In the Public Ear: Marketplace Reporter Reignites An Old Journalism Debate That’s More Important than Ever

Transgender reporter Lewis Wallace used to work for public radio magnate Marketplace. But last Monday, he was fired over a post he published on his personal blog that questioned the viability of media objectivity in the wake of recent political shifts.

Wallace’s post, originally published on January 25th, questioned the morality and practicality of media neutrality and argued that journalists should “fight back” against limits to freedom of speech. But, as Wallace explains in a follow-up blog post, the managing editor and executive producer of Marketplace called him a few hours after the piece was published and told him the it violated Marketplace’s Code of Ethics. As a result, Wallace was suspended from his job and Marketplace requested that he delete the post.

The next morning, Wallace did remove the post but was not reinstated to his position nor contacted by Marketplace. On Friday, January 27th, Wallace emailed his superiors telling them he intended to re-publish the piece at the end of the day. He did so, and on the following Monday he was fired completely.

The post, “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it,” while boasting an admittedly click-baity title, is hardly a groundbreaking exploration of journalistic ethics. Wallace simply questioned the ability of journalists to truly be neutral. In an interview with MediaFile, Wallace said, “The ideas I was questioning in my piece were around how are we going to handle these tricky questions of objectivity and neutrality and fairness in our reporting.” He continued, “That’s a real concern we need to tackle with a lot of moral clarity.”

Countless media outlets have covered the incident, including Nieman Lab, Slate and WNYC’s On the Media, and many prominent journalists have shared their thoughts, with few defending Marketplace.

The debate Wallace brought to light is nothing new. Through the 19th and 20th century, journalists debated between ‘realism’ and ‘objectivity’. In the 1980s, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman developed the propaganda model contending that notions of objectivity end up heavily favoring governments and powerful corporations.

Following the mainstream media’s failure to criticize the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Brent Cunningham of the Columbia Journalism Review has argued that journalists consistently “[allow] the principle of objectivity to make us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it. Further, prominent news organizations, from CNN to NPR, have publicly discussed what objectivity means for them under the Trump administration’s “alternative facts.”

Part of what makes Marketplace’s decision to fire Wallace so confounding is that he was contributing to this robust industry debate. Furthermore, as a transgender man, he was bringing modern and pressing questions of identity and identity politics into this debate. In his initial objectivity post he wrote:

Neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you, too. As a member of a marginalized community (I am transgender), I’ve never had the opportunity to pretend I can be “neutral.” After years of silence/denial about our existence, the media has finally picked up trans stories, but the nature of the debate is over whether or not we should be allowed to live and participate in society, use public facilities and expect not to be harassed, fired or even killed. Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity.

Another confounding aspect of Marketplace’s decision is that Wallace’s post does not appear to violate their Code of Ethics. The Code of Ethics never mentions objectivity or neutrality. It does stipulate “Marketplace staffers must keep their political views private.” However, Wallace’s initial piece never mentions any politician or political party. He does briefly mention climate change and debunking alternative facts, but this hardly amounts to espousing political beliefs.

When contacted, Marketplace declined an interview request, but provided MediaFile with this statement:

The broader issue around journalistic ethics is an ongoing one for the industry, with each media entity needing to define what it means for how they report. For Marketplace, it’s very clear. We are committed to raising the economic intelligence of all Americans. We accomplish that with independent and objective reporting that is based on facts, pursues the truth, and covers what’s happening in a fair and neutral way. Our journalists’ mission is to be honest, impartial, nonpartisan and independent in their work. Our team is a diverse group of professionals who have committed to that code of ethics. We don’t discuss personnel matters about current or former employees.

Wallace explained to MediaFile that Marketplace did not specify any particular part of the ethics codes that he violated, and that he has has carefully studied the Marketplace Code of Ethics. He explained, “Marketplace’s ethics code uses the word ‘impartiality’ quite a bit, which is a concept I’m much more comfortable with than objectivity. Impartiality speaks more to the practice of reporting a story in a way that’s fair, so you don’t go in already on one side, or with a preconception of what you’re going to say, so that you treat your sources impartially. I believe in that.”

From an outsider’s perspective, it would not appear that Wallace was fired for a particular ethics violation. Instead, Wallace believes Marketplace executives were more upset with the premises that objectivity is impossible and that media should not care if it is perceived as liberal.

“[Marketplace] did specify a couple parts of the piece that I wrote that they were unhappy with,” Wallace noted. “One was the general stance of questioning objectivity and neutrality. They said Marketplace believes in objectivity and neutrality. The other was two lines in my piece where I said [‘We will be called politically correct, liberal and leftist. We shouldn’t care about that nor work to avoid it.’]. They communicated to me they were concerned this would be perceived as saying we were all liberals or leftists.”

Given the longstanding objectivity debate in journalism, Wallace’s claim is striking. Particularly considering the many other Marketplace reporters who are not strictly “objective” in their personal social media accounts, including Marketplace’s biggest star and host of its flagship program, Kai Ryssdal, who is often overtly political on Twitter. Although he is somewhat more coy than Wallace, he has repeatedly criticized the incumbent administration. But objectivity, to the extent that it is attainable or desirable in journalism, should not be measured by one’s ability to obfuscate one’s opinions.

The second claim, that Marketplace executives were concerned Wallace’s piece would make them appear liberal-leaning, is also concerning. Wallace’s initial piece argues that journalists should not care about this very thing. He argues, “Instead, we should own the fact that [telling] the stories and [promoting] 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.”

Wallace’s point is echoed by many minority journalists. As Iranian-American journalist Shaya Tayefe Mohajer wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Newsrooms can’t selectively pretend away the diversity within their ranks when they feel it doesn’t serve them, only clinging to it when it produces better access and more richly reported stories from within minority communities. I fear the message such a rule really sends is: Welcome into our newsrooms, all you wonderfully diverse reporters and editors. Could you please leave your pesky identities and demands for fairness at the door?

Wallace agrees with Mohajer that minority journalists face different questions about neutrality, and newsrooms should do more to address those concerns. In his interview with MediaFile, Wallace explained that when “identity is being politicized, as anyone who is transgender has experienced,” keeping political views private can be difficult. “I’ve done some pieces about trans issues,” Wallace recounted. “I’ve interviewed people who oppose human rights for transgender people and who think being transgender is a mental illness. I couldn’t possibly live my life and agree with that, but I’ve never been accused of bias in those stories.”

Perhaps new organizations’ failure to address and embrace how minority journalists experience neutrality has contributed to stagnating newsroom diversity, despite decades of diversity requirement efforts. Wallace wants to see this trend reversed. “I would hope that any news organization that values diversity and wants to report on and represent the fullness and complexity of the U.S. would not shy away from the controversy and tension that increasingly diverse viewpoints in a newsroom can bring.”

Wallace’s depiction suggests that Marketplace is more concerned about accusations of liberalism than newsroom diversity. In any scenario, firing your only transgender reporter does not look good. But firing him because you’re worried he makes you look too liberal? Marketplace may be cutting off its nose to spite its face.

When asked why he thinks news organizations are so concerned about being perceived as liberal, Wallace admits that “I don’t really know why that’s the focus.” He maintains that “another critique that [he’s] heard of public media is that it is too white or that it doesn’t fully represent the diversity of the communities where its based.” and that “from an ethical standpoint, those should be larger concerns as publicly funded organizations in a diverse country.”

In a December interview with MediaFile, Deborah Clark, vice president/executive producer at Marketplace and the woman who fired Wallace, discussed Marketplace’s strategy to reach a larger audience. She said, “We are going to have to go where [the audience is] and that’s where we are investing.” But, American audiences are becoming more and more diverse. Marketplace may want to do more to ensure its reporting (and reporters) reflect that.

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