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A Journalist Reckons with Truth and Objectivity

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Lewis Wallace

Lewis Wallace was a reporter at Marketplace. You may have heard his voice on the Marketplace Morning Report with David Brancaccio.

That was until he publicly questioned the role of objectivity in a Medium post:

“We need to let go of idea that objectivity is dying. A more useful framework is that objectivity is a mythology that we’re urgently debunking to figure out what can stand in its place. That doesn’t lessen our pursuit of truth, it just reveals the complexity that was always there, which is that subjectivity that informs that pursuit.”

This questioning of “objectivity” ultimately got him fired from Marketplace. Our friends over at the Reckonings podcast interviewed Wallace and allowed us to share excerpts with you here. Listen and dive into one journalist’s reckoning with truth(s).

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Featuring:

  • Lewis Wallace, Journalist

Credits:

  • Host & Producer Stephanie Lepp
  • Making Contact editor and Host: Salima Hamirani

Making Contact Staff:

  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Monica Lopez
  • Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
  • Audience Engagement Director/Web Editor: Sabine Blaizin 

Music:

  • “Matope 1”, Chris Peck
  • “Rock Off”, Tannhauser
  • “Otzi”, Tannhauser
  • “Outro”, Rob Voigt
  • “Ladybird’s Theme”, David Sestay
  • “Fin De Ano”, Tannhauser
  • “Mountains”, David Sestay

Here’s Stephanie Lepp’s full interview with Lewis Wallace 
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LEWIS:
I had been working as a barista during the day and doing this community organizing stuff in the afternoons and at night and in all of my spare time, and I was really exhausted from that combination of work and a little bit creatively frustrated
And at some point I was up in the middle of the night kind of stressing about my life.

and trying to figure out like, how can I get to be on the [00:02:00] radio?

I came across the pritzker fellowship, which was a fellowship specifically designed for people who live in Chicago who do community organizing work who want to learn how to be on the radio.
and I made an audio piece for my application that was my first kind of audio feature about my experience using my voice as a transgender person and how I imagined myself relating to that when I became a radio star
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NARRATION:
that’s Lewis Wallace
And he kinda did become a radio star
He got that pritzker fellowship and joined WBEZ in Chicago.
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LEWIS:
I was really Avid radio listener.
So like everybody at WBZ was kind of a celebrity to me, [00:03:00] you know the morning host the afternoon host all the reporters. Ira Glass wasn’t on site at the time but Melba Lara the All Things Considered host I was like a huge fan of.
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NARRATION:
After a couple stints and local radio Lewis made the leap into National radio at Marketplace based in New York City.
Half the time he was in The Newsroom writing scripts and filing stories and doing the marketplace Morning Report live with David brancaccio, which meant speaking to up to 12 million people, which was his happy place.
The other half the time Lewis was traveling all over the country and talking to all kinds of people which was his other happy place.
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LEWIS:
For Marketplace, I went to Detroit to do a series of stories about people who are being victimized by this often predatory form of lending called land contracts, which is like an [00:04:00] unregulated way of making a home loan to a low-income person.
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NARRATION:
It works like this someone buys a super rundown house for a super low price say $1,000.
The house has no infrastructure. No running water. No electricity. The owner then turns around and sells the house on a land contract for way more money say $20,000 and since land contracts are unregulated. The house doesn’t have to go through the inspections it would have to go through if there were an actual mortgage.
One victim of this scam was a man named Eddie cave who Lewis visited in his home in Detroit.
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LEWIS:

So Eddie had paid thousands of dollars out of pocket for a house that had no running water. No electricity, no heating or Cooling and he was quite severely disabled and in a wheelchair and so he was living [00:05:00] in what what what people might call, you know, third world conditions. He was drinking water from like gallon bottles cooking on a propane gas stove inside plugging in his electric wheelchair from like a generator Outlet out in the back and taking crutches up the stairs to sleep. And then he was going to be evicted on the person who’d quote-unquote sold him this house was trying to take the house back from him because Eddie hadn’t paid the back taxes.

So it was just like the worst like housing situation imaginable and he was this lovely man who you know he’d been through all this stuff in his life and we really connected and we had a beautiful conversation and he talked to me a lot about obviously about the house and the way that he was getting screwed over in this land contract.

But also just about himself. He was a DJ and he loved to throw [00:06:00] parties and he wanted to be a writer and a journalist and like report on what was going on in the community. And of course, I was really supportive of that and. At some point, he just starts crying. I mean crying into the microphone as he’s talking to me. We’re sitting outside and it’s like this sunny beautiful day and we’re sitting on the steps. I’m sitting on the steps and he’s in his electric wheelchair so that it can be plugged into the generator in the back and. He’s crying into my microphone talking about how you know, once he gets out from under this financial situation that he’s in he just can’t wait to get back to being a DJ and doing music stuff.

And then I left and went to the airport and filed my story, right and there’s this thing that happens when you sort of take a story like that from somebody where like you bring it to an editor [00:07:00] and it’s like oh, this is good stuff. and there’s something just so unsettling about that. You know like connecting what I felt like was really deeply with somebody but then knowing that like I’m basically here to take your story and like walk away with it and never come back. And you might never even hear this story and the story might not help you at all.

Who does this dynamic really serve? going into a place like Detroit and talking to people who have just really been screwed over and asking them to share these like really horrible stories [00:08:00] about things that happen in them and really vulnerable stories and then turning that into a feature for marketplace, where the predominant audience is like a wealthy white audience.

I was never sure whether that kind of reporting makes a real difference in that community. I think there’s sort of a trickle-down theory that’s like: these people over here, you know with more education access and privilege are going to learn about this injustice and then they’re going to do something about it. But you’re still left with the question of like what if they don’t? have I just extracted this story from this one group of people to like feed to this other group of people maybe almost as a form of entertainment?
Or just to benefit myself and make my career go well?
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I tried to get Marketplace [00:09:00] to send me to cover the women’s March and New York or DC. And they didn’t want to send me so that was fine. I was like I’m going to go anyway, and just make a recording for my own project.

And of course the women’s March in DC was huge. I mean the whole city was shut down and there were so many people that there was no March because there was no room in the streets for the people to March through like the entire route of the March was already full of people before the March started.

So then it was like there’s not going to be — we’re just gonna like walk and sort of in a circle.

Anyway, made all these recordings and this funky dynamic in DC too because the inauguration had been the previous day and it emerged that there had been like a lot more people at the [00:10:00] big protest on Saturday than there had at the inauguration on Friday. But I get back to work on Monday morning and they’re replaying what happened on TV on Sunday, which was that Trump’s, what was she, spokesperson at the time, Kellyanne Conway, had gone on morning TV on Sunday morning and kind of drilled down on this claim that there had been more people at Donald Trump’s inauguration than any presidential inauguration, you know ever. And it was just like quite evidently not true, you know from the photographs and a number of other ways that people have to measure crowds.

And that was when she coined This this term and brought this idea into the Lexicon of alternative facts. And said, you know, we were we’re presenting [00:11:00] alternative facts. That just like spun me out, you know because my kind of day-to-day job had been producing stuff that would be taken as fact. So I just my reaction inside of myself was just: what are we going to do about this? and my feeling was like in order to sort of stand up for something, we need to be clear on what we’re standing up for.
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There is a morning on the marketplace Morning Report where there would be like three new spots in a newscast and two of them already were about Donald Trump doing something kind of outrageous. And then Donald Trump did a third kind of outrageous thing. [00:12:00] And so I pitched a third new spot. That was like here’s the other outrageous thing that the president did that relates to our beat of the economy. and the editorial decision at that time was like: we need to balance like two Crazy Trump stories with like something else that makes him look kind of good. so that there’s balance.

and…what?! you know, that’s not hard-hitting journalism, right? That’s not real balance. That’s just being afraid of being criticized.
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So, you know, I was at Marketplace doing daily news stories. So like every morning was you know, Trump tweets and getting used to this new kind of reality. and I have this daily practice of writing and you know journaling and writing other things other than my journalism that I do and I found kind of without even being [00:13:00] conscious of it that I was writing about objectivity.

I dashed off a bunch of thoughts about journalism and objectivity. You know, I like typed it up on my laptop in a word doc and I put it up on my medium blog because I’m feeling so much kind of urgency about this stuff. I want to see what other people think.
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There was nothing missable about Donald Trump’s rise to power from the perspective of Central, Ohio. but the national media isn’t in central, Ohio. I think there’s also nothing missable about the rise of white supremacist movements in conjunction with that. A lot of people in the midwest or the [00:14:00] South especially people of color could have told you that there was a rising tide of white supremacy coming for our national politics. but people in The Newsroom, I was in in New York were like really surprised by all of that racist stuff that suddenly started emerging. so like our supposed neutrality in are supposed objectivity sometimes is actually just like lacking perspective.

There’s lots of Journalism just throughout history that hasn’t been neutral right, and that hasn’t been quote-unquote objective, but that has revealed or exposed really important truths. I think of examples like Ida B. Wells who reported as an activist and an advocate on lynchings in the United States and she was the first person to really do investigative journalism the extent of lynching and the extent to which [00:15:00] lynching was based on false accusations. and it was Ida B. Wells who exposed that and she was always considered an activist and Advocate but the fact that she wasn’t neutral didn’t mean that the work she was putting out wasn’t true.

I think we need to debunk the idea that neutrality has ever been real, you know, it’s not helping us anymore. And once we can let go of that and say: ‘Yeah, of course, we’re all coming from my perspective,’ you know, then like ‘fake news,’ you know ‘liberal media,’ ‘It’s biased,’ all that stuff – it doesn’t hurt us anymore. You know, it’s not a legitimate critique anymore if we’re not even claiming to be neutral.

and so I see I see the fact-based and evidence-based media in this kind of bizarre standoff with people who don’t give a shit about what’s actually true or not [00:16:00] true, and have just figured out that it’s a really great strategy to call ‘bias.’ that that accusation then sort of undermines credibility. but we don’t have to let it undermine credibility, right? There’s a totally other way of looking at that which is like yeah, I’ll work all journalistic work is biased in some way! But what we’re doing cares about the truth and about facts and about evidence.

What if we claimed our subjectivity and just kind of said yeah sure right a lot of things are a matter of perspective, and we come from this particular perspective, where we’re trying to seek out the facts with evidence to the best of our ability. I think that’s what most journalists and public radio are doing you know. so why can’t we just kind of admit it?
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So the [00:17:00] original post on medium is called “objectivity is dead and I’m okay with it” and I admit there’s a little bit of like clickbaity-ness to the title, like “objectivity is dead” is obviously trying to get the eyes of journalists who might be like ‘wow, how could you say that?’ But I think I did feel like objectivity is no longer the right frame for the work that we do.

So my goal really explicitly was to like get into a conversation, a kind of an open-ended conversation with other reporters who might be thinking about or struggling with similar things. And at the end of the post, I say I’m generally curious what people think about these ideas and would love to hear your thoughts.

and I just kind of put the finishing touches on this piece in a Google doc. and you know copied it onto [00:18:00] Medium, and found some clip art and hit publish.
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A couple hours after I posted it, I heard from my editor my boss at work, and she said I need to jump on the phone with you, the people at in LA are upset. and LA is where the headquarters of Marketplace is. So I don’t interact with the people in LA and much. This is an unusual situation and I was like, okay cool.

And so I was sitting in my bed by myself on the cell phone and I get on the call and it’s my editor and then it’s the managing editor of marketplace and the executive producer and a person from HR sitting in on the call. And [00:19:00] they sounded like they were reading from a script. and basically said: your medium post came to our attention and it violates marketplaces policies in a number of ways. Marketplace reporters are supposed to be impartial and not share our political views publicly.

And then they said we’re going to have to ask you not to come into work tomorrow. And we’re going to have to ask you to take the post down. And as this was happening, I was sort of realizing what was happening – that it was something sort of more severe than I would have expected. And so by the time they were done, I remember my hand holding. The phone was like [00:20:00] shaking. Because I was so taken aback. and for all that I’m rebellious in this and that the other, it’s like I also take a lot of pride in my work and I don’t like getting in trouble. you know, I mean, I don’t like getting it wrong.

Anyway, it was a very brief conversation. I took notes the whole time and what they were saying, and then I didn’t agree to anything. I just at the end of the conversation, I said, let me think about it and get back to you.

This was a moment where my kind of personal morals and ethics and integrity we’re coming into conflict with [00:21:00] the expectations of the professional environment that I was in in a really pronounced way that I hadn’t entirely expected. This is not an easy decision. Like I you know, they want me to take the blog post down, but do I feel right about that?

I called some people for advice. One of them was my dad who’s a lawyer and he was like: take it down. take the blog post down, it strengthens your negotiating position going forward. But I don’t really think like that. You know what I mean? I’m not like ‘it’s me against the world’ but like lawyers tend to think like that. And so, okay, my dad is probably right. I should you know, I should take it down and just do what they ask and then kind of go from there. So. [00:22:00] Within 24 hours. I took the blog post down off of medium. And so it disappeared it left these like empty links.

And then I kind of waited. I let them know that I’d done that and then I waited.

And then nothing happened. And I woke up the next day. It was a Friday by then. Still not going into work. It’s 10 days after Donald Trump was inaugurated – 11, 12 days now. I knew that I was going to be faced with moral and ethical dilemmas working in the National media with him as a president, but I didn’t know it was going to be so soon and over something so seemingly small. Why is this little thing that I did such a big deal to [00:23:00] them?

At some point that Friday afternoon. I was at home and I was talking on the phone, this time with my mom and I remember saying to her, I was like, I think I need to put this post back up. I think that’s what I need to do. I feel like I’m disappearing. Like I feel like me Lewis, the the whole Lewis, isn’t here anymore.

And I said that to her and she was like, you know, if you think that’s that would make you feel better. You know, if that feels right to you, that’s what you should do. She was like supportive and great. and we got off the phone and I just burst into tears just like sobbing. [00:24:00] Just realizing, you know, you choose your battles like all the time. We all choose our battles all the time. But this is the one that I’m now going to choose. I’m going to like get into it with them about this. and so I put the blog post back up and I spent a long time writing and editing a letter to the managing editor and executive producer who had put me on this leave and told me to take it down explaining why I didn’t feel comfortable with that.
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NARRATION:
Lewis expected market place to call and ask him to make some edits to the piece. You know change the title or make some Cuts here and there. but that is not what happened. What happened was he was told not to come into work again on Monday morning. And instead to go to a cafe to meet the [00:25:00] boss from LA.
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LEWIS:
So Monday morning rolls around and instead of going to work I go to this Cafe to meet the boss who’s apparently flown in from LA like just to meet me. and I walked in and it was Deb Clark who is the vice president, you know, the executive in charge of marketplace and a representative from HR. and Deb Clark just briefly talked me through what she felt I had done that violated marketplaces policies. And then she said: it just seems to me like you want to do a different kind of Journalism than what it is that we do here and so we can no longer continue to employ you.
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[00:26:00] Before I started doing journalism, I was hyper aware of the power dynamics between journalists and marginalized and underrepresented people. in part, because I was such a strong and pronounced dynamic in coverage of trans people.

but then it’s really easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of doing journalism. The tendency to kind of call people up and just like grab a quote, and then go off and do your story, and never talk to that person again, you know that the tendency to kind of be extractive in your approach to stories, is like very much exacerbated by working in National media because there’s less accountability. There’s actually quite a bit of accountability in some ways for local reporters. They might have to face the people face to face that they write about.

As I [00:27:00] became a national reporter, I had kind of fallen into a pattern of making excuses for not really being in that kind of accountable relationship with an audience or especially with the most vulnerable people that I might interview her talk to, you know, Eddie Cave in Detroit.

objectivity and neutrality in some ways can become a framework that excuses us from talking about accountability. you know, we’re not accountable to anyone in particular. We’re just neutral, you know, we’re just middle of the road! we report the facts. but there was some kind of there was some kind of bug in my ear that was saying: I don’t know man. I don’t know if what you’re doing is really ethical.

being a trans [00:28:00] person coming out as queer really young, I’ve just always related to reality as something that I’m both participating in and responsible for changing, right. and some people would say, well that means you shouldn’t be a journalist! you know, because you’re a person who wants to change reality, not just tell it. but I absolutely don’t buy the argument that narrative and truth-telling is separate from the shaping of the world. There’s just no way that I could separate the work of Journalism from the work of you know, either transforming or upholding the status quo.

[00:29:00] I was feeling just this complete mix of emotions. It was it was a huge relief when I came to this kind of moral Clarity for myself of like, I’m not going to take this blog post down. I felt really relieved when I got to that place, like I’m standing up for myself and also in a way for my community. you know, I was at the time the only out transgender person working certainly at Marketplace, and as far as I know, the only out transgender person working on National broadcast. So in that way, I think I felt very kind of clear-headed.

In another way, I was really shocked and kind of embarrassed. I had never been fired from a job before. I [00:30:00] had all these people to call who had been like my mentors and people who had supported me in becoming a radio journalist. and to call them and tell them you know, I got fired from Marketplace?!

I feel like in this meeting, I did what I wanted to do, which was kind of hold my head high and looked Deb Clark straight in the eye, and said: I think you’re making a mistake. and just kept my pride and kind of walked out.

And then I put the severance agreement in the recycling. Because I wasn’t going to agree to a non-disclosure to not tell this story.
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NARRATION:

within journalism, word travels fast. two [00:31:00] hours after Lewis was fired, he got a call from a reporter, and from there his story snowballed.

He was interviewed by The Washington Post and The Daily Beast and on the media and even a major news Outlet in Japan. His original medium post was translated into multiple languages ,and the post ultimately went viral – reaching hundreds of thousands of people.

Lewis also had tons of people reach out to him personally, mostly to say I’m sorry about what happened. and many to say I’m a journalist too, and I feel exactly the same way: Torn between my values and my job.
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LEWIS:

I got some job offers and I didn’t really pursue them because by that point, I had decided that I needed to leave New [00:32:00] York City and that was partly largely because of the experiences that I had being briefly inside of this New York media bubble after living my whole life in the midwest up until then, and just realizing that whole thing is not for me. You know, I really want a report from from one of the places that I just feel more connected to. so my family is from the south I grew up in the Midwest, and I decided pretty soon after I got fired to to move down south to, North Carolina.

A month or two after my firing. I started working on a book. A history of objectivity and US news media. And one of the sources who I interviewed also a radio producer said the thing to me that I keep thinking about which is – her name is Ramona Martinez – and she said: objectivity is the [00:33:00] ideology of the status quo.

What you call objectivity is actually just white male cisgender subjectivity. You know, it’s just the status quo. there is no neutrality. you know, for a very limited and very privileged group of people, it might have felt like there was this one sort of way of narrating the world that the news media was succeeding at, and the it was just factual and it was just true, you know. but for the rest of us, it was never really that way in the first place. Right?

So I do think it’s important to let go of this idea that objectivity is sort of is dying. I think maybe a more useful framework is that objectivity is a mythology that we’re now urgently debunking in order to figure out what [00:34:00] can stand in its place. It doesn’t lessen our commitment to pursuing truth or facts. It just reveals the complexity that was always there about the pursuit of Truth and facts, which is that subjectivity and forms that Pursuit.
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NARRATION:

objectivity is the ideology of the status quo. That ruffled my feathers at first! you know, I’m white and cisgendered. So that means that what I’ve been seeing as objective has simply been my own subjective point of view?

But the more I played it around in my mind, of course, of course objectivity is just the subjectivity of whoever’s in power. Of whoever gets to decide what quote-unquote objective means.

Let’s say you’re reading some well-respected publication like the New York Times or the Wall Street [00:35:00] Journal and you see all the most important stories in it. Wait a second, why are those the most important stories? or rather who’s deciding that those are the most important stories?
It’s just a bunch of people in a room. and it’s not that those people are malicious or deliberately repressing things. It’s just that a very small group of people, with their own set of life experiences and values and privileges, which aren’t necessarily representative of our country, have a lot of power over what a lot of our country experiences as objective truth.

So for this small group of people at the editorial table, their subjectivity becomes our objectivity.

And as long as advertisers support journalism there at the table too. So it’s also the kinds of stories that Citibank and General Motors and [00:36:00] Target feel comfortable with that become what we experience as objective truth.

If you’re still a little ruffled here, just as a thought experiment, consider the possibility of letting go of objectivity. We are not letting go of Truth! We’re just letting go of the idea that where we come from and what we value somehow has no bearing on how we see and narrate the world.

Ever since the emergence of quote-unquote alternative facts and fake news, our mainstream media seem to be painting our choices as either truth or lies. Either we stand with the truth, or we devolve into a darkness that has no respect for evidence or fact or reason. but are those really our only choices: truth or lies [00:37:00] Or for the majority of us who care about truth,

shouldn’t truth be a baseline for something bigger?

Maybe the question should be whether journalistic work is true – all journalism should be factually true. The question is: whose truth? told how? for what purpose? Maybe the choices shouldn’t be truth or lies – but truth that pretends to exist outside of human values, or truth that consciously chooses and explicitly acknowledges its values.

Remember Lewis came to journalism from Community organizing and learned that he had to leave his so-called biases behind. but what some people call bias, Lewis calls his values. and journalism can both tell the truth and be driven by ethical values.

and one of those values might [00:38:00] be representation at that editorial table. This is the beautiful dilemma that the so-called liberal media Elite finds itself in it. It can’t fight accusations of bias without making the people at the editorial table more representative of our country. It cannot transcend this crisis of truth without acknowledging that objectivity is the subjectivity of the people at that table.
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LEWIS:

You know we hear about the liberal Elite media, the media liberally, whatever. and that phrase in certain ways is just being deployed as like a scare tactic and sort of an anti-journalism phrase. and I think the Problem with [00:39:00] really effective propaganda like that is that there’s a grain of truth that you know. there is this like East Coast almost entirely liberal media structure that doesn’t care that much about the middle of the country and doesn’t care that much about lots of different kinds of underrepresented people. Especially Working Class People. and so the grain of Truth in that kind of accusation becomes really really effective for like tearing the whole thing down.

and I think it feels like a useful time to look at what really wasn’t working right and then to think about: who and what we want to empower in that transformation? and for the news media to pretend that we somehow just like [00:40:00] stand outside of that in this neutral separate place is just ridiculous. we’re just so obviously implicated in it! That creates a problem for us if we can’t admit some of our own faults.
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STEPHANIE:
Given this moment – this “post-truth” moment – people are understandably nervous to be critical of the media or critical of objectivity, you know. And so, how do you do that in a good way? Like, how do you criticize objectivity without damaging our relationship with truth? And on the contrary, in a way that that actually makes journalism more resilient?
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LEWIS:
Yeah. well. [00:41:00] Whenever I hear people talk about going back or sort of protecting some set of values that was presumably stronger in the 50s and 60s and maybe 1970s, I feel skeptical. because there were like no black people in newsrooms and hardly any women and no transgender people. I mean you could be fired just for being gay, right. so I wouldn’t care to go back particularly. There’s no back for me in my body and existence in the world today to go to. like I need us to be in this transformed and transforming world that were in. and I do think that like working to transform something is an incredibly hopeful Act. And giving up on it is a cynical act. and so to me calling for journalism to transform its relationship to objectivity and to transform its relationship to diversity and representation [00:42:00] is absolutely about investing in the importance of Journalism.
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NARRATION:
Lewis Wallace lives – in trust me want to hear this, so just stick around till the end – Lewis lives in Durham, North Carolina where he works as an independent writer editor and multimedia journalist. His book on what he refers to as the myth of objectivity is slated to come out in early 2019.

 

Author: Radio Project

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