As usual when someone commits a real act of journalism aimed at the most powerful in the U.S., those leading the charge against him are other journalists.
The Republican presidential candidate leading every poll, Donald Trump, recently unveiled his plan to forcibly deport all 11 million human beings residing in the U.S. without proper documentation, roughly half of whom have children born in the U.S. (and who are thus American citizens). As George Will noted last week, “Trump’s roundup would be about 94 times larger than the wartime internment of 117,000 persons of Japanese descent.” It would require a massive expansion of the most tyrannical police state powers far beyond their already immense post-9/11 explosion. And that’s to say nothing of the incomparably ugly sentiments that Trump’s advocacy of this plan, far before its implementation, is predictably unleashing.
Jorge Ramos, the influential anchor of Univision and an American immigrant from Mexico, has been denouncing Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Yesterday at a Trump press conference in Iowa, Ramos stood and questioned Trump on his immigration views. Trump at first ignored him, then scolded him for speaking without being called on and repeatedly ordered him to “sit down,” then told him: “Go back to Univision.” When Ramos refused to sit down and shut up as ordered, a Trump bodyguard physically removed him from the room. After the press conference concluded, Ramos returned and again questioned Trump about immigration, with the two mostly talking over each other as Ramos asked Trump about the fundamental flaws in his policy. Afterward, Ramos said: “This is personal. … He’s talking about our parents, our friends, our kids and our babies.”
One might think that in a conflict between a journalist removed from a press conference for asking questions and the politician who had him removed, journalists would side with their fellow journalist. Some are. But many American journalists have seized on the incident to denounce Ramos for the crime of having opinions and even suggesting that he’s not really acting as a journalist at all.
Politico’s political reporter Marc Caputo unleashed a Twitter rant this morning against Ramos. “This is bias: taking the news personally, explicitly advocating an agenda,” he began. Then: “Trump can and should be pressed on this. Reporters can do this without being activists” and “some reporters still try to approach their stories fairly & decently. & doing so does not prevent good reporting.” Not only did Ramos not do journalism, Caputo argued, but he actually ruins journalism: “My issue is his reporting is imbued with take-it-personally bias. . . . we fend off phony bias allegations & Ramos only helps to wrongly justify them. . . .One can ask and report without the bias. I’ve done it for years & will continue 2 do so.”
A Washington Post article about the incident actually equated the two figures, beginning with the headline: “Jorge Ramos is a conflict junkie, just like his latest target: Donald Trump.” The article twice suggested that Ramos’ behavior was something other than journalism, claiming that his advocacy of immigration reform “blurred the line between journalist and activist” and that “by owning the issue of immigration, Ramos has also blurred the line between journalist and activist.” That Ramos was acting more as an “activist” than a “journalist” was a commonly expressed criticism among media elites this morning.
Here we find, yet again, the enforcement of unwritten, very recent, distinctively corporatized rules of supposed “neutrality” and faux objectivity which all Real Journalists must obey, upon pain of being expelled from the profession. A Good Journalist must pretend they have no opinions, feign utter indifference to the outcome of political debates, never take any sides, be utterly devoid of any human connection to or passion for the issues they cover, and most of all, have no role to play whatsoever in opposing even the most extreme injustices.
Thus: you do not call torture “torture” if the U.S. government falsely denies that it is; you do not say that the chronic shooting of unarmed black citizens by the police is a major problem since not everyone agrees that it is; and you do not object when a major presidential candidate stokes dangerous nativist resentments while demanding mass deportation of millions of people. These are the strictures that have utterly neutered American journalism, drained it of its vitality and core purpose, and ensured that it does little other than serve those who wield the greatest power and have the highest interest in preserving the status quo.
What is more noble for a journalist to do: confront a dangerous, powerful billionaire-demagogue spouting hatemongering nonsense about mass deportation, or sit by quietly and pretend to have no opinions on any of it and that “both sides” are equally deserving of respect and have equal claims to validity? As Ramos put it simply, in what should not even need to be said: “I’m a reporter. My job is to ask questions. What’s ‘totally out of line’ is to eject a reporter from a press conference for asking questions.”
Indeed, some of the most important and valuable moments in American journalism have come from the nation’s most influential journalists rejecting this cowardly demand that they take no position, from Edward R. Murrow’s brave 1954 denunciation of McCarthyism to Walter Cronkite’s 1968 refusal to treat the U.S. government’s lies about the Vietnam War as anything other than what they were. Does anyone doubt that today’s neutrality-über-alles journalists would denounce them as “activists” for inappropriately “taking a side”?
As Jack Shafer documented two years ago, crusading and “activist” journalism is centuries old and has a very noble heritage. The notion that journalists must be beacons of opinion-free, passion-devoid, staid, impotent neutrality is an extremely new one, the byproduct of the increasing corporatization of American journalism. That’s not hard to understand: One of the supreme values of large corporations is fear of offending anyone, particularly those in power, since that’s bad for business. The way that conflict-avoiding value is infused into the media outlets that these corporations own is to inculcate their journalists that their primary duty is to avoid offending anyone, especially those who wield power, which above all means never taking a clear position about anything, instead just serving as a mindless, uncritical vessel for “both sides,” what NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen has dubbed “the view from nowhere.” Whatever else that is, it is most certainly not a universal or long-standing principle of how journalism should be conducted.
The worst aspect of these journalists’ demands for “neutrality” is the conceit that they are actually neutral, that they are themselves not activists. To be lectured about the need for journalistic neutrality by Politico of all places — the ultimate and most loyal servant of the D.C. political and corporate class — by itself illustrates what a rotten sham this claim is. I set out my argument about this at length in my 2013 exchange with Bill Keller and won’t repeat it all here; suffice to say, all journalism is deeply subjective and serves some group’s interests. All journalists constantly express opinions and present the world in accordance with their deeply subjective biases — and thus constantly serve one agenda or another — whether they honestly admit doing so or dishonestly pretend they don’t.
Ultimately, demands for “neutrality” and “objectivity” are little more than rules designed to shield those with the greatest power from meaningful challenge. As BuzzFeed’s Adam Serwer insightfully put it this morning, “‘Objective’ reporters were openly mocking Trump not that long ago, but Ramos has not reacted to Trump’s poll numbers with appropriate deference . . . . Just a reminder that what is considered objective reporting is intimately tied to power or the perception of power.” Expressing opinions that are in accord with, and which serve the interests of, those who wield the greatest political and economic power is always acceptable for the journalists who most tightly embrace the pretense of “neutrality”; it’s only when an opinion constitutes dissent or when it’s expressed with too little reverence for the most powerful does it cross the line into “activism” and “bias.”
(Ramos’ supposed sin of being what the Post called a “conflict junkie” — something that sounds to be nothing more than a derogatory way of characterizing “adversary journalism” — is even more ridiculous. Please spare me the tripe about how Ramos’ real sin was one of rudeness, that he failed to wait for explicit permission from the Trumpian Strongman to speak. Aside from the absurdity of viewing Victorian-era etiquette as some sort of journalistic virtue, Trump’s vindictive war with Univision made it unlikely he’d call on Ramos, and journalists don’t always need to be “polite” to do their jobs.
Beyond that, whether a reporter must be deferential to a politician is one of those questions on which people shamelessly switch sides based on which politician is being treated rudely at the moment, as the past liberal protests over the “rudeness” displayed to Obama by conservative journalists demonstrate. That Ramos is not One of Them — Joe Scarborough appeared not even to know who Ramos is and suggested he was just seeking “15 minutes of fame,” despite Ramos’ having far greater influence and fame than Scarborough could dream of having — clearly fueled the journalistic resentment that Ramos’ behavior was out of line).
What Ramos did here was pure journalism in its classic and most noble expression: He aggressively confronted a politician wielding a significant amount of power over some pretty horrible things that the politician is doing and saying. As usual when someone commits a real act of journalism aimed at the most powerful in the U.S., those leading the charge against him are other journalists, who so tellingly regard actual journalism as a gauche and irreverent crime against those who wield the greatest power and thus merit the greatest deference.
UPDATE: Caputo, while noting that he disagrees with many of the views in this article, objects to one phrase in particular and sets forth his objection here. I quoted and/or linked to all of his referenced statements and am happy to allow readers to decide if that one phrase was accurate. I am quite convinced it was and stand by it.