Lewis Wallace first got into journalism, four years ago, with the help of a fellowship that encouraged diversity. And he brought his experience as a transgender man to his new job last year as a reporter at American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” a sometimes-offbeat business show and website based in Los Angeles.
Now, the 32-year-old has been fired after writing a post on Medium suggesting that journalists — especially those who are members of a minority group — need to rethink objectivity in the Trump era.
“We need to admit that those who oppose free speech, diversity and kindergarten level fairness are our enemies,” Wallace wrote.
A “Marketplace” executive, Deborah Clark, told me that his public rejection of objectivity is directly opposed to the company’s written guidelines, which call for staffers to keep their political views private and to be neutral. (The firing, on Monday, followed Wallace’s decision late last week to republish his post after initially deleting it at his employer’s request.)
Wallace’s firing is emblematic of struggles in newsrooms across the country. Journalists and their managers are sparring about the meaning of impartiality in a world redefined by a Trump administration that sees the news media as the enemy.
“Should journalists protest in Trump’s America?” asked a headline this week on the journalism site Poynter.org. The article quoted Andrew M. Seaman, ethics committee chair for the Society of Professional Journalists: “Journalists, I know some of you may want to protest, but you’re much more useful producing great journalism.”
Most mainstream organizations don’t want their reporters or editors carrying pickets signs — whether at a protest against the immigrant travel ban or at the antiabortion March for Life.
The conflicts often play out on social media, and editors find themselves acting as the Twitter police for their staffs. From BuzzFeed to the New York Times, top editors repeatedly have told their reporters that impartiality matters and to cut the snark.
When things go awry, the usual result is a tense meeting in a supervisor’s office or an all-staff email reiterating policies.
Wallace’s essay is thoughtful and more moderate than its attention-getting title: “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it.” Even that is hardly a radical idea — it has been the subject of inside-journalism arguments for years.
The ethics code at “Marketplace” is clear: Staffers “must keep their political views private.” The company issued a brief statement Tuesday on Wallace’s firing, pointing to those guidelines, to its commitment to diversity and to the reluctance to discuss personnel matters.
Clark, though, provided some context in a phone interview.
“This was a clear violation of our ethics code,” she said. “He did not agree — and he does not get to make that decision. That left me with no other options.”
As Wallace tells it, he was taken off the air for a couple of days and told to delete the post. He did so but then, after thinking it through, told his supervisor that he felt it was important to republish it, and he did so. In a follow-up post, Wallace reflected:
“We cannot have token diversity without making actual space for the realities of being a marginalized or oppressed person doing journalism,” he wrote.
Does a news organization really want to send the message that they would prefer their reporters not think, or not care deeply about the very issues their sought-after diversity is supposed to represent? And that the punishment for standing your ground is dismissal?
Clark told me that she understands that the punishment seems draconian and that she can’t discuss details other than to say that, in her view, there was “a doubling down and a quadrupling down” that made Wallace’s continued employment untenable.
What’s certain is that this is a subject that is big, broad and not going away. Journalists must stand up for factual reality, must call out falsehoods and must dig deep for the truth. Doing so fairly, without being — or appearing to be — partisan is the tricky part.
Wallace, who is based in New York City, says he’ll be looking for work in radio or podcasts, someplace where he can remain true to “my moral compass.”
As he rightly notes in his post: “Many of the journalists who’ve told the truth in key historical moments have been outliers and members of an opposition, here and in other countries.”
And in an interview, he added: “I don’t want this to be just about my being fired from ‘Marketplace.’ ” It should prompt a broader discussion, he said, about the core beliefs and practices of mainstream journalism.
In the new era, with emotions running high and the traditional rules under fire, that discussion is nowhere near settled.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan