez, she once said to me (actually the first time we met), “Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo.” And so I think your point, Kelly, kind of sums it up — that objectivity is in fact an ideological stance that represents how things have been is how things will be. And The View From Somewhere is a history of that and so it looks back to journalism before objectivity, before even the concept and framework of objectivity existed in the United States and finds that that journalism was heavily and openly partisan and then over time, that shifted away from a partisan, openly opinionated style towards a more performatively neutral style. And the main reason for that was marketing. Trying to sell more papers to more people and also trying to not anger advertisers. So it was really the shift to advertising-funded media that led to objectivity rather than the other way around.

Those ideas developed over many decades, this idea that journalists should appear to be unbiased, nonpartisan, and objective, and in concert with also this whole idea of the scientific method. And sometime around the 1920s, people started talking about journalism as almost like the science of news that you would go out and objectively study. And the problem with that was, is, always has been, that these assumptions about what is a neutral question? What is an unbiased approach? What two sides should be included in a both sides story? Those questions have always been inherently biased by the status quo. So normalizing the experience of white, straight, cisgender men and often excluding and ignoring the experiences, and importantly, I think, the ideas, of Indigenous people, Black people, queer people, gay and trans people. And as objectivity became a more central framework for journalism in the United States, it was almost immediately used to suppress organizing, silence voices of color and Black voices and gay and then later on trans voices.

KH: I really appreciate the way you distill that history in your work, and I think it’s a fascinating example of how market-driven concepts sort of solidify into pseudo-sacred truths under capitalism. In the case of journalistic objectivity, failing to couch our work in “neutrality” is often treated as an ethical failing, which couldn’t be more ridiculous. Here at Truthout, for example, we are open about the fact that our reporting and analysis are grounded in a recognition that the world needs to change. Given that we are all on an annihilatory path toward our own destruction, and potentially, the destruction of most life on Earth, via climate collapse, acknowledging that things are fucked and that we need transformative change should be a baseline expectation. This should not even be a question. The systems that govern our lives and our relationship to the planet are blowing it, and the price is being paid in real time. We all know this. And yet, this very basic recognition that transformative change is necessary is seen as this radical departure from the ethics of journalism.

LRW: Right. And you have to wonder, and I did wonder and wrote a book about it, whose interest does that protect, this idea that journalism shouldn’t really be about anything or it’s not credible? That it shouldn’t be for or against anything or it’s not credible? In an era of climate change. I mean, in the era of slavery. That’s an example that I think makes it really stark for people of like, you can have a both sides conversation for sure about whether or not slavery is okay, and that in fact is what people did in these purportedly neutral, white-run papers in that era.

And then later, papers like The New York Times would have these kind of debates about very basic ideas of racial equality and whether or not Jim Crow laws and whether or not lynching. And those are conversations that, sure, you can have if you pretend that there’s a neutral ground to stand on, but the idea that anyone should be outside of those fundamental life-and-death kind of conversations, that we shouldn’t have a bias towards Black lives mattering or towards stopping climate catastrophe, that idea excludes so many people from the conversation and denies, I think, the potential for what journalism can be.

KH: Absolutely. And, as you lay out in your work, the myth of neutrality does not avoid media bias, it simply replicates the most normalized biases that govern our lives. In your work as the Abolition Journalism Fellow at Interrupting Criminalization, you take on one of the most insidious biases in U.S. media known as copaganda. Can you tell us a bit about that work?

LRW: I feel so lucky that I get to work there, first of all. It’s an amazing organization that works, as you know, to end the criminalization of women and girls and gender-nonconforming Black and Brown people and through a lot of different means. And so one of the things that Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie, who are the leaders of the organization, have always recognized is just how important journalism and media are. And in fact, Mariame Kaba is one of the reasons that I originally became a journalist, which is a whole other story, but she kind of sent me off to go learn to do journalism. I did that. I would say in many ways I participated in quite a bit of copaganda. I was never a quote unquote “crime reporter,” but there was an era, in fact in 2014, the time of the uprisings in Ferguson and then around the country, when I was covering a police killing, the police murder of John Crawford III inside of a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio.

And I not just witnessed, but I would say participated in that kind of reflexive repeating of police press releases that journalists do when police kill someone. And so I aired a broadcast the day after John Crawford III was murdered by a police officer inside the Walmart that said a bunch of things that the cops had said about what happened. All of those things turned out to be lies. John Crawford was carrying a gun, he was pointing it at people, he this, that, and the other. None of that was true, and we don’t need to get into the details here, but it was a classic but egregious example of police just simply covering their asses by totally lying and then reporters repeating it. I was one of those reporters.

In retrospect, I obviously have a lot of regret and anger about my own participation in that and I’m very interested in and committed to how can we create conditions where journalists are never ever participating in criminalizing Black and Brown people as a form of pro-police propaganda. And journalists do so much of that on the job, especially in local news and especially in crime coverage, but I would say also in coverage of police killings. Repeating verbatim the lies of the cops, airing things about these positive things that cops are doing. Associating the concept of public safety with the cops, that’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, that there’s been people talking about campus safety and campus public safety and putting funds toward campus safety, and that actually means police in that context. And so this idea that police and safety are equivalent, which is just a straight-up lie. But I think that’s the result of a lot of very successful propaganda on the part of police and police organizations over, now, many decades.

And so all that is to say what I do at Interrupting Criminalization is help journalists cut through the propaganda and pro-police messaging that can be blatant or can be subtle and figure out different ways to tell stories or different stories to tell. What we focus on also matters a lot.

KH: It’s so interesting to me that Mariame is one of the reasons that you became a journalist, because she’s also one of the reasons that I became a journalist.

LRW: That’s cool. She just put us up to it. We were like, “Okay. Take one for the team.”

KH: You know, she’s put me up to a lot of things over the years, and she’s yet to steer me wrong. But in this case, it was really about encouraging me to reconnect with something I loved, which was writing. I actually studied creative writing years ago, and I moved away from that work for some difficult and intensely personal reasons. And years later, Mariame asked me to write a guest post on her blog about my experiences at some of the protests in Ferguson in 2014. Simply being offered that invitation opened a door for me, I think, psychologically, but more importantly, the actual work of writing reminded me that this part of me was still alive and capable. It was like a reborn belief that, “Oh yeah, I can string words together in ways that are meaningful and useful, and these words are worth sharing with the world.” It was that assignment that gave me the confidence, the next time I was angry about how a protest was being covered, to start my own blog and tell the story myself. I am really grateful to Mariame for that, and for the way that she encourages organizers to document our movements, since we cannot rely on the mainstream media as keepers of history. We have to keep our own history if we want meaningful lessons to be drawn from anything we do — and I think that’s never been as important as it is right now.

LRW: It’s so amazing, because I feel like it’s a weird, hard job (journalism), and there is a little bit of… I don’t want to say, it doesn’t have to be ego, but there’s a little bit of like, self-confidence of being like, “Okay, I’ll write the thing,” or “I’ll make the thing.” And for me and I know for you too, the whole purpose of that is to be in service to the movement and to be purposeful about what stories we tell and how and to help people get their stories out in the world in their own voices. And I feel like for me, Mariame was a, and she’s done this for so many people, a person who reached in and said, “You can do this and in fact, I think it’s important that you do this,” and that gave me so much confidence and direction that I don’t know that I would’ve felt sure, especially going because I worked in mainstream journalism for five years. And going into that world I had a lot of fears about losing my moral and ethical compass and I was also in mainstream journalism during the Ferguson uprisings and I truly did have a lot of questions about the morals and ethics of being in mainstream media at that time.

And then I ended up getting fired over moral and ethical questions, but holding my center as a movement builder, as an abolitionist, as an activist, I think I got a lot of confidence to be able to do that from Mariame’s kind of organizing of me. And then when I got fired, I DMed her and was like, “Hey, I’m about to get fired and it’s going to be a public thing. Will you help me raise a fuss about it?” And of course then there she was with the whole massive organizing community that she brings, helping me get through that time period. So I’m so grateful, I can’t even say.

KH: I know that feeling, I owe so much to Mariame and I’m grateful for her every day. And now, I am going to stop talking about her before she gets annoyed and shuts this off, because I know she’s listening.

So, circling back to copaganda, as someone who works in media and who consumes a lot of media, I see a lot of parallels between how police violence is covered and how Israel’s violence against Palestinians is being covered and has been covered historically. Can you talk about some of these parallels?

LRW: Yeah. I think these practices, these traditions of propaganda on the part of the Israeli military and propaganda on the part of police forces in the U.S. really, really go hand-in-hand. They’re almost co-developed. And some of the techniques, I think a key technique that they use is dehumanization, kind of making invisible the real stories of people behind the violence.

And I think about this when I was covering John Crawford III and his death in the Beavercreek Walmart at the hands of police. I did a news spot once where I talked about how he’d been on his way to get ingredients for S’mores at the Walmart. And when he was shot, he was on the phone and he was in the aisles trying to get ingredients for S’mores and go on a barbecue. And an angry person contacted me after that story aired, basically angry that I had made him so human by sharing that detail. That was a bridge too far for them to sit with the pain of this young Black man was a real person, and I think that shows how effective that dehumanizing of young Black men, young Black people has been.

And I think we see the same kind of process with Palestinians, right? They can sometimes be presented as victims, but they’re more often presented as dangerous, as terrorists. And then those presentations, especially over time over lots of different media platforms, then justify what’s happening to them now. And so I’m not big on fluffy stories, but I do think it’s a very important part of the counterpropaganda to just report holistically on people and find those kind of details that continually recognize people’s humanity that aren’t just like this group of people is forever victims or forever perpetrators.

But yeah, the whole Israeli propaganda machine, the hasbara effort, has been so effective, especially within so-called Israel, but also here in the United States and I think it bears a lot of similarities to the police propaganda machine in the sense that there’s much of it that’s kind of in the background, activities that are subtly generating positive associations with Israeli settler colonialism and with policing. So if you think about all the cop shows and you think about the birthright tours and you think about all the friendship visits of U.S. officials to Israel, where it’s as if there’s no Palestine, and you think about Coffee With A Cop, these are all in the same school of actually deeply violent, militaristic propaganda that tries to soften something that only exists to control vulnerable people.

KH: I completely agree, and something else that jumps out at me about the way these things are covered is the abandonment of basic sentence structure that occurs when a cop or the IDF kills people. If I shot someone, the headline would be, “Activist Writer Shoots Whoever.” When a cop kills someone, or the IDF kills someone, we get headlines like, “Amid Gunfire, Person Dies,” or something equally incoherent. Even though police are killing a record number of people every day, and despite the fact that Israel is waging a genocide as we speak, the violence is always presented as uncertain and mysterious, like we can’t quite know what happened. If the violence might countermand the official narrative of who is good and who is bad, the corporate media plays ignorant, like it’s impossible to make sense of these events. So, people die of bullet wounds and are torn apart by explosions that are presented as though they might be acts of God, and the framing of this violence in headlines is so important, since most people don’t even read news stories. They just wade through a sea of headlines each day, so a lot of effort goes into ensuring that those headlines don’t point out systemic violence.

So, we get, “15-year old dies,” instead of “Cop Shoots 15-Year Old Child.”

LRW: Right, right. “40 Palestinians killed.” It’s like, what would change in people’s minds if it was, “Israeli military kills 40 Palestinians in this way”?

KH: Absolutely. The act is divorced from the actor. And just as we see notions of guilt stripped away, if the person committing violence is a cop or a U.S. or IDF soldier, we also see any notion of innocence stripped away from the people they kill — which is part of the process of dehumanization you were talking about. I mean, obviously, the entire concept of innocence is problematic, and we could spend a whole episode discussing it, but the fact that this idea functions in our society, and some people have access to it, and some don’t, is instructive. In the same way that Black children are rarely described as children by the corporate press, when they are harmed by cops, Palestinian children are often described in terms that suggest adulthood, or in ways that simply erase childhood. Because if headlines emphasized how much violence cops commit against children, or how many children the IDF murders, tortures or imprisons, it might turn more people against them.

There are just so many connections to be made between the way cops in the U.S. are treated as honest, good faith actors by the media, despite mounds of evidence to the contrary, and the way the violence of the IDF is laundered in the corporate press.

LRW: Yeah. I think another big one is this issue around safety. This whole idea that the quote unquote “IDF” is really a defense force, is creating more safety for citizens of Israel, that’s another parallel with the idea that police forces here, as well as the U.S. military, are creating more safety for people here. And I recently interviewed somebody who was in the so-called IDF and had over time become anti-occupation and then eventually, anti-Israel. He was a co-founder of Breaking the Silence and had left the whole thing. But he described going to Ḫalīl, al-Khalīl, which is also known as Hebron, when he was first in the Israeli military and he’d been told his whole life that he was going there essentially to a war front, that he’d be there fighting against these terrorists and it would be a battle and he’d be protecting Israel.

And he went to [al-]Ḫalīl and saw that the main function of the Israeli military there is civilian population control. They have all these blockades and daily dehumanizing ways that they control Palestinian movement through that ancient city. And there’s a small number, the city has about 200,000 people. There was about 200 at the time, Israeli settlers living illegally in the middle of the city and the whole military arm is there to not… I wouldn’t even say protect them, but to bully people and control people on their behalf. And so he got there and he was like, “Where’s the war front? Where’s the terrorists?” It was all just like grandpa going to the market and kids going to school, and that experience completely changed and politicized him. Just learning after decades of propaganda, the actual function of the military. But a lot of people just power through and continue to be in denial and ignore the cognitive dissonance there. He’s one of the rare people who had the strength to say, “You know what? No. I’m going to go back and tell what this actually is and I’m not going to participate in this anymore.”

But there’s so much pressure within Israel to accept the propaganda even when you can see with your own eyeballs that it’s not even true what’s being said about the function of this military arm. That it’s really a settler colonial offense force and not a defensive, protective, safety-creating thing. And as we know, the history of policing in the U.S., while it’s not exactly the same because it wasn’t quite the same functions during the initial stages of settler colonialism here, but entirely about protecting concepts of private property, protecting the lines and boundaries that were drawn around Indigenous lands by white settlers and preventing people from crossing those lines. So imposing a new colonial ownership framework and culture onto indigenous peoples who had been there for a very long time. And so I think it’s no coincidence that Israeli military and U.S. police forces train each other and support each other because their underlying missions are so much the same.

But they benefit so much every single time a journalist repeats, “Israeli Defense Force, protection, safety, campus safety, public safety,” associating those concepts with each other. Every time a journalist does that, they contribute to this toxic, dangerous propaganda that invisibilizes just the truth about what these heavily armed forces have been doing this entire time, and that is something that, I need it to stop. I need it to stop. I don’t understand how journalism can claim even the claim of objectivity or the claim of being unbiased, but you’re plowing through with these heavily pro-police and pro-military biased terms like safety, defense and protection. And it makes me feel angry.

KH: It makes me angry, too. It makes me angry as someone who is witnessing a genocide, in real time, that is not being covered honestly by most outlets, and it also makes me angry as someone who cares about what happens to protesters, and to everyday people whose experience of the media is the absolute reverse of what police and IDF solidiers experience. If we think about the way police and U.S. and Israeli military violence is stripped down, or even sanctified, and compare that to how individual acts of violence committed by Palestinians, or everyday people in the U.S., is sensationalized by the corporate press, the distinction is astounding. Those individual acts are used to depict Palestinians and everyday people in the U.S. as fundamentally dangerous and irredeemable, to reinforce notions that we need cops and soldiers to hunt down people like them, for our protection, but cops or U.S. or Israeli soldiers are never depicted in that light. We are never supposed to ask how we should contain or stop the violence of these state forces, because that’s a socially defining question, if we approach it honestly. And the more we examine these connections between how we are policed, how our borders are managed, and how Israel contains, surveils and kills Palestinians, the more urgent that question becomes.

Ultimately, when we think about “journalistic objectivity” in this context, it becomes clear that what we’re really talking about is the maintenance of norms, the manufacturing of consent, and the maintenance of our cooperation with state-sanctioned violence. It has nothing to do with facts. The facts tell us that the police have only escalated their violence in the years since the murder of George Floyd and the national uprisings around police violence and impunity. We have piles of studies telling us that police are racist, sexually violent, that they kill with impunity, that they do not keep us safe or spend much time trying to solve crimes. All of the facts run counter to the nine o’clock drama, copaganda narratives about who and what they are, and yet the press seems bound by those narratives.

Similarly, our social media feeds are full of evidence of what is actually going on in Gaza. People burned alive in their tents, children blown apart by bombs. I was grateful, recently, when CBS correspondent Ed O’Keefe asked John Kirby, “How many more charred corpses does the president need to see before he considers a change of policy?” But why did that question make headlines? And why was Kirby able to respond by emphasizing how offended he was? Because O’Keefe was breaking with the norms of corporate journalism by asking a blunt and straightforward question about the atrocities that all informed people know are occuring. And I also want to emphasize that moments like that one, where journalists with a lot of commercial backing break established norms and challenge the administration, would not be happening without the work of Palestinians, who are documenting their own suffering and the destruction of their own communities. So, we should all be grateful to those keepers of history, for telling us the truth under impossible conditions. And those moments also wouldn’t be happening without the waves of protest that have consistently told a story that breaks with the status quo. Protest has created cracks in the wall, which is why protesters have also been subjected to violence and media smears, because they have interrupted narratives that justify, launder and sanctify state violence, and thank God for that. Quite often, ethical storytelling begins in the streets, with people who are being brutalized for telling the truth, and we have to honor that.

But I do want to name that, as journalists, even when we are trying to do this work ethically, we can still make mistakes, or wind up replicating the kind of oppressive dynamics that we want to upend. In your work, you have talked about the harms of “extractive journalism” and how easy it is to play into exploitative power dynamics, even when that’s not our intention. Can you talk about what makes some journalism extractive and how we can try to avoid those dynamics?

LRW: I think a lot of the assumptions of professionalized journalism in the U.S. are inherently extractive. So there’s this idea that you’re in service to an audience and maybe in service to the boss, whoever owns the radio station or outlet, and there’s no idea that you’re in service to your sources. There’s a little bit of patronizing stuff about protecting them and making sure they’re okay, but the way that normative quote unquote “objective” journalism is taught is really about the story comes first for the journalist and so your job is to go out and get the best version of the story. And it doesn’t really matter what happens to the people who share their stories with you or who the story is about, and so extraction is a constant.

And I think that is facilitated by a real lack of power analysis internal to newsrooms and journalistic practices. If we were looking at power, we would be able to think critically about, “Okay, what’s the difference between manipulating or wresting an interview out of your local congressman versus manipulating or grabbing an interview out of an undocumented mother of three who’s just been through a traumatic incident?” Objectivity and neutrality are taught to neutralize those concepts so we can’t talk about power. Everybody’s a source, trust nobody, and treat them all in some sense kind of the same, maybe with the exception that public officials can be held accountable to their public statements in a different way.

But once you start looking at the dynamics of going out and interviewing people and then taking their stories with a power analysis, there’s all these other considerations. “Who am I? What’s my…” I’m this white transgender person from an upper middle class background coming in and asking people questions about having lost their health care, for example. And who I am matters to the power dynamic of what that’s actually going to look like during the interview and then also what it means to take that person’s story and put it out in the world in a way that oftentimes is likely to benefit me and not them, and I really felt that when I was working in public media where I would do these stories that were about people’s most sort of awful moment or crisis moment. And then honestly, frankly, the story goes out and nothing changes for that person, but then I’m getting recognition for this great story where somebody cried and all this stuff.

And that’s extractive as fuck. And nobody came to me in that situation and said like, “I feel like you extracted my story and exploited me,” but also, why would you bring that critique to somebody that had just done that to you, that has a lot more structural power than you? So I think getting real about that in myself kind of made me really question whether the goal is to not be extractive at all, or whether the goal is to acknowledge and navigate the potentially extractive dynamics, right? I think the non-extractive way that journalism and storytelling can happen is going back to the traditions of community storytelling in a circle, sharing information in community, in a shared and communal space. It has to be divorced from capitalism, from the production of stories as products. And in the context of making a story into a product, there’s almost no way not to extract it. I feel like I even extract things from myself and sell them in the books that I write, pulling out these personal vulnerable things because that’s going to be part of what makes it this product that people want.

And that’s really ugly, but I also think it’s important to be real about it. When journalists come to me and say, “How can I not be extractive?” I’m like, “I don’t know that you can not be extractive in this economy of storytelling, but what you can do is have a power analysis and try to be aware of why are you the person telling this story? What is the framing of the story? Is there someone else who would be better situated to tell this story who’s closer to that community or that experience who you could work with or hand the mic to? What is the way to do this that ensures the safety, participation, and benefit of the people who give and share their stories, particularly people who are marginalized or potentially endangered by that storytelling? What’s the exchange?”

And I don’t want to delude myself and be like, “Oh, I gave so much to this person by telling their story,” but at least try to acknowledge that dynamic and navigate it. I don’t believe that someone who’s part of one community should never report on a community that they’re not a part of. I do think there’s a place for storytellers who aren’t you. Not everyone wants to tell their own story or be a storyteller or be a journalist, and so I don’t want people to be afraid to play that role in a way that’s as kind of relational and power-aware and patiently ethical as possible.

And I know for myself, working in mainstream media, that was impossible. There was no way to do it in that structure. So if I were to go back into that sort of position, it would be with my eyes wide open about, “Okay, I’m going to be flying into people’s communities, talking to them for two days, and leaving with their stories, and I better have a theory of change or a vision about why that’s actually helping them,” or else it’s just garbage, which is what I think about a lot of national media reporting is that it is in fact fairly useless.

KH: Yes, a lot of it is absolute garbage. Which is so frustrating, because we know that for all its faults, journalism can be so much more. At its best, journalism can help us develop a shared sense of what we’re up against, and what we owe to each other. It can fuel movements, but too often, it fuels moral panics and reactionary social responses. We are seeing this right now on numerous fronts including attacks on trans children, their parents, and gender-affirming care. So, how can we push back against disinformation and so-called centrist approaches to trans issues which really serve to legitimize fascistic attacks on trans people. How do we resist these identity-based attacks and the, “I’m just asking questions” approach to justifying the reification of traditional gender roles and identities?

LRW: Oh my god, Kelly, it’s so scary what’s happening with the reporting on trans people and trans children and I think it’s truly proof-in-action of how objectivity and both sides-ism can be and is so weaponized against people. Because there is no other side. There’s no truth to the idea that trans people are somehow predatory in bathrooms or that trans children are being forced into transition, or there’s all these people that regret their transitions. All of that is pretty much fabricated whole cloth in order to create a scapegoat, as I think we know.

When it comes to what do we do to respond to that, I feel really overwhelmed by it. I feel like one thing that I am somewhat averse to is arguing the facts. Just the whole idea that the framing is even including these obscene, propagandistic, scapegoating ways of looking at trans people, I don’t want to engage with that and come back and say, “But you’re wrong. Look, trans people are not all rapists and sad,” or whatever. I think that independent media, trans media, trans people telling our own stories, the kinds of media that help us to be better organized and to build our own touch points for people that are outside of those propagandistic conversations, I think that is some of the most important work. What can we do to keep trans people alive right now, to keep trans youth feeling supported right now? And I think a lot of that comes to the longstanding tradition of independent and underground and self-created media by and for trans people.

The one other area that I’m interested in with that is around the wedge of objectivity and neutrality and how can we get journalists and media-makers to stop platforming this ridiculousness? I think that is, to me, a more interesting strategy than arguing with the ridiculousness, but actually saying, “Will you stop putting trans youth and trans women in more risk than they and we are already in? Would you stop doing that for the sake of clicks and shares and performed neutrality?” I think there’s a deep transphobia and dehumanization that goes into that. No outlet is doing that that is really, really fully absorbing and listening to the arguments that trans people have been making about this. And I feel like objectivity and neutrality are the wedge and so I am interested in how we can sort of get within that wedge and pull apart what’s happening in those powerful, mainstream media outlets. But I think to me, the first focus is our community’s safety and thriving.

KH: Speaking of the safety of our communities, you recently wrote a piece for Truthout called “Anti-Mask Laws Target Gaza Protests, But They Threaten All Progressive Movements.” I think that, amid everything else that’s happening, these efforts to criminalize masking haven’t gotten enough attention. Can you break down what’s been happening on that front for us?

LRW: So, I’m here in North Carolina where the Republican legislature try to push through a rule that would take an existing ban on masking in public and remove the exemption for public health. So that exemption has obviously been really important in the COVID era. The mask bans, a lot of them go back, the laws that are on the books go back further and they were actually created to prevent various kinds of public demonstration, including in the South, demonstrations by the KKK, so basically saying you can’t go out in disguise and demonstrate, but they had these exemptions for public health.

So in North Carolina that has been stalled and potentially taken off the table and hopefully will not be happening, the ban on masking for public health in public. But I think the point of it is so multifaceted. Like first of all, it takes the whole disability justice and accessibility argument about public masking and flips it completely on its head. So disabled and immunocompromised people have been saying and saying, “We need to be able to go to the store. We need to be able to go to a protest. We need to be able to stay safe and leave our homes.” And the anti-maskers have long disregarded that, but I also think a lot of mainstream and more left spaces have disregarded that.

And so the Republican push to actually make masking completely illegal is a direct attack on people with disabilities and immunocompromised people, but it’s also an attack on student protestors and the pro-Palestinian uprisings that have been happening because many of those protesters have been masking for safety and the encampments to prevent doxxing or being publicly identified and having your face out there, and in order to keep each other safe in a variety of ways, people have been masking.

And so this attack or this effort, I think is a perfect storm of, “Oh, we can degrade disabled people and we can also essentially make protesting illegal.” Protesting safely, protesting in a way that’s safe for the protestors, illegal. That tells me that the right wing forces are actually very, very afraid of what we have going here, of what we have organized and how well organized we are and how many of us there are and so in a lot of ways, it’s an opportunity on our end for more solidarity, for more connection around issues of criminalization. We don’t accept the criminalization of people with disabilities. We don’t accept the criminalization of clothing or outfits in any way because that’s deployed against Black and Brown and trans people. We don’t accept the criminalization of protest.

It’s a true cross-identity intersectional issue, as simple as it is, and so I think it’s both a threat to progressive movements but also an opportunity for solidarity that really identifies the connections between our issues at a very base level of what kind of society are we living in and whose safety is protected in that society. And I think we have seen in many of the encampments and pro-Palestine protests such powerful practices of that exact kind of solidarity in action over the last few months. I hate the reason that that’s having to happen right now, but I do feel very energized by how I’ve seen people showing up for each other.

KH: I agree. I recently co-organized a vigil for Gaza, and we all had masks on and we were distributing masks to everyone as they arrived at the event. Just before we got started, I took a moment to thank everyone for masking, as an act of collective care, as a practical measure to protect people’s identities, and in solidarity with communities who are defending their right to wear masks. The crowd’s response was really positive, and it just reminds me that we do have the power to build culture in this way. It’s a huge struggle, in a society that has normalized the spread of COVID so much that people are trying to criminalize COVID safety, but we can challenge each other and we can be thoughtful about our practice of solidarity, amid all of these threats, and I am grateful for all of the ways that’s happening. Because if we’re gonna make it, we need to care about each other in ways that the system doesn’t.

So as we wrap up our conversation today, is there anything you would like to share with or ask of the audience?

LRW: Yeah, I have two things. One is a plug for another exemption in the mask laws. Even in places where masking is being targeted, you can usually dress up in standard Halloween costumes and dress up for Mardi Gras. And so I just want to say, if we need to have a witch’s parade, if we need to have Mardi Gras every week, there are workarounds that could be fabulous, in fact, for getting out in the streets with a mask on. That’s one plug that I have.

And then the other plug is just these resources that we have from Interrupting Criminalization. We have created a guide called Don’t Be a Copagandist that’s for journalists and media makers and anyone who’s advocating around media justice, in that sense, really going through in a lot of detail the different ways that pro-police propaganda shows up and also linking to a bunch of examples of alternative approaches, positive ways to write about police and policing, and also to write about separately community safety that resist propaganda.

There’s a similar parallel guide about Israeli military propaganda that I would strongly recommend checking out for anyone who is new to that issue or trying to sort out what media to trust or how to read what’s happening in the media. Again, goes through the list of ways that that propaganda shows up and then also, there are a bunch of outlets and sources in there for here’s where you can get more reliable news on this. So I wanted to plug those things for people to check out.

KH: Thank you for that. We’ll also be adding those resources to the show notes of this episode on our website at truthout.org. And Lewis, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. This has been such a great conversation.

LRW: Thank you for having me. It’s so great to talk to you.

[musical interlude]

KH:
Well, I am so grateful for that conversation. Don’t forget to check out Lewis’s work with Interrupting Criminalization and their book and podcast The View From Somewhere. I am so grateful for the work that Lewis is doing with IC to help journalists navigate issues like policing and militarism more ethically, and I think we can all benefit from that kind of analysis as we read and tell the stories that shape our worlds.

And on the subject of making our media landscape a better place, I also want to give a shout to my friend Maya Schenwar, who is doing outstanding work as the director of Truthout’s Center for Grassroots Journalism. At Truthout, we publish award-winning journalism that I believe has the power to fuel movements, but we also understand that this work is bigger than any one publication. So, to help cultivate a stronger, more transformative media ecosystem, we created the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism. The main goal of the Center is to use two decades of lessons learned at Truthout to mentor and support small and emergent independent and movement publications, free of charge. Maya is currently offering free sustained mentorship and support to Deceleration, an environmental justice publication focused on Texas, Waging Nonviolence, Convergence, Kansas City Defender, Stateville Speaks, Knock LA and The Rapidian.

And since we’re talking about how hard it is to find honest and ethical reporting and analysis these days, I do want to give a shout out to a few of my favorite publications. First and foremost, I obviously recommend signing up for Truthout’s newsletter. I also recommend checking out Bolts, which is a digital magazine that “covers the nuts and bolts of power and political change, from the local up;” The Appeal, for news about the criminal injustice system; Prism, an independent publication led by people of color; Mondoweiss, for news about Israel and Palestine; and 404 Media, for news about how tech is shaping our world.

On the newsletter front, I am a big fan of Erin In The Morning, Sarah Kendzior’s Newsletter, Home With The Armadillo, Prisonculture’s Newsletter and Disconnect. If you’re looking for a weekly breakdown of must-read articles, from a variety of sources, you can sign up for my newsletter at organizingmythoughts.org. In addition to to writing an essay, interview or report most weeks, I also provide my subscribers with a curated list of some of the most important articles I’ve read each week, because I know it’s hard to keep up with what’s happening, and that when it comes to curating the news, we can’t rely on algorithms.

I know that the corporate news landscape is an absolute nightmare, for those of us who do the work of journalism, and for people trying to make sense of the world. I am grateful to people who are telling meaningful stories with an eye toward transformation, and to people who read and share those stories, in the hopes of understanding and reshaping their worlds. It’s not easy work, but it’s the work before us, so let’s keep writing, reading, and sharing our truth.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

Interrupting Criminalization resources:

Recent articles written by Lewis:

Referenced:

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