26 Feb Episode 102: The Conservative Sanctimony of Journalistic Impartiality
Citations Needed | February 26, 2020 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: One of the most prized professional norms for journalists, particularly the United States, is the preservation of neutrality in reporting. While the concept of “objectivity” has fallen out of fashion among mainstream reportage in recent years, related concepts that convey a similar idea such as “impartiality” and “fairness” have come to replace it. In their mission statements and codes of ethics, corporate- and government-owned outlets routinely proclaim the importance of impartiality and balance, in the sanctified pursuit of fair, unbiased reporting.
Adam: In theory, this can be a healthy or even sensical idea. Distinguishing between so-called opinion or editorial versus neutral, down-the-middle reporting that’s quote-unquote “objective” or quote-unquote “impartial,” can give the reader a sense that a series of facts are being reported rather than some guy’s opinion. The fundamental problem is when this vaguely aspirational genre morphs into an entire unchecked ideology — an ideology that requires one to think we live in a world where said facts are curated and created outside of long-existing power structures.
Nima: It’s the idea that those who produce, often on an institutional scale, knowledge products via think tanks and academic institutions are themselves without bias. That journalistic institutions, funded by large corporations and billionaires themselves, don’t decide which neutral facts are important and which aren’t. “Objectivity” that doesn’t calibrate power asymmetries or attempt to account for its own institutional ideology, this isn’t necessarily a mode of reporting, it’s conservative conditioning that — if not in intent, certainly in effect — does little more than advance prevailing ruling class ideology.
Adam: Indeed, anyone who’s ever studied marketing or public relations or propaganda will tell you the most effective messaging is that which appears to be unbiased and impartial. On today’s show, we’ll examine how objectivity and impartiality came to be the defining principles of Western journalism and how U.S. media’s understanding of impartiality provides an urbane veneer for racism, homophobia, anti-poor policies and other reactionary currents.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by journalist and author Lewis Raven Wallace. Lewis hosts the podcast The View From Somewhere, based on his book, The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, which was published last year by University of Chicago Press.
Lewis Raven Wallace: I think the problems in mainstream journalism and the problems that we have analyzing it are very parallel to the problems that we have in two party democracy, in that this left/right conversation and this completely absurd idea of ideological diversity or ideological balance between these two things is not reflective of the actual people who are being affected by these policies, by these stories, by any of it.
Adam: Yeah. So last week we talked about common sense, this is kind of a spiritual sequel to that episode because it touches on similar themes but does so from a different direction. This focus is specifically on professional norms of journalism, whereas our previous episode last week on common sense touched on both political discourse but also the ways in which prevailing ideology sneaks into discourse as a kind of obvious or non-controversial thing. So we want to start off by saying that when deconstructing the notion of objectivity, we want to engage with like the current thinking on this as it exists in most editorial rooms or editorial meetings or journalism schools, which is that the term “objectivity” itself, which we’re going to use here interchangeably with impartiality or neutrality, has kind of fallen out of favor and has for some time. It is mostly replaced by concepts of impartiality and neutrality and if you read many of the conversations about this, both in journalism schools and also in in the actual way the codes of ethics are enforced upon journalists, it very much has to do with perceptions of impartiality or perceptions of bias, which we’re going to argue in the show is fundamentally (a) a business consideration, which is to say we don’t like getting phone calls from angry conservative groups or angry right-wing groups or the Pentagon or prosecutors, right? But (b) it’s also itself deeply ideological, which is to say that it is designed to create barriers of sort of acceptable opinion by establishing — much like common sense does — sort of agreed upon fact set, which we will argue in this show that that agreed upon fact set is indeed very contestable. Again, we want to avoid dorm room pontification where we sort of just problematize everything for the sake of problematizing it. In this episode we will argue that the notions of objectivity themselves are a somewhat man made artifact of a particular genre of reporting that’s incredibly new and is not necessarily something inherent in how we do knowledge production or how we exchange information or how we document history.
Nima: I will say I’m not at all above, uh, the dorm room conversation. I think we should all just take a hit from bong and then just get into it. (Laughs.)
Nima: But I do think that there is this idea that there’s commentary opinion over there, right? And then there’s straight news over here and that the straight news just adheres to the shared group of facts. This idea that there is a norm to which we are all operating in service of or under which we can all kind of agree on. And that in itself, as you just said, Adam, is very ideological. Who creates the status quo, who is marginalized and silenced in that so-called status quo and what can we do about it?
Adam: Yeah, so we want to start off as we usually do with getting into the history of notions of journalistic objectivity. The advent of journalistic objectivity, as I mentioned, is relatively recent. It’s a relatively modern one. Throughout much of the 19th century, newspapers and pamphlets were more overtly politically aligned, produced by business interest, political parties, unions and various — what Ronald Reagan would pejoratively call — “special interests.” He wouldn’t call big business special interest, but generally people who were known to have a kind of agenda.
Nima: According to a May 2018 article in the Columbia Journalism Review written by Will Meyer, early publications in the U.S. were partially funded by government subsidies. Starting in the 1790s, papers that were distributed through mail began to receive postal subsidies regardless of their political affiliation. Lower mailing costs greatly broadened their circulation and audience as you would assume. By the early 1800s, New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley argued the importance of what he called:
“A journal removed alike from servile partisanship on the one hand and from gagged, mincing neutrality on the other. I believed there was a happy medium between these extremes — a position from which a journalist might openly and heartily advocate the principles and commend the measures of that party to which his conviction allied him, yet frankly dissent from its course on a particular question, and even denounce its candidates.”
So here Greeley is kind of working against this notion that there is inherent neutrality or objectivity and that that’s what makes good journalism. No, Greeley was saying that it is independence from certain power structures from certain beholden interests that would make for good journalism. Then around the 1830s came the rise of the penny paper, a low-cost, tabloid-style news source meant to be accessible to the expanding American working class. These penny papers, which as you would imagine cost one cent compared to the six-cent price tags of more established contemporaneous papers, are widely thought to have instituted, or at least popularized, the advertising-based business model for press outlets. Thereby allowing through those advertisements for the costs of the paper to remain low.
Adam: In his review of our guest Lewis’s book, Will Meyer, who’s a writer and co-edits The Shoestring, a Western Massachusetts outlet, he wrote that:
“Tracing these changes, journalism scholar David Mindich has identified a shift in the mid-nineteenth century from partisan political writing to the more detached, observational writing that foreshadows modern journalistic conventions. This included formats that separated fact-based writing from editorial essays, and the birth of the professional reporter, who went out to gather the news not as a political participant but as a neutral observer.”
Nima: By most accounts, the notion that reporting should be “objective” arose around the 1880s to 1890s, particularly as journalism schools opened and the profession grew in prestige. Our guest on this episode, Lewis Raven Wallace, writes in his book that Nelson Antrim Crawford, the author of the 1924 book The Ethics of Journalism, made one of the first attempts to codify the standards of journalistic impartiality — standards that remain guiding principles in newsrooms to the present day. These included clear distinctions between editorial and advertising, a rejection of gifts and bribes, a process of rigorous fact-checking, the reliance on quote-unquote “expert” sources, and “the use of purportedly ‘objective’ scientific methods of establishing facts through empirical observation and use of data.” Crawford also urged that the scientific method be introduced to the practice of journalism, largely as a way to counter the propagandistic tone of the press during World War I and even before through the Hearst model. He argued, this is Crawford, he argued that journalists should compile and translate information, via the aforementioned processes, in order to explain what was happening in the world. The corollaries between this fact-checking and explainer-type journalism to what we see now from the Washington Post to Vox should be clear.
Adam: Many writers have also classified objectivity as a business strategy in its own right — which I mentioned earlier — a way to maintain a large audience through ostensibly neutral, inoffensive reporting where you kind of play arbiter of truth. So if someone sort of in the center of politics, is not a hard right or hard left or whatever “radical” quote-unquote, that they can sort of go to this news outlet and say, okay, well they’re kind of calling balls and strikes to give a sense of collective truth, that it’s the CNN-playing-in-the-airport model.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. ‘Run my car commercial when Tapper’s on!’
Adam: Right. Because if I’m selling widgets, I have an ideology that wants to promote the sort of prevailing consensus that everyone agrees on imperialism and capitalism, et cetera. But when we have these sort of points of differences that we define as party differences, I don’t want to get associated with that. So that even news as a business itself renders the idea of impartiality and impossibility by definition because once you make it a profit center, we’re an industry. That itself becomes one of the prevailing ideologies of the business itself.
Nima: And it also gives, in a way, veto power to those interests. So the power of say an advertising boycott on news programs or what are ostensibly considered news programs, whether they’re commentary or thought to be quote-unquote “straight news”: that in itself winds up being an ideological project and understandably so, but that’s why advertising boycotts remain so powerful, but they really do sort of betray the notion of impartiality, objectivity, balance, fairness, the idea that there is no prevailing ideology on these programs. It gives lie to that idea.
Adam: Yeah. And then so of course this pivots to the idea of expert data-driven, which all sort of lend to this idea of neutrality and impartiality that we can appeal to experts who are sort of bespectacled academics. Now we’ve talked about this quite a bit on the show. Episode 79 we did a whole episode on fake Iran experts and fake experts in general. There is a whole show to do about the way think tanks provide faux-neutrality and the way that think tanks kind of launder biases, which we will have at some point. We don’t have the bandwidth to do it on this episode, but suffice to say that weapons-contractor funded, US State Department-funded, Saudi-funded think tanks, US allies and client state-funded think tanks, are one of the large ways in which impartiality and biases are laundered because out comes someone who is called ‘Senior Fellow at the Raytheon Institute of Oriental Meddling,’ a sort of bespectacled neutral, that’s a huge part of this because that way if I’m a straight reporter, I can sort of load up my piece about how evil Iran is or how evil bad guy the week is by loading up a bunch of ostensibly neutral academics from Foundation for Defense of Democracies and nowhere do I have to point out that they’re funded by radical anti-Muslim bigots. And so the sort of expert industrial complex, which we’ve talked about as huge part of this, we’ve both talked about this before, but suffice to say that in the realm of corporate media, the reliance on quote-unquote “experts” oftentimes translates into these think tank heads, Pentagon officials, the FBI, State Department, other Imperial bodies.
Nima: The idea that the former head of the CIA or former generals are somehow non-ideological experts, that they can just be talking heads on news programs, that they don’t give away what the whole point, what the whole angle is of these shows or of that segment, the idea that they are just impartial is both assumed and completely ludicrous at the same time.
Adam: And this happens a lot. So, just a recent episode, in June of 2019 The New York Times ran a piece entitled, “U.S. Escalates Online Attacks on Russia’s Power Grid.” Trump pushed back, calling the piece, quote, “a virtual act of treason,” unquote in his normally unhinged fashion. The Times response was somewhat curious. They said, quote, “Accusing the press of treason is dangerous. We described the article to the government before publication. As our story notes, President Trump’s own national security officials said there were no concerns.” This is something we saw with Bill Keller’s side on the NSA wiretap story before the 2004 election at the request of then President George Bush they then published it after.
Accusing the press of treason is dangerous.
We described the article to the government before publication. As our story notes, President Trump’s own national security officials said there were no concerns. https://t.co/MU020hxwdc pic.twitter.com/4CIfcqKoEl
— NYTimes Communications (@NYTimesPR) June 16, 2019
Nima: Judy Miller got the word from government officials. Don’t worry, folks. It’s balanced and impartial.
Adam: Yeah. So they get official, they get a sort of official approval from the people they’re quoting and of course there’s the ways in which national security — the state — leaks information, curates information, we obviously saw this in the build up with Iraq. ‘Officials say,’ ‘government officials claim,’ ‘according to two sources inside the government claim.’ This is the way you launder propaganda.
Nima: (Laughs) Right. Anonymous officials who weren’t allowed to speak on the record.
Adam: Right. And all this is sort of seen as being objective. ‘Cause we’ve gotten, all we’re doing is reporting what they’re saying. So all that meets this sort of pristine definition of objectivity, right? ‘Cause you’re sort of just reporting facts. You’re not adding an editorial. But if I read 30 quotes that all have one agenda, whereas I may not be technically editorializing, I’m editorializing, right? This is like Jake Tapper’s Twitter timeline. It’s a series of him quoting other people, advancing what he believes, but he sorta can’t say. And at some point it’s just being coy. You’re just playing a game.
Nima: Well, ‘cause it’s just laundering ideology through so-called official sources.
Adam: Well, right. ‘Cause I’m just, I’m just reporting the facts. Well why are you talking to this person and not that person is the question. And this is of course one of the major scams of objectivity or neutrality or impartiality is that both sides are established by the premise of the article itself. So your both sides are, should we sanction Russia or should we bomb Russia? That both sides are, should we have a panic freak out over the boogeyman threat of country X or should we have a slightly less panic about the threat from the boogeyman? So it’s like the whole, the whole idea of, of impartiality in both sides is inherently a scam. It’s a way of limiting the scope of debate and again, reporting that seems neutral or objective, but advances ideology is exceedingly more effective than media that’s very overt about it. I mean this is like if you talk to anyone who lives in a country that has state run media, they just sort of roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s just what the government wants you to say.’ You know, it’s, it can be sinister of course, because it does have an effect eventually. But ultimately people are sort of aware of that.
Nima: The veneer of impartiality here in the United States does the same thing. But it allows us all to think that we’re not being propagandized.
Adam: The whole crux of our show is, is that we think we’re not being propagandized and it’s like, or at least we sort of think we only are if it’s wacky Fox News, but, but of course that’s a problem, right? Because the way we source things can be objective extensively, but ultimately is just advancing as a very particular viewpoint.
Nima: So for instance, Bloomberg News in February of 2019 cited a group called Datanalisis without any information about a methodology to the data that they were analyzing in an article about Venezuela. The article said that Maduro, the Venezuelan president, that his “popularity has sunk to about 14 percent, according to a poll by the firm Datanalisis, compared with 61 percent for Guaidó.” Guaidó, the person who took over the presidency via a coup. A month later in March of 2019 The New York Times ran a story entitled this quote, “As Venezuelan Economy Unravels, Maduro Opponents Hope Downturn Will Topple Him.” End quote. This article, again in The New York Times, the sources include the investment bank, Torino Capital, an energy consulting firm, IPD Latin America), an quote-unquote “emerging markets specialist,” and — who else? — Datanalisis, which The Times described as quote “the country’s leading pollster,” the country being Venezuela. The New York Times did cite a couple of labor activists, also in this article, but only in its effort to paint a picture of quote-unquote “mismanaged” state-run metal plants. Now here’s the thing, Datanalisis’s president — cited by The Times as the country’s leading pollster, the same organization cited a month earlier in Bloomberg to talk about the sinking popularity of Maduro — this organization is run by Luis Vicente León, who has been overtly and explicitly an anti-chavista for decades. When Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña was attempting to unseat then-president Hugo Chavez, this guy León, the president of this polling firm, was quoted in a 2001 New York Times article, saying this quote “The man of the day, the great opposition, is Peña. There is no one else. He’s way ahead.” End quote. And another Datanalisis pollster was quoted a couple years later in 2003 by saying that Hugo Chavez quote “has to be killed.” End quote. So the idea that this polling company is impartial — it is Venezuela’s leading pollster as The Times accredits it — the idea that this is just a neutral fact-based data center is assumed and explicitly said while the truth of the matter, the idea that it clearly is not impartial is buried.
Adam: Yeah. For some reason in Latin America, if your approval ratings dip below 50 percent, that justifies a coup. That’s how I guess it sort of works. If you have a deeply conflicted black box polling firm who comes up with some number, that’s like 49.9 percent then oh well then he may as well go. And so they use similar tactics, this kind of expert laundering with the Bolivian coup where people constantly referred to the organization of American States — a 35 state regional forum representing the American States — 60 percent of their budget comes from the US State Department. They are not directly, but indirectly, they’re considered our kind of arm of US imperialism or arm of US influence — we’ll put it in benign terms — in Latin America.
Nima: That was a very fair and balanced way of saying that, Adam.
Adam: Yeah, and they’re consistently referred to in the US media as this kind of neutral arbiter. The OAS has a long history of displaying biases that are informed by business interests in Latin America and US imperial interests. And so again, this goes back to this idea of impartiality. It’s like, okay, we are in the ways in which officialdom, kind of official groups with official, you know, suit and ties and good glossy websites, that if you sort of invest enough money in these think tanks and data firms and consulting firms, the global group, this and that, that these things sort of just become neutral sounding. But of course they’re not. They’re heavily influenced by their own class interests. They’re heavily influenced by who funds them. They’re heavily influenced, frankly, in the context of Latin America by the racial makeup of the organizations, which are almost largely white or European white, uh, Hispanic. And so none of this stuff is calibrated for, and this is the issue, right? Like objectivity and impartiality is a perfectly fine goal if you’re calibrating the system, the power asymmetries, right? Like they would never, ever have a polling firm that does not disclose this methodology funded by, let’s say, the Venezuelan or Bolivian governments or the Russian government or the Chinese government. They would never allow that.
Nima: Well, exactly, because it only goes one way, right?
Nima: It will always be the leading polling firm in the country if it confirms the thing that the US establishment wants to confirm, but it’ll be Maduro-aligned pollsters say, if it goes the other way, it just reveals the whole point of all of this.
Adam: We also see this with sort of who you’re allowed to praise, right? Like I could come out as a objective journalist and say, ‘I support the freedom fighters of Venezuela fighting the oppressive dictator.’ This would never get you fired. This is a neutral objective statement. But if you come out and say like, ‘Oh, maybe Maduro has some point,’ then you’re fired. ‘Cause that’s considered ideological, right? Like you could never say that. And you saw this play out with the sort of interesting case in 2010, a CNN fired its senior editor for Middle Eastern Affairs, Octavia Nasr, after she tweeted out quote “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” The tweet of course angered a lot of pro-Israel pundits and think tanks. Of course, Israel had bombed, uh, Lebanon extensively bombing Hezbollah just four years prior. In response CNN immediately fired Nasr and Reuters sent an internal memo to its staffers using Nasr’s case case as a cautionary tale telling its reporters quote, “If you give people cause or reason to doubt your ability to be a fair and objective journalist, that will necessarily impact on our ability to give you assignments or allow you on the file.” It also noted quote “Don’t compromise your objectivity privately if you still want to use it professionally.” Now.
Nima: (Laughs.) Which means don’t be a real person. Even privately.
Adam: Yeah. So let’s contrast this of course when John McCain died. John McCain passed August of 2018 when he was sick and on his deathbed the previous month, Jake Tapper, Donald Trump had sort of offended the sanctity of Saint John by not name checking him at an NDA Bill signing a defense authorization signing. Jake Tapper took time out to thank Senator McCain for his service and apologize formally to the Senator who at that point was dying. Then he tweeted out in May of 2018 when it was revealed McCain had gone off treatment for his cancer and was terminal. He said, quote, “Thank you for your courage and sacrifice, @SenJohnMcCain.” And then of course when he passed in August, Jake Tapper led a three day hagiography fest of McCain. Now that of course is okay because John McCain, even though John McCain supported, you know, the war in Iraq that killed half a million people, he went on David Letterman and said that Saddam Hussein was potentially behind the anthrax attacks. He was Saudi Arabia’s biggest defender in the Senate during their war against Yemen that killed, you know, North of 30,000–40,000 people. He pushed, you know, cruel border policies, mass incarceration.
Nima: But praising McCain will never be seen as ideological.
Adam: Right. But because he’s not considered, he’s within the margins of acceptable opinion. So these policies, these objectivity, impartiality or neutral policies are incredibly arbitrary. They are based on (a) what the prevailing ideology is and (b) based on who’s going to call you, right? You’re not going to get a phone call from a Yemeni activist for praising John McCain or an Iraqi whose family was killed in the war. There’s no meaningful political pressure. You may get a phone call, but it’s going to go to nothing. If you praise Hezbollah or criticize Israel, you’re going to get shit for that because those institutions of power and public relations push back, they exist.
Nima: And these institutions of power also shift, what power is shifts over time. So there is of course, unsurprisingly, historical precedent to the either firing or demotion of journalists when they display something other than what their bosses determine is objective or fair enough. So for instance, in 1996 Sandy Nelson was demoted from her job as a reporter at a paper called The News Tribune. Nelson was a gay socialist who campaigned for gay rights and was a member of a group called The Freedom Socialist Party. According to The New York Times story reporting on the demotion of Nelson in the nineties, of course, The Times had to be super patronizing and reductive in their own headline, which was this, quote, “Gay Reporter Wants to Be Activist.” End quote. Nelson’s employer in this New York Times article noted that her activism, Nelson’s activism, would compromise the newspaper’s commitment to politically neutral reporting. Even though Nelson’s beat was primarily education and she hadn’t even written about gay rights. Nelson was reassigned to the copy desk, which The New York Times reported quote “she considers drudgery and an affront to her career.” End quote. So you can see when say a gay reporter may not have been just such a norm as it may be is considered now 24 years later, the establishment, the status quo, the assumed impartiality, the assumed objectivity of someone who identifies as a gay activist or did at that time would then put into question their own neutrality as a reporter professionally and subsequently because of that, they would be penalized for it. There are just new iterations of that same thing happening again and again and again depending on whose sensibilities you as a journalist are allowed to offend or not.
Adam: Yeah. So we have this very vague code of ethics that most of the major outlets have. So NPR has a code of ethics that states:
“Even when our company takes a stance on an issue, as journalists, we remain dedicated to reporting on the issues with journalistic rigor and impartiality. It also means we should not sign petitions or otherwise contribute support or money to political causes or public campaigns. Also: we don’t put political signs in our yards or bumper stickers on our cars, and if family members get involved in politics we recuse ourselves from any coverage that touches on their activities and we do our best to maintain our independence from their pursuits.”
So this is obviously absurd because basically what it’s telling you is to do not join politics, right? Because they don’t want to appear — again, I stress appear — there’s no neutral or normative reason why it’s bad. It’s just about optics. So Kim Kelly, a freelance reporter who had worked for NPR, was fired from NPR in 2019 as a result of her quote-unquote “activist stance.” Kelly had posted a tweet in defense of someone who tried to damage vehicles owned by ICE — who of course under Trump is doing these sort of jackboot thugs raids all throughout immigrant communities and leading a sort of terror campaign — damaging the vehicles did not actually harm anyone, and the person who did the damage was later killed by the police officers. Shortly after, Tucker Carlson aired a segment condemning Kelly and connecting her to NPR. Kelly wrote that NPR said she had violated its requirement for journalists and staffers, and presumably freelancers, to quote “refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online.” Kelly later stated quote: “It was obvious that the rules were interpreted subjectively and enforced selectively.” So here we have a case where saying we need to sort of combat Trump’s fascistic anti-immigrant raid force was considered polarizing. I think the word “polarizing” is such an interesting watchword here, right? Because it’s like polarizing is an outcome based thing. It’s, like, do you end up on Tucker Carlson? Is the thing being litigated here? And that’s the way I think the uppers at NPR and other major outlets would see this, they would say, ‘This is a public relations problem for us because it is undermining our credibility.’
Nima: If there were no outcry, would there be an appeal back to the code of ethics? Right?
Adam: Which is literally what heckler’s veto is, if you go look up what heckler’s veto is, you are effectively giving disingenuous, bad faith, the kind of Daily Caller to Tucker media pipeline. You were giving that veto power over what you say publicly. So you wake up in the morning and you’re a, you know, you’re a lowly NPR journalist or freelancer or someone who maybe wants to work there one day. And by the way, anecdotally, I know of stories where journalists have asked old editors to change their headlines so they could get a job at the AP or Reuters because they were too partisan. But that’s a different subject. And you say, ‘Oh gosh, everything I do is going to be based solely on whether or not a totally phony, disingenuous right-wing outrage machine will pile on me.’
Nima: And this has been taken to, it’s perhaps obvious, but completely absurd conclusion, which is that this fixation on objectivity and journalistic neutrality has even convinced some journalists themselves that they shouldn’t vote in political elections. So in January of this year, 2020, Kelly McBride, the senior vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies tweeted out this question: “Should journalists vote in primaries? Go.” Now, voting, of course, is not always necessarily a meaningful form of political engagement in this country, it’s not like voting is everything, but voting is a thing, as a citizen people should absolutely do, or at least be allowed to do having nothing to do with where they work or what they do for their job, but this very question shared by someone that works deeply in media studies is an example of the extreme, almost pathological commitment to preventing any sort of humanity, any sort of reality that people bring to their own work and that this should somehow be removed if you are a journalist, that somehow you should not even be allowed to vote because that may color your coverage.
Adam: Yeah, ‘cause I mean the generous interpretation is that this is a business decision and I think that’s true to a large extent. I do, however, think that there is an overarching ideological interest in making sure that those who convey the news or report the news or interpret reality for us have no fucking politics at all. That you sort of, you begin to select for people who are dumb-dumbs or venal or don’t take politics seriously or, I think more than anything, and this is I think very true of, you know, most big pundits, it’s a game. It’s a game. It’s a game to be played, there’s winners, there’s losers, but ultimately we’re all going to get drinks after work and it’s not a big deal.
Nima: Right. So that they just all wind up being Chuck Todd.
Adam: Yeah. Or Chris Cillizza or, or, or David Axelrod or Anderson Cooper. We’re sort of just, it’s all just a game. We don’t have a, you know, a dog in the fight. We’re sort of just calling balls and strikes because the last thing you want is people talking about and reporting on politics who care deeply about politics because then they’re ideological. Then they have a sort of end game that can’t be bought and sold and commoditized because they actually believe in something. And when people believe in something, they’re not susceptible to outside pressure and they’re not suggestible to just republishing press releases from the Pentagon and the police. And that’s the last thing you want. So this regime of impartiality effectively weeds out people who believe in things. It unnecessarily vomits out the most boring kind of careerists you can possibly find.
Nima: By doing so, the media also allows itself to consistently be gamed by those who don’t feel like they need to pretend to be objective or to be impartial. That journalists often will hold themselves up as arbiters of truth, impartial, and objective. And yet those they are often reporting on do not need to deal with things that way. I’m reminded of the 2004 quote by Karl Rove that he gave to journalist Ron Suskind in an interview during the George W. Bush administration. Of course, the quote was given anonymously. It has since been revealed to be Karl Rove. In this quote, Rove said that reporters like Suskind were in what we call, that’s the Bush administration, “we call the reality-based community,” which Rove defined as people who quote, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Rove continued:
“That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Adam: The right understands this, the institutional left, such that it is, for the most part is still doing teacher, teacher. They’re still doing ‘Oh, but that’s not the facts.’ Fact-checking everyone to death and it’s frustrating because the establishment liberal media doesn’t understand that you cannot fact-check these people because they’re not operating in good faith. They have no shame, they don’t care about norms. And so there’s been a unilateral disarmament that the right simply just hasn’t done. And this is largely what’s gotten us to the place we are now where you’re trying to fact-check fascism and it just doesn’t work. You have to provide an alternative reality, you have to provide an alternative moral narrative.
Nima: To discuss this and more, we’re going to be joined by journalist and author Lewis Raven Wallace. Lewis hosts the podcast The View From Somewhere, which is based on his book, The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, which was published last year by University of Chicago Press. Lewis will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by journalist and author Lewis Raven Wallace. Lewis, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Thank you for having me.
Adam: So yes, again, thank you for coming on. I want to begin by, as we always say on the show, setting the table for our listeners by establishing the kind of scope of, in the terms of the debate here or the discussion. You write that objectivity as a kind of nominal principle has actually been abandoned for some time by most quote-unquote “mainstream” journalist outlets and replaced by kind of equally vague and loaded concepts like impartiality or neutrality. I want to start by talking about what exactly the journalistic norm is at this time and I know this is a generalization, but you know, indulge me. What is sort of taught in journalism schools? If I sort of sat there at the Annenberg School of Journalism in the front row on 101 day, what would I be taught on this subject? And I know there’s diversity, but generally speaking, what would I be taught on this subject? And what do editors at most publications say The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and American Public Media, NPR, what would they say is the sort of general standard for if not objectivity, kind of new iterations of the concept — impartiality, neutrality, fairness — in the industry?
Lewis Raven Wallace: Sure. Yeah. So I mean I think your question gets at the fact that objectivity sort of holds a lot of different ideas within it, right? Like the idea that we can stand outside of the facts and look at them sort of just based on some kind of neutral observation. The idea that we could be impartial or nonpartisan politically. And I think what’s being taught in journalism schools is still some version of that sort of broad, sweeping understanding of objectivity. Even if it’s by another name — journalistic neutrality, journalistic impartiality — a concept overall that a journalist is somebody who sort of comes from outside of a story to it and then reflects it back or shows it like the way you might look through a window. That the journalist is supposed to be just this clear window pane through which you see the story and not somebody who is shaping the story. And so regardless of what you call it, I think it’s that idea that the journalist isn’t shaping the story and doesn’t hold that sort of responsibility. That’s the idea that I’m trying to poke holes in.
Nima: So one of the main theses of things you’ve written, your very viral post on Medium and also your new book is that Trump ushered in this era of post neutrality. Not that that hadn’t existed before, but that kind of the veneer has been lifted and that this is not inherently a bad thing. Actually it’s maybe quite a good thing that Trump’s fascistic norm shattering rise has mercifully exposed the limits of cis white conservatism of this notion of impartiality. Can you tell us a bit about how this Trumpian rise has also paralleled your own personal experiences around that time in early 2017 and how much the normal playbook had become already inadequate for those times and even more so now?
Lewis Raven Wallace: Sure. So first I want to say that Trump is so blatant about technique that had already been developed by the right-wing and specifically by the media movement on the right, which is the technique is, I think, of it as have your cake and eat it too. It’s like say whatever you want and be as biased as you want, but then attack any news that you don’t agree with as liberal bias news. So it’s simultaneously like he doesn’t actually care what’s true and he’s totally open about that. But anything he doesn’t like, it’s like all of that can’t be true because it’s liberal bias. And that’s sort of the end game of now almost 50 year effort by right-wing activists to take control of both media institutions and media narratives and narratives about truth and how we understand it. So this moment that happened in early 2017 with Donald Trump being inaugurated and we saw the day of his inauguration and the day after was when we got that phrase “alternative facts.” Kellyanne Conway, his advisor, went on TV defending the fact that Trump was going on about how he’d had a bigger crowd at the inauguration than Obama had had. And there was all this photographic evidence and other forms of evidence that seemed to show that that just wasn’t true. And Kellyanne Conway said, ‘Well, he was presenting alternative facts.’ And so I was working at Marketplace, which is a national show of American Public Media at the time and came in on Monday, you know, the following Monday morning to reruns of that alternative facts clip. And it was like this moment where it was really just exposed for all of us, the extent to which that strategy had sort of won, right? It’s like say whatever you want the facts to be, but then attack other people’s facts on the basis that they’re biased. And so I think what’s interesting about that is that there’s actually a lot of people in sort of our audiences as media makers or what have you, who I think can handle the idea that truth is subjective, right? And that there is bias going into any sort of telling of truth. And that’s something that we can get our heads around and understand. That doesn’t mean that the pursuit of facts overall is moot. And that’s sort of where Trump and people who think and talk like Trump, derail the whole attempt to seek the truth and tell the facts even if it is subjective and you know, relative and all of that. So it was some of that, I guess kind of nuance that, okay, my blog post was called “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it.” And I was kind of playing with this idea of like it’s actually okay for us to acknowledge and see that journalism is a process that is biased and that is subjective. And through acknowledging that and actually claiming what our values are and standing up to white supremacy and standing up to transphobia and talking about where we’re coming from, we have an opportunity to rebuild trust and to stand up to fascism. And that was what I thought that journalists should be doing at that time. And I come at that from a very personal place. And then as you know, the fact that I wrote about that so publicly, et cetera, got me fired from that job. And so then it became sort of a flashpoint.
Adam: Yeah. Can you talk about the firing, ‘cause I do think it’s a useful, it’s unfortunate, but of course it’s an extremely useful and illustrative example of what you’re talking about. So can you kind of walk us through that real quick?
Lewis Raven Wallace: So I was asserting something in that blog post that lots and lots of journalists know and talk about all the time, right? Maybe behind closed doors if you’re in a mainstream organization like I was. And talking about it from a particular lens of being transgender and coming into media making and the process of doing journalism from a community that had been not just underrepresented but maligned and misrepresented gravely by mainstream media for the entire time that I had been out as trans. That had been just what was true, right? And so coming into media, it wasn’t like I had some idea that there was really such a thing as an objective journalist or that, you know, that there wasn’t bias amongst these mainstream organizations. And if anything I saw privileged, whether that be cisgender privilege or the privilege of whiteness, which can be so invisible to white people like me. Like the privilege itself is one of the most sort of insidious forms of bias because we’re not even aware that we have it, those of us who do. And so the blog post talked about that, right? And talked about Trump benefiting from white supremacy and talked about the need for journalists to stand up to all of that. And these are things that lots of journalists, conversations that lots of journalists, especially people of color and trans people have been having. And so there was this kind of weird doublespeak I guess to the fact that I was fired and the way that I was fired in that most of the people involved in that knew that the things I was saying were true. But the point was that I wasn’t supposed to say them publicly because that could appear biased or that could appear a certain way to some hypothetical listeners or audiences of ours who would then say, ‘Oh, look at this biased, crazy transgender who has, you know, talking about Trump’s a white supremacist’ or whatever. And so they fired me and said that the policy at Marketplace was not to show, I’m not quoting verbatim here, but not to show our political persuasions and to make every attempt not to appear bias in the public sphere. And, and I just, I had to disagree with that on principle. And it was on a principle that was really deep for me because being a trans person in media means being an activist for yourself and for other trans people and that’s just a fact of my, my life. It’s not really something I can go back and forth with someone about, you know? That’s just true to my experience and so thinking in light of my community and in light of all of the solidarity and education that I’d received as an activist for a long time and as a white person engaging in anti-racism work, it just, it didn’t feel like a particular principle that I could back down on.
Adam: Yeah. I want to talk about this perception issue because I really think this gets to the heart of it.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Yeah.
Adam: There’s this extremely weird theater that goes on where everyone knows it’s bullshit, but you indulge it because there’s a kind of business, this is what we talked about at the top of the show, which is that there’s a business reason why you have impartiality where even if everyone knows it’s bullshit, there’s a business motive behind and even to some extent on a micro level, journalists, journalists, there’s a career motive and what I may be even sympathetic to, right? That if I’m seen as being an advocate or put into this, this, this horrible, um, god forbid labeled as an activist or an advocate journalist — advocate journalism’s another great pejorative — um if I need to get an interview with police sources or I need to get an interview with like someone on the right-wing or something, if I’m seen as being an ideologue, it’s sort of bad for business, which seems to be what American Public Media was effectively telling you. And I feel like this is at least an honest acknowledgement. But then again, the problem with this is it creates a heckler’s veto as you mentioned earlier, where the right-wing has been working the refs for years, and if they cry foul about everything in the most disingenuous way, and liberals, maybe to their credit, they keep sort of holding onto this ideal where they’re playing by rules that literally no one else is playing by. It’s all ‘teacher, teacher’ hall-monitorism when the other side completely gave up on norms and even the pretense of norms, you know, decades ago, right? Rush Limbaugh, right? Sort of invented this concept. The liberal media. And so I guess my question is what do you replace it with? What does a media that doesn’t indulge this bullshit theater or play the extortion outrage game with the disingenuous right, what does that look like to you?
Lewis Raven Wallace: Right. So I have really resisted in this whole process of writing this book and now making a podcast about this topic and this history really resisted sort of silver bullets, right? Or the idea, that there is sort of one model for journalism that’s the right model. ‘Cause that, you know, that’s in a way, that’s another one of my critiques of objectivity is the gatekeeping that it entails that sort of says, here’s how we identify what is real journalism and all the other stuff is crap or advocacy or activism or whatever. So I think there needs to be room for a bunch of things. So I’m part of an organization that promotes and works on the idea of movement journalism, journalism that’s openly aligned with visions of liberation and movements for liberation, grassroots movements for liberation. But I don’t think that’s the only journalism that we need. Right? I think there’s also some really great models already in circulation for journalism that is more transparent journalism that is more community engaged, community driven, community produced journalism that delivers information in ways that sort of go against the traditional like trickle down model for information. So I think there’s a lot of different models out there. For me sort of at the core and at the center of all of that is a commitment to curiosity, a commitment to transparency and a commitment to being values-driven, right? And claiming what those values are, not as some sort of static platform that says, you know for me personally, I’m not interested in sort of party journalism or partisan journalism per se that’s aligned with a particular platform, but journalism that is aligned with a set of values and therefore can be held accountable to those values. Both in terms of the process of how we make our journalism and what the stories are that we put out into the world.
Adam: Yeah. ‘Cause that’s always been my beef. If I can riff off that for just one second.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Please.
Adam: Like, we think that this, this comes up a lot in our show where people are like, ‘Okay, well, you complain a lot, but like what’s the alternative?’ And to me the alternative is, like, look like media, ‘cause there’s this, you know the right is right that the media is made up of liberals and of course it’s made up of liberals because if they weren’t liberals they would be doing marketing for Exxon or they would be on Wall Street. Like there’s this idea that we need 50/50 representation in, but only in the industries that are made up of liberals. Like, we don’t ask for liberal affirmative action at Goldman Sachs or on the board of directors at McDonald’s. Like, so they find that basically the two things where liberals have any kind of power at all or even have a decent career, which is barely, which is academia and journalism and they say, ‘Oh they need 50/50, they need 40 percent Nazis on this Trump supporters or this is liberal bias.’ And then people, like, you know, NPR historically, have played into that because they require funding from the likes of Newt Gingrich to sort of survive. And it’s, and the whole thing is, like, by definition, and when I say journalists or liberals, I do think they’re liberals in a very, unfortunately generally, I think in a very partisan way, which is to say there are generally socially liberal, economically they can be sort of right-wing and when it comes to foreign policy, most of them are just imperialist, but at least they’re not foaming Nazis or foaming right-wingers. Right? It seems like the solution to me, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but the solution to me is sort of just, yeah, like, of course we’re liberal because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing journalism. We’d be doing something else because at least in theory, journalism by its very nature is supposed to expose power, or supposed to sort of provide a balance to the power to the general prevailing narrative. And if we’re just reinforcing that narrative, right? It’s the difference between a rally and a protest. It’s the difference between PR and journalism. Like, if I’m, if I’m just reinforcing the power structure, then I’m not by definition even supposed to be, I’m not really doing journalism. I’m doing public relations. So I don’t know. It’s like the whole idea of conservative versus liberal journalism is just conservative.
Lewis Raven Wallace: (Chuckles.) Yeah. Or at least, I mean I think of it as very similar to, I think the problems in mainstream journalism and the problems that we have analyzing it are very parallel to the problems that we have in two party democracy in that this left/right conversation and this completely absurd idea of ideological diversity or ideological balance between these two things is not reflective of the actual people who are being affected by these policies, by these stories, by any of it. There are so many voices who are not even in that room. And so any conversation to me that’s invoking ideological diversity in that way is extremely disingenuous in a situation where you’re not hearing from people who are incarcerated, you’re not hearing from undocumented people, you’re not hearing from transgender people, you’re not hearing from, I mean, children, you’re not hearing from, you know, elders, I mean there’s, I could go on about all the different ways in which diversity and sort of balance and representation could be understood. But I think that that’s where it’s more to me a question of sort of claiming our values then claiming our sort of political stance, right? Because our political thinking in the United States right now is sort of atrophied and awful and not representing so many of the people in this country in the first place that, you know, people wonder about why don’t people listen to our show and why don’t people vote in our elections? And I think there’s a lot of real reasons for divestment that go back to decades and centuries of oppression and alienation. And so for me, what I want as a journalism that’s actually about reclaiming the whole process, right? And reclaiming the stories for the people who need them most.
Nima: Yeah. I mean it makes me think of a couple of things. One is Okrent’s Law, which is the first public editor of The New York Times, Daniel Okrent, at one point wrote that the pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true and there were, there were plenty of problems with The Times at that time and with Okrent’s work. But I think that’s like a good way of kind of even framing what we’re talking about. But also in terms of framing, Lewis, can you talk to us about what you refer to in your own book as the need to quote, “reframe the value of subjectivities” end quote, especially when it comes to reporting on trans experiences, perspectives and the evermore increasing breakdown of gender binary.
Lewis Raven Wallace: So I thought about this from so many different angles and I came to a conclusion for myself that I think is somewhat controversial even among trans people, right? That I really do think that gender identity and gender self identity is like inherently a subjective experience. And one of the problems that trans people confront in the world is that in order to access healthcare that we need or get the right name on our identification documents or get various forms of institutional access that we’re required to have sort of quote-unquote “objective” forms of proof of our gender identity. So I write about it in the book like I literally went and told a therapist that I was living as a man and identified as a man so that I could get a letter so that I could get a surgery that I needed. Right? And so you have this quote-unquote “objective” source saying this is who you really are. But I really don’t think that that is how gender identity operates. I think it’s subjective and that it can shift and that it’s actually the value shift that needs to happen there isn’t about proving that trans people are really trans, but about shifting to a culture in which we believe people when they say who they are gender wise. And so that to me translates over to journalism in the sense that there’s something there about actually centering and sort of lifting up subjectivity as truth and not as this thing that compromises truth, but as the truth itself. There’s so much tradition in other fields and you know in poetry and in literature and philosophy around this idea. But I think in the context of journalism it’s a little more radical or less talked about. And then of course it entails the possibility that there are multiple truths and sometimes contradictory truths at once that we need to figure out ways to make space for in our storytelling.
Adam: One of the things that we talked about earlier is this idea of like, and you mention this in your book, this sort of circle of acceptable ideology where when you’re in the middle of the conventional wisdom, highly subjective or ideological or value laden claims are not considered outside of the bounds for journalists to say in public, social media and otherwise, because the way we measure bias is actually, like you said, partisan, it’s actually not, so if Republicans and Democrats agree on X, X is not considered ideological. Which when you live in a belly of an imperial country is bad when you’re poor and brown and you live in Yemen or Afghanistan or whatever. Right? So you have someone like Jake Tapper who basically led a three day, you know, like when the Queen dies in England, there’s kind of a, there’s a 12 day mourning, there was basically a three day period after John McCain died where Tapper was engaging in lots of subjective and even before he died, you know, he, he quote-unquote said, “Thank you for your courage and sacrifice John McCain” he went on, he apologized when Trump snubbed him because he didn’t mention his name at the signing of a National Defense Authorization Bill. And he apologized. You know, very subjective ideological claims because you’re effectively endorsing John McCain’s worldview, which of course is based on imperial wars. You know, the huge defender of the war in Yemen, huge support of the war in Iraq, et cetera, et cetera. But if someone comes out and says, you know, ‘Hey, you know, maybe the trans debate isn’t really a debate and you know, my humanity is not up for negotiation with bad faith scummy actors,’ then that’s like too far? So I want to talk a bit about the idea of ideology sort of being the water we swim in, which we talk about a ton on the show and how that scam sort of is necessarily conservative because like you talked about in your book, it’s especially when it comes to things like, you even mentioned Vietnam as an example. And we talk about how the sort of ideology we swim in is not viewed as ideology and how maybe a scrappy young reporter coming up now or listening to this in J school can sort of work to sort of deconstruct that within the system if that’s even possible.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Yeah. So my collaborator, Ramona Martinez, who produces The View From Somewhere podcast has done a lot of thinking about this. And she, I quoted her in the book saying “Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo.” Which sort of summarizes, I think, the thesis there that the idea that there even is such a thing as objectivity is really ultimately about sort of upholding whatever the status quo acceptable range of debate is. But then I think as we begin to try to push back on that the pushing back is complex, right? Because how do we change that? You know, one way that we can change it is by trying to sort of break open and make more space in what’s understood as acceptable, the acceptable range of debate. Right? And that’s like one of the purposes that alternative sources of news have played and can play. And then I think there’s another interrupting or pushing back on. So The New York Times took years and years to start to cover the AIDS crisis and it was gay weekly and biweekly newspapers that really did most of the coverage about what a crisis it was and how it was putting everyone at risk, especially in the early months and years. And then simultaneously they were pushing for The New York Times to do more of that coverage and there was a real need to push for that because they needed to get the attention of the federal government to save people’s lives. And so that’s a strategy and a tactic is like pushing these stories into the mainstream but then I think there’s a whole other set of issues and questions around what it looks like to begin to really break down the sort of consolidation of power in the hands of these mainstream institutions who are mediating through that ideological lens. Either way I think critiquing and sort of revealing the lie around ideology itself, and that that objectivity is in fact an ideological stance in and of itself, is an important starting point.
Adam: And one thing you mentioned and we mentioned earlier is like if you want to account, like an accurate account of say for example, lynchings in 1892 or if you want an accurate account of labor history and even labor historians will tell you this, you know, if you look at basically socialist rags, they will give you a more accurate and fair representation of what happened.
Nima: Right. It’s always after the fact that it winds up being like, ‘Oh yeah, I guess that was right.’
Adam: Based on The New York Times, which is basically just, I mean, oftentimes just repeating, I mean, especially when it comes to lynchings, I mean it’s, it’s horrific to read what they wrote.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Right. And I think that the example of how and whether lynchings were documented is such an important example because it’s not just that Ida B. Wells and other black freedom fighters and journalists documented accurately these stories. It’s also that there were dozens and maybe hundreds and we don’t even know how many stories that were not documented. Right? Because of a lack of power and access on the part of the people who even would want to or who would see that as important or true. And so I was at the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery last fall and to be commemorated in the Lynching Memorial, people had to be, their deaths had to be reported. That story had to be told. And so to me there’s this like other sort of deeper level of loss that’s not just like, ‘Oh we did or didn’t get the accurate version of the story,’ but that these tragic deaths that are so core to our history in the United States went entirely untold and undocumented such that we don’t have the right count in the Lynching Memorial. You know?
Nima: Right, exactly. It just sets such a high bar for even what’s allowed to be reality and like a shared, a shared narrative, right?
Lewis Raven Wallace: Yeah.
Nima: That like the bar is whether it was reported and that can be in the press or something deemed official enough to be somehow unquestioned. Right? To rise to the level of what we would now maybe consider objective. But to get there, as you say, it needed to have been told. And so how much just is left untold? And so, you know, I guess that kind of leads me to my next question, which is in that lineage of whether it’s Marvel Cooke or Ida B. Wells as you said, or T. Thomas Fortune, like, who is doing that work now? What can we look to in terms of telling those stories that I guess can be painted as activist or advocacy journalism when we know that that may be way closer to the truth and that it’s only a matter of time before that is known as quote-unquote “objective truth.” Like who have you documented in your book or maybe since your book came out that we can really be paying attention to?
Lewis Raven Wallace: There’s so many but the example that I talk about the most in the book is the Black Lives Matter movement and the whole sort of network and web of activists who use Twitter and Instagram and any social media channel that they had access to in like really, really, really smart and strategic ways to tell stories that weren’t being told. And to do sort of that Ida B. Wells work that was simultaneously like saying these deaths are not okay and they need to stop and also they happened and they need to be remembered. And it was Black Lives Matter movement activists who pushed also journalism outlets to cover those stories and to put the greater resources that those outlets might’ve had toward digging deeper on them. But so many of the stories of black deaths at the hands of police have come from just people in community and people affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. And so I consider Black Lives Matter in, in a sense, a media organization. And I think it will be remembered that way. Right? Like those are the folks who told that story.
Adam: ‘Cause it seems like one of the things that people, like when they talk about neutrality, objectivity, all these kinds of lofty concepts, it seems like really what people are talking about, those who are sort of worried about it in good faith, it seems like what we’re really talking about is like fact-checking and accountability because we want to distinguish between like Trumptruth.biz. Like, you know, okay, well that’s obviously, you know, not necessarily the sort of fringy quote-unquote “fake news,” which you know, there’s a whole cottage industry hand wringing about that, which we won’t get into. But like it seems as if, but of course there’s obviously institutional biases even with fact-checking because that requires a lot of resources to meet a certain standard of that. Right? But I think it’s actually more important to say, okay, are you accountable? So I guess if, you know, Citations Needed as it has no institutional backing, right? But if we say something that’s fundamentally false, we will correct it. Like we are accountable, you know what I mean? And it seems like that’s kind of what people want and we mistake accountability I think with this kind of bourgeois blue check mark, VC money, corporate money, billionaire money and I don’t think that’s actually, I think that’s not the way to look at it. Especially since much of the quote-unquote “official” media is, is also not very accountable. We know this because Jeffrey Goldberg was the biggest promoter of the Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda connection, and now he runs The Atlantic. And so, like, he was never held accountable for that conspiracy theory. So I, I want to get your thoughts before you go on accountability and, like, what does that look like in a fluid independent media dynamic? And do you think that is, you know, not to get too squishy here, but is that still kind of important even for alternative media?
Lewis Raven Wallace: Yeah, I think accountability is a great word for, I guess to me it’s one element of trust, right? It’s something that’s present in a trusting relationship and mainstream media and alternative media are very concerned about trust and the worry about, you know, how do we sort of tell what is real news and what is fake news and stuff? That’s also a worry that’s about trust. And we can’t stop people from lying, right? Or from creating propaganda or a distortion. But we can strengthen the ties of trust between media that’s striving to be fact-based and truthful and the people who need it. And I think accountability, being responsive to community and being transparent, is yes, is one really important sort of technique for that. But I think, you know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of like when we talk about interpersonal trust, we understand that that’s like ultimately relational, right? It’s something that’s developed over time and through interaction. And so how can we translate that to media and media outlets and individual journalists to really be constantly building trust. And I think objectivity, Jay Rosen talks about has, you know, diminishing returns in terms of trust. Because if the whole point is you can trust us because we’re objective, then eventually it’s going to become clear, ‘Oh, but someone on your staff is biased or someone on your staff got something wrong or you got something wrong and so now we trust you less and then the next time less and then the next time less.’
Lewis Raven Wallace: And it’s the complete opposite of what we need right now in terms of how we relate to truth and trust. And so I know that maybe feels sort of abstract, but to me it’s really, that to me is like the real foundation on which we need to sort of build and rebuild fact-based media.
Adam: Yeah. ‘Cause there’s, like, anonymous Twitter accounts that have no institutional affiliation, but if they get something wrong, they correct it. So it’s like, okay, I trust that account. Yes, yes, they’re biased, but like they, you know, they don’t, they get their facts right. And then of course there’s the opposite problem. So it’s like, I think that’s really what people are kind of talking about. And it seems sad that we’ve conflated the idea of accountability with, again, lots of money or officialdom or positions, pundits seen on PBS or CNN, to me those aren’t the same thing at all.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Yeah, totally. I mean we got something wrong. A minor factual thing on my podcast, which I want to lift up actually because what it was was I had said that the Washington Post and The Guardian were the first outlets to start counting comprehensively deaths at the hands of police and it turned out that this independent journalist based in Nevada had been doing that already and runs a website called Fatal Encounters where he had been like aggregating all of this information about deaths at hands of police from news reports all around the country for several years before the Washington Post and The Guardian invested all their big money into doing that. Anyway, I said that they were the first and then somebody listened to it after it came out and said, ‘No, they weren’t the first, it was Fatal Encounters’ and we issued a correction and we reached out and dah, dah, dah, dah. And then Fatal Encounters guy, who’s like still doing this work was so hyped about it. He like donated to our podcast and became kind of part of our community. Right? And so now we’re, not only like did we issue a correction about a small factual thing that helped people know more things about the world, but we developed this relationship with this wonderful journalist who’s been doing this work kind of unrecognized.
Nima: Yeah. This idea of trust is actually really I think fascinating and how to differentiate that from some of the other terms we hear. It actually reminds me of, in early 1970, Bill Siemering, one of the organizers of what would become National Public Radio, NPR, and actually its first program director issued like a mission statement for what NPR was supposed to be while it was still trying to get funding. And in this mission statement, one of the things that he wrote is this, quote:
“The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.”
There is nothing in this mission statement that talks about objectivity or neutrality. And yet as you’ve written Lewis in your book, public broadcasting doesn’t always really hit this that well. You talk about some of the documentaries. Can you talk about how PBS may operate or sometimes NPR, and why right-wing forces have been so successful in curtailing or curbing some of this more vaunted language of wanting to be trustworthy?
Lewis Raven Wallace: Yeah, so I love that launch statement of NPR by Bill Siemering and the sort of dreamy, utopian conception of what radio could be, you know, it’s so sweet. And then what, what happened from there was very sad, right? Because kind of a, an evil trifecta of politics and money and racism. So the politics piece being that public media has in part been publicly funded the entire time. And so it becomes fodder for these partisan political debates every federal budget season. And that started almost immediately after public media was founded. And so that led over time to increasing sort of caution about the nature of those attacks, which were often attacks from the right on programming that reflected what they saw as a left-wing viewpoint, whether it was anti-war or talking about uprisings in Latin America or talking about being gay, you know, all of those sort of perspectives came under attack in very public ways by the right-wing starting very early. So there is a political piece and then there is the money piece for public media of actually being dependent in part on this public funding but also in part on underwriting or sponsorship and which is sort of draws it also toward a corporate model that sort of says you’re going to make more money off of underwriting if you have a larger audience, a wealthier audience, and by extension whiter audience. And so while public media in theory and sort of on paper was launched to serve the people who weren’t being served by corporate media, it actually has an incentive or it thinks it does to serve the very same people being served by corporate media.
Lewis Raven Wallace: So that’s been a big problem.
Adam: Before we let you go, could you want to tell us about your pod and, um, let’s do a little promotion here. Let’s do a little self promotion. What are you working on? Where can we find it?
Lewis Raven Wallace: So I have a podcast that’s called The View From Somewhere. It’s somewhat based on the book, but it’s not like an audiobook. It’s a narrative podcast where we tell stories about journalists from history and journalists today who have resisted this objective framework and worked in other ways. So we talk a lot about Black Lives Matter. We interviewed Nicole Hannah-Jones from The New York Times about Ida B. Wells. We kind of surface these stories, not untold, but stories that haven’t, I think, been told enough about journalists who have been resistors in different ways and people can find that at viewfromsomewhere.com or just look up The View From Somewhere wherever you listen to podcasts.
Nima: Well, I think that is a great place to leave it. Journalist and author Lewis Raven Wallace, who as he just said, hosts the podcast The View From Somewhere based on his book, The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, which was published last year by University of Chicago Press. Lewis, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed. This was great.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Thanks for having me.
Adam: Yeah, so I think Lewis had a lot of, it’s an interesting thing to sort of spark a new chapter of his career in a sense, right? That by being fired and being a victim of this stupid chicken shit, impartiality fetish that liberals have, it sparked a conversation, a long due conversation, you know, it’s been reported on by a bunch of other media outlets and so forth, and I think it’s, this is not a new, you know, horribly new observation on our part because I think Trump has expedited this conversation.
Nima: It’s just about how you actually pick this apart and see who it marginalizes, why that is done, who is silenced, why that is done, who it’s done by and who it all serves. And I think just having these conversations to kind of pick those apart and also see the historical precedent from this right? To really think about how this not being something new can be really powerful. That asking these questions, that pushing against these power structures, just like someone like Ida B. Wells did over a hundred years ago, like that can be really powerful. It makes it less alienating, less isolating because there is a historical precedent to it. It’s just about building that collective movement to make something different, to actually adjust power to create these new realities. And not just in the Rove-ian, Cheney-an, George Bush-ian models, but something that is actually far more just, far more equitable and far more peaceful.
Adam: Yeah. The one thing I would leave on as a way of compromise, to say like even if one wants to maintain this mode of journalism, this genre of journalism, which even everyone who practices it even kind of behind closed doors knows it’s bullshit, right? This is not particularly going to blow anyone’s mind is at least try to calibrate for power asymmetries and the way information is created and don’t just mindlessly call the first think tank or mindlessly call the first expert because she was the expert on CNN you saw last week. Like think critically about the institutional biases of these forces. How one can sort of ask the next question or the next question instead of just under the gun, under deadline repeating the same old conventional script that these think tanks exist to pre-write for you and that these experts exist to pre-write for you and then if you’re going to be quote-unquote “objective,” at least — for the love of god — try to interrogate the objectivity of the sources you’re using.
Nima: That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson and of course as always an extra special shoutout goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, February 26, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.