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Interview: Journalist Lewis Wallace Refuses to be ‘Neutral’ in the Age of Trump

Issue 253

Renee Feltz Dec 16, 2019

Just days after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, one of the only trans people working as a national broadcast journalist reflected on how the media should respond. Amid Trump’s claims of “fake news,” Lewis Wallace wrote a blog post headlined: “Objectivity is dead, and I’m ok with it.” He argued, “we should own the fact that to tell the stories and promote the voices of marginalized and targeted people is not a neutral stance from the sidelines, but an important front in a lively battle against the narrow-mindedness, tyranny, and institutional oppression that puts all of our freedoms at risk.”

When Wallace was fired for refusing to delete his post, he dove into researching how the doctrine of objectivity has long been used to silence marginalized writers. He explores this overlooked history in his new book and podcast series, “The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity.”

During a recent talk at Barnard University, Wallace also looked foward: “What reality are we shaping by not calling Trump a white supremacist?” he asked. “What journalism do we need to bring us closer to liberation?” He later spoke with The Indypendent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Indypendent: Describe that moment in 2017 when your bosses at American Public Media’s Marketplace, which airs on NPR, accused you of crossing the line between journalism and activism.

Lewis Wallace: I had written a post on my personal blog about the myth of objectivity that was, in a way, a counterintuitive take on all of the stuff going on in that moment around “fake news and alternative facts.” There was a lot of pandering and fear about what how the media was going to respond to the Trump administration and to this political moment. I also felt a fair amount of that fear. But it came from a place of not being surprised, per se, about the rising tide of white supremacy and transphobia. So, when I wrote the blog post it was from a place of hoping to engage other journalists in a conversation about what journalism could do to push back on the falsehoods of white supremacy. I was very surprised when I was called in by my boss at Marketplace and asked to take it down. It was a meta moment because it was ‘journalism about journalism’ that I got in trouble for. I knew those conversations were going on among a lot of journalists behind closed doors and I was surprised that it was considered such a transgression to have the conversation publicly.

This led you to look into the history of the doctrine of objective journalism, which developed in part so newspapers could reach a broader audience and sell more copies. What else did you find?

Partisan activism and journalism have always intertwined in the United States. Through the 1830s and 1840s there was really no source of “impartial journalism” and yet somehow our political systems functioned. Then in the late 1800s and early 1900s we saw the rise of important sources of news from the black press, when people like Timothy Thomas Fortune and Ida B. Wells, who I write about in the book, were activist journalists for the humanity of black people. It wasn’t until the early to mid-1900s that what we now think of as objectivity was really codified for journalism, and it was almost immediately deployed as a weapon against labor organizers and marginalized and oppressed people. So, I ultimately argue that objectivity is an unstable ideal and one that upholds the status quo, white supremacy and racism, and that it is not the right frame for journalism anymore, if it ever was.

I was fascinated by your research into journalist Marvel Cooke, who tried to organize her newsroom and had her objectivity questioned.

Marvel Cooke is one example of a black woman journalist who was pushed out of the journalism industry. She worked for the black press, originally for The Crisis, the NAACP magazine run by W.E.B. Du Bois, and then for New York Amsterdam News, and there she organized the first ever chapter of the Newspaper Guild, and a successful walkout for better wages. For a decade and a half she did a lot of reporting on labor. Then the paper where she published her most influential work, the Daily Compass, was shuttered in the late 1940s, and she and various co-workers were called before the McCarthy hearings. She was pushed out of journalism at that point, and unable to find work in the field from then on. She lived another 50 years and did amazing activism. One of my goals for the book is to resurrect stories like hers that have been overlooked.

Another fascinating story you tell is about how David Brock cloaked himself in objectivity while attacking Anita Hill.

You can’t make this stuff up. David Brock was a right-wing journalist activist in the early ’90s tradition he helped create: a fake investigative reporter who acts like a muckraker and publishes scandalous stories that are just a series of drummed-up accusations. He was hired by wealthy right-wing activists to spread sexist and racist rumors about Anita Hill that contributed to the overall environment of doubting her very credible accusations against Clarence Thomas. Even after the hearings he published a book called, ironically, The Real Anita Hill. He later basically confessed to fabricating aspects of it, and only talking to people who confirmed these terrible twisted images of her. It shows how the guise and claim of objectivity is so dangerous in the hands of a bad actor. We need different frames for talking about what media to trust. Claiming you are an objective journalist does not mean you’re doing good and fair work in the world.

You propose not to throw out objectivity in journalism, but to preserve some basic tenets. What do you keep?

Objectivity as this broad framework for understanding journalism needs to go. Seeking one objective picture of the world is not a realistic way to frame our job at this time. But there are elements of journalistic ethics that we should absolutely continue to hang on to and also deepen and add more nuance to by looking at ethics through the lens of oppression and power.

I argue for journalism that is curious, rigorous and independent in the sense of not being associated with corporations or political parties, although I’m not opposed to partisan journalism. That said, I also argue for journalism that is openly activist in favor of social justice and liberation and marginalized people. There is a lot of that type of journalism throughout U.S. history. The issue is it has been sidelined and undervalued.

Are you still able to get work as a professional journalist? Or are you a pariah for having so publicly flaunted your disregard for traditional notions of objectivity?

There are a number of places I can’t work because of all this. That said, a lot of outlets will hire and work with people like me, many of them are nonprofit. I am very focused on covering the Southern U.S. and doing activism for stronger journalism there through the organization I founded, Press On. Much of my work has shifted to training and advocacy. We are trying to make more space for journalists who are activists to continue doing the work and not be blacklisted. I see some changes in that regard. Not enough that I recommend young journalists get on Twitter and say whatever you want, because you can lose work that way. But we are in a political moment where we need to stand up for our communities, against the violence and dehumanization that we’re witnessing. If it is between that and some journalism gigs for me, I choose standing up. Certainly, there are sacrifices because our industry is still really messed up.

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