The Well Actually
Why Is Media Disavowing Activism?
In their pushback against criticism of their trans coverage, The New York Times argues that activism and advocacy work has no place in their reporting. But their op-ed pages reveal a different story.
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In 2019, when I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the shady financial dealings of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, I provided my one-line bio, going back and forth on how exactly to describe what I do, and landed on this: “Andrea Grimes is a journalist and activist in Austin, Tex.”
At the time, I was running communications for a reproductive legal organization and writing book reviews, essays, and commentaries when I could. “Journalist” on its own didn’t capture the totality of my work, even though I had done everything from straight news reporting to crime investigations and city hall play-by-plays. But I made no secret of my association with the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements, and was (and am) proud to produce journalistic work in the express service of protecting and expanding reproductive freedom. “Journalist and activist” just felt right.
Because of that op-ed, I was able to sign an open letter to the paper from New York Times contributors concerning the paper’s coverage of trans issues. I agree wholeheartedly with the letter, published in mid-February, which draws thoughtfully articulated connections between the Times’ historically poor coverage of LGBTQ issues in the 20th century and its harmful and wrongheaded treatment of trans folks today.
At the same time as this letter was being sent, a coalition of LGBTQ leaders and organizations issued a call-to-action via the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD, making demands for the Times to improve its trans coverage. The day the letter and call-to-action were released, my friends and colleagues and I speculated about whether the contributors’ letter might spark change at the Times. We wondered: Might it be difficult for the paper to ignore—remarkably measured—criticism from hundreds of writers who it had previously trusted enough to publish?
We got our answer the next day. The New York Times would not wholly ignore its critics, but instead attempt to discredit its contributors as advocates, and not journalists. The paper issued two responses, one external and one internal, both in bad faith and both drawing a hard line between “journalism” and “advocacy.” In the external response, the Times’ director of external communications made no mention of the contributors’ statement, dealing only with the GLAAD call-to-action, asserting that “GLAAD’s advocacy mission and the Times’ journalistic mission are different.” In an internal memo to the paper’s staff, the Times’ executive editor dealt initially only with GLAAD’s criticisms, but closed with a curious statement that conflated the two letters even as he finally acknowledged the contributors—by threatening them: “We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.” In other words: Say boo about the New York Times and you’ll never work in this town again.
Responses-to-the-responses came swiftly and vigorously from letter signatories, supporters, media watchers and journalists taking issue with the Times’ erasure of contributors’ criticisms. What struck me most was the paper’s dismissive repudiation of journalism and advocacy, as if the two concepts are in fundamental opposition to each other—a rejection of journalism as advocacy. Who goes into journalism because they’re not trying to do something about the world—even if “do something” means “maintain the status quo”?
But the barrier between “journalist” and “advocate” conveniently disappears—or at least becomes surprisingly porous—the closer a journalist comes to upholding, rather than challenging, the status quo. Yet the project of keeping things as they are takes work, even if that work is obfuscated by the very invisibility of the status quo itself. We understand this intrinsically when it comes to something like keeping the lights on—bulbs burn out! Bills need paying! And of course the human machine requires constant tending; it must be fed, and rested, and washed, and medicated. The quietly tenacious nature of maintenance is so baked into the everyday that it is easy, and even convenient, to forget how much effort it takes to preserve business as usual.
So too, our systems and institutions and social structures require maintenance, and journalism has emerged in the last couple hundred years as an essential tool with which we do that work. Like an overheated engine leaving a driver stranded on the shoulder wishing they hadn’t skipped that oil change, this particular function of journalism is most obvious in its absence. The recent decline of well-funded local and independent media has meant fewer journalists covering city halls, planning commissions, and legislatures as well as restaurants and the arts and sports. Those who remain are stretched thinner than ever, reporting on government while penning the human interest features and investigations that offer our systems and institutions context and meaning and accountability, while editors, locked into a perpetual time-crunch, look for the best idea at the cheapest price.
Practically every media outlet is doing more with less these days—less staff, less money, fewer resources. In this new status quo, we cannot afford to remain attached to musty ideas about journalism being removed from—and preposterously above—advocacy and activism. The attachment to this distinction is thoroughly ahistorical, a conceit that is not nearly as old as mainstream and legacy media would have its proponents believe—including its proprietors and workers, especially those with formal J-school training.
For an industry ostensibly committed to fact-finding, the practice of publishing “objective” truths is a relatively new concept. Most of us agree on the broad strokes: American journalism began in the late-18th century as an explicitly partisan endeavor, moved into the “yellow” journalism and muckraking days of the 19th century, and then into an early and mid-20th-century corrective fixated on objectivity. So fixated, in fact, that the “gonzo” and “new” journalism of the 1960s and beyond stood in stark relief to their buttoned-up counterparts.
But of course it is much more complicated. American journalism has always been pushed forward by people who, in their time and perhaps in some cases even by today’s standards, were outliers and advocates and activists. People who were willing not just to say, but to write, that the status quo was unacceptable, and to demand their ideas be published not just to change conversations among the elites but to change society itself. The best recent work on journalism’s activist roots, and its continuing activist backbone, however much the New York Times would like to disavow it, is by journalist and activist Lewis Wallace, whose book The View From Somewhere is available in e-versions today and will be published in print in March. (Wallace also produced a podcast of the same name.)
For all its lofty ideals, journalism often performs maintenance on bad systems. Wallace’s work explicitly deconstructing the limitations of journalistic “objectivity” began when he, a transgender man, was fired from the American Public Media Group’s Marketplace (which airs on NPR), for suggesting, in the first days after Donald Trump took the White House in 2017, that the role of journalists as fact-finders in a post-fact era needed serious interrogation, and that identity and experience could play a stronger role in the stories journalists tell. Wallace’s blog said nothing that journalists don’t talk about at length over drinks, but Wallace dared to say it in public while employed by a major American news organization more invested in disavowing perceptions of bias than correcting actual bias itself.
When American Public Media Group fired Wallace, he wrote, his boss told him he clearly didn’t want to do the kind of journalism Marketplace does. She said Wallace must want to do advocacy, or advocacy journalism. Wallace went on to co-found Press On, a movement journalism collective for which I have, as a matter of full disclosure, conducted a paid media training on abortion coverage.
Press On, and the work of organizations like it, are filling a new and urgent need in American media. Whether due to under-resourcing or sheer laziness or outright hostility to change, journalism has a real problem identifying, let alone addressing, its own intrinsic prejudices. It benefits from a self-defined and self-policed conception as objective and unbiased, enabling the industry’s decision makers and funders—and the workers who want or need to succeed on those people’s terms—to agree that a “real” journalist is never an activist. Perform maintenance on the system, and you’re a journalist. Seek to upgrade the system, and you’re an advocate. And advocacy, as the New York Times brass explicitly put it in responses to criticism of its own egregious trans coverage, will not be tolerated.
The irony is that journalism is supposed to be fundamentally opposed to the kind of self-policing to which too many media outlets act as if they are uniquely entitled. Public accountability—whether that means a 300-word write-up of a city budget meeting or an investigative takedown of Enron—is a core function of the business. Identifying societal aggressors and bad actors is the simultaneously remarkable and quotidian stuff of journalists ranging from summer interns to Bob Woodward. Asking “What’s really going on here?” is the first and most important question any journalist asks, whether they’re bird-dogging the attorney general or reviewing a new wine bar. It would be a sorry journalist who accepted “Well, the person I spoke with said everything was all very above-board, so I didn’t ask about the man behind the curtain,” as a satisfying answer.
But that is what the New York Times wants its contributors and critics to do with its work. If the Times says to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, we are the ones in the wrong if we wonder, let alone directly ask, about all those gears we hear grinding backstage. It’s okay to ask about or even review the show as long as you have positive things to say, but when you start looking into the producers, well, you’re seeing things. You’re unreliable. You’re biased. You’re unobjective. You’re an activist.
This bears out in who is hired, fired, and promoted in mainstream and legacy media, and as a result, who becomes the decision makers and assignment editors whose news judgment determines what coverage and which frameworks are worthwhile, and which reporters are best positioned to report and write those stories. It turns out that the journalists most likely to succeed—despite evidence that they are as ill-equipped as anyone else to overcome their own biases—are the ones who least rock the white, male journalism boat.
Some recent examples: Felicia Sonmez, who had already been sidelined at the Washington Post by editors who “twice barred her from covering stories related to sexual misconduct after she spoke publicly about being a victim of sexual assault,” was fired last year from the paper after she tweeted a sarcastic response to her colleague Dave Weigel’s retweet of a sexist joke. Weigel remained at the Post until he left for the startup Semafor, the terms of which made him the subject of a cheery GQ magazine Q-and-A about his hotel preferences just before the 2022 midterms. Meanwhile the Washington Post continues to employ the right-wing journalist Paige W. Cunningham as a newsletter editor who selectively highlights coverage on abortion, despite her close family and household ties to the orchestrators—not just endorsers—of America’s abortion bans.
Sexist jokes, sexual harassment, and reproductive oppression: absolutely fine. But identifying yourself as a survivor of sexual assault who dares cover sexual misconduct? Well, you’re getting into activist territory there, and you’re out of the game entirely if you take issue with a li’l old sexist joke. Even highly privileged and celebrated white men journalists have fallen prey to the demand that journalists find the bad guy, but never the biggest, baddest guy, if the biggest and baddest guy is the one who’s really in charge. Pulitzer winner Peter Arnett was fired in 2003 from NBC for discussing “his personal opinions and observations” about the war in Iraq. Dan Rather was fired for reporting critically on the same conflict.
The day my New York Times byline ran in print—the piece that empowered me to sign the letter against the New York Times’ transphobic coverage as a contributor, and not only a supporter—it ran in op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg’s usual spot. Goldberg was one of the first and most prominent American white feminists to question the validity of transgender identities, and to decry trans women’s experiences specifically. Writing for the Times was one of the great accomplishments of my career, a privilege few journalists get to enjoy. But writing for the Times even once and only for a day, in the place of a “cancel culture” whiner and transphobe, while being careful not to use gender-essentialist language about abortion? That makes me the only kind of journalist I’d ever want to be: an activist.
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