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Can Journalists Really Be Apolitical?

Credible journalism warrants that reporters present “both sides.” But is it reasonable to demand the artifice of reporters not having an opinion in these highly politicized times?

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Late last week, a Politico managing editor said out loud what a lot of journalists know but rarely discuss publicly — for obvious reasons: To get and keep a job at a mainstream publication, you’ve really got to keep your social media feeds cleanly scrubbed of personal political bias and open partisanship, even on issues of deep personal relevance, such as racism, or homophobia or immigration status. Evan Smith, the wunderbro founder of the Texas Tribune, chimed in to broadly agree (and, of course, chimed in again later to further explain himself after everybody hollered at him, because Twitter).

Smith, of course, needs us to believe that he believes that the employees of his nonprofit online outlet don’t really have strong political opinions because they don’t tweet about them — he certainly needs the publication’s donors and corporate sponsors, everyone from major state universities to the oil and gas lobby, to believe he believes that. He is obviously smart enough not to actually believe this. But without everyone’s participation in this this mutually agreed upon farce, the Tribune loses a large part of its supposedly apolitical caché, and Smith loses his ability to attract Ted Cruz and DeRay McKesson to the same party, which down the line loses the Tribune money, nonprofit designation or no. It’s a delicate balance, maintaining access to major political players without pissing off big-dollar funders while making sure that reporters have, you know, something to write about every day.

It works. The size of the Tribune’s newsroom and the dedication of its extremely talented reporting staff make the site fully impossible to compete with in terms of sheer output. But the Tribune is fair to a fault, mostly churning out “both sides”-style pieces that lack the deep skepticism and fearless inquiry of really, really quality journalism. It’s a good way to keep the lights on, but for what? Creating an accurate historical record, worthwhile to be sure, but thin on the good stuff good journalism does: Holding public officials accountable, investigating corruption, finding surprising angles on old stories and picking up new ones.

I’m picking on Smith because he tweeted about this stuff and because I’m a regular reader of the Tribune, but all mainstream media outlets are similarly careful about the public political views of the people they hire. It’s not the worst idea, and not a weird one, but it does require editors, reporters and readers alike to join the game of pretend. Pretend like reporters are robots, pretend like editors don’t have human biases, pretend like readers don’t know about the pretend. It’s actually all pretty dishonest, once you get thinking about it, but in the service of theoretically honorable goals: Accuracy, fairness, objectivity.

Some issues transcend politics, anyway, and some issues have been deliberately politicized to ensure that folks stay silent, unable to advocate for themselves or others without being accused of getting into partisan squabbles. Take the anti-trans “bathroom bills” proliferating across the country. These bills are naught but naked bigotry, their ostensible purpose (public safety and privacy) has no basis in reality, and they originate from one party — the Republicans. In the broadest sense, publicly opposing these bills is absolutely political because the issue of whether transgender people should be able to use public restrooms has been brought into our legislative chambers, but the proposals themselves lack moral, ethical or common sense. It’s not apolitical to refrain from publicly supporting trans Americans’ human rights; it’s as political a decision as speaking up. But saying something is the right thing to do. 

Ditto white supremacy and the recent racist terrorist attack in Charlottesville. The Trump-led GOP is undeniably the party supported by and attached to the current wave of American white nationalism — Trump himself said there were some “good” people marching with the Neo-Nazis, and his affinity for right-wing racial fearmongerers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller is well documented. So to the extent that condemning white supremacist violence necessitates condemning the major American political party associated with it, that’s partisan politics. But it’s also the right thing to do.

The political reality is that right now, a strong, vocal and sizeable faction of the American GOP is singularly concerned with some very bad — very bigoted, very irrational, very poorly rationalized, very dangerous — ideas. There simply is no equivalent on the other side of the aisle — the so-called “alt-left” is deeply critical of Democrats, and probably more accurately described as actively hostile to mainstream liberal party politics. To be on the right side of history right now requires that anybody — journalists included, and not a few actual real-life Republicans — lean, politically speaking, to the left, in opposition to a great many of the stated positions and efforts coming from the American right. Because it’s the right thing to do.

 If Politico doesn’t want to hire people who publicly condemn racist violence or who support civil rights, it’s certainly entitled to do so, and it’ll probably raise the publication’s esteem among those who have a vested interest in knowing where they won’t be seriously criticized, and who won’t be criticizing them. It’s a good position if you care strictly about access to political insiders. It’s a good way to do a gossip column dressed up as political reporting, and a bad way to do just about anything else journalism is supposed to do. 

 In a world without all the -isms and -phobias that make this planet such a miserable place for so many people, it might still be an okay way for most publications to do business. But expecting, as the Politico bigwigs apparently do, (especially) black reporters and editors to stay silent about white supremacy out of some misplaced attempt at avoiding the appearance of partisanship? Is preposterous. Asking queer and trans journalists to pretend as though they don’t value their own civil rights? Asking women journalists to ignore how we feel about reproductive health, or domestic violence? It’s not reasonable, and moreover, it’s not actually possible to ask real humans to pretend to be unbiased or unaffected by politics and partisanship. This can only result in pretense, not practice.

Moreover to the moreover, asking journalists to stay silent about the intersections of the personal and political in their lives in the service of their work is not actually the best way to do journalism. The best journalists excel at spotting bullshit and doggedly pursuing the bullshitters, and people who are served well by often racist, misogynist, trans- and queerphobic systems and institutions are the least equipped to find the cracks — and expose them. The best journalists aren’t unaffected by the issues they cover and the people they write about. To the contrary, the best journalists are invested, and when they are invested, they produce amazing work. (See: “A Most American Terrorist,” the GQ feature about the murderous racist and homegrown terrorist Dylann Roof, written by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah.)

There’s no need, of course, for any reporter to air their political opinions at any or every opportunity, but it’s a little silly for adults to act as though the absence of an openly advocated political stance means one doesn’t exist at all. But that’s the agreement this industry has mostly made with itself and with the public. It’s just mostly bullshit — even if nobody’s going to risk their livelihood admitting it. 


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