Lewis Wallace was fired from the public radio show Marketplace after writing a personal blog post in which he questioned the notion of journalistic neutrality. Credit: Facebook/Steven Bognar

What do words like objectivity and impartiality even mean any longer?

Lewis Wallace, who for eight months worked as a reporter for American Public Radio’s Marketplace, was fired Monday. The cause was a post made on his personal blog last week titled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it.”

In the essay, he made the following arguments:

  • “Neutrality isn’t real.”
  • “Centrism is more a marketing tactic to reach broad audiences than actual neutrality.”
  • “I think marginalized people, more than ever now, need to be at the table shaping the stories the fact-based news media puts out.”
  • Wallace is transgender, and asserted, “Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity. The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood.”

He continued:

  • “The people consuming news are savvy. They know that news is curated and complex; that the editorial choice of what to report and how to report it is always a subjective one; that facts are real, but so are priorities and perspective.”
  • “To call a politician on a lie is our job; to bring stories of the oppressed to life is our job; to represent a cross-section of our communities is our job; to tell the truth in the face of ‘alternative facts’ and routine obscuring is our job.”
  • “We need to admit that those who oppose free speech, diversity and kindergarten-level fairness are our enemies.”
  • “We will be called politically correct, liberal and leftist. We shouldn’t care about that nor work to avoid it.”

  • Last Wednesday, Wallace, in New York, talked by phone with his managing editor and executive producer in Los Angeles; they told him to take the post down and suspended him. On Friday he e-mailed them to say he’d had a change of heart: he didn’t think his post said anything that couldn’t be said on Marketplace, so he was putting it up again. So Deborah Clark, Marketplace‘s senior vice president and general manager, flew to New York, and on Monday, she fired him.

    “The short version is, I was fired for declining to remove the attached post from my personal blog,” Wallace then posted. He went on to say that journalism must confront a new reality—”that the center is shifting away from basic, fundamental values such as truth and fairness. These shifts are particularly tricky, I think, for those of us who are in the crosshairs because of our identity or social position.”

    Clark obviously sees things differently. I couldn’t reach her, and Marketplace had nothing to say beyond a boilerplate assertion of employee guidelines that “allow us to fulfill our commitment to independent and objective reporting.” Wallace tells me that Clark told him that the kind of journalism he wanted to do is “not the kind of journalism we do at Marketplace. We have to make a choice between being a journalist and being an activist.”

    But Clark told this to Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post: “His was a clear violation of our ethics code. He did not agree—and he does not get to make that decision. That left me with no other options.”

    The ethics code reads as follows: “Marketplace staffers must keep their political views private. . . . Marketplace staffers will maintain their journalistic impartiality.”

    These are commonplace sentiments whose practicality has long been questioned by journalists. Since Donald Trump rode into town, it hasn’t been clear that they provide any guidance at all. In a world of facts, fake facts, and alternative facts, does a reporter’s preference for actual facts betray his or her political views? Sorry to say, but it appears that sometimes it does. And when a statement is manifestly untrue, does a reporter suffer a lapse of objectivity in calling it false or even a flat-out lie? In mounting numbers, reporters are recoiling from the deceit of calling it anything but.

    Half a century ago, when African-American reporters were first being hired by newspapers in significant numbers, journalists argued over whether the newcomers should focus on African-American stories or whether such assignments would ghettoize them. The answer had more to do with the ambitions of the individual reporter than any higher principle, but no one pretended that more enlightened coverage of black America wasn’t desirable, or that black reporters would hide their own identities. Surely Wallace didn’t go over the line simply because he acknowledged he’s transgender—he must be free to do that! Was it in making clear that as a trans person he identifies “those who oppose free speech, diversity and kindergarten-level fairness”—i.e., Washington’s current powers that be—as his “enemies”?

    In a conversation Wednesday, Wallace told me that Clark didn’t mention this line. The one that apparently distressed her most was the one that read: “We will be called politically correct, liberal and leftist. We shouldn’t care about that nor work to avoid it.”

    But a couple of Wallace’s friends in public radio objected to his wording too, as do I. It’s gratuitous. Marketplace doesn’t need to be telling a portion of its audience that it’s the enemy. (You know, hate the sin but love the sinner.)

    Wallace was a Pritzker fellow at WBEZ back in 2012 and ’13, and his boyfriend, Sam Worley, is a former Reader writer and editor. Worley puts the same general idea of standing firm in less inclusive language.

    “What Lewis was arguing for,” Worley wrote, rising to his defense, “was an ethics of courage in journalism: Don’t be cowed by people who are brazenly full of shit, as the Trump regime is—and this is not an opinion but a richly, empirically verifiable fact.”

    It’s such a clear fact, in fact, that it’s made journalists suspicious and confused. Gone are the days when falsehoods had to be dug out carefully, like morels. Now they’re low-hanging fruit—such a breeze to pick we get uneasy.