I think a lot about this Jason Isbell interview from a while back, where he talks about what it’s like being a country music singer who writes about politics and topics like racism in the South.
What your politics are is a subjective term. If you’re in prison, and you’re trying to get out, the rights of inmates are not your politics. That’s your breakfast and your lunch and your dinner, and the time in between.
Very often the term politics is used to make beliefs more manageable and even more compatible in a lot of ways. It’s hard to say, "You believe the wrong thing sir, what’s in your heart is wrong. You have a bad heart." But it’s real easy to say, "I disagree with your politics," and very often when somebody says the latter, they mean the former, they’re just not brave enough to say it out loud.
Since college or so I’ve been what you might call liberal or progressive or leftist or I don’t even really know what to call it these days. In the 2000s, liberal was a term people used to describe someone way on the left but these days people use it to describe someone who is basically a Republican who works for Goldman Sachs but also rides a bike or something. But anyway I’ve had this point of view since my late teens or maybe when first I worked at newspapers and started to realize that some people always get fucked over and some people always do just fine.
When I first got into journalism, it was the early aughts when democracy was kind of more intact as was daily news, and the general rule of thumb was, even if you knew what was fucked up about a particular thing you were writing about, if you wanted to include that in your story you had to find someone else to say it. And when you found that person to act as your sort of truth surrogate, you still had to be careful not to give them too many words in the story, and match it with someone who would be your jerk surrogate. I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea, you would never be like, hey this thing is fucked up. You had to be like, “Please enjoy this neutral article and dear god please recognize that this is fucked up because seriously it is. OK peace I gotta go write 500 words about a kid who makes socks for cancer patients.”
Then I quit newspapers, or I guess I moved to Portland and couldn’t get hired at their paper and spent a chunk of my 20s underemployed, so arguably where I’m at today is a result of being not that great or not working hard enough at being a journalist but we don’t really need to go down that road. Then I spent 10 years or so working at progressive nonprofits and started to think, well, I don’t know if I even could go back to journalism now that I’ve exposed myself as a person with beliefs and opinions but, oh well, I guess it wasn’t going that great anyway.
And yet, the internet happened, as did the rise of the take and the blog and the tweet, and the media landscape sort of shattered into a million little shards and I thought, hey those shards look nice maybe I’ll try to be a media person again. Now I guess I’m what you might call an opinion writer or an advocacy journalist or someone who writes with a point of view. It’s not like that with everything I write, necessarily, but my political perspective is usually kind of there in the background at least, and that’s fine by me.
Things have also started to change in the past five years or so, or I guess the past trump years or so. People who might otherwise have stashed away what they think of as their politics are now feeling compelled to make them more public as stakes rise. In a similar way, that old media approach of present both sides and never show your hand has kind of busted. We saw this most recently when the awful man said a series of things that couldn’t be interpreted in good faith as anything other than openly racist, and media outlets were forced to decide whether it was OK to use the word racist to describe the statements.
NPR’s diversity advocate made the case that it was, in fact, not OK, as it’s applying a moral label:
Report. Quote people. Cite sources. Add context. Leave the moral labeling to the people affected; to the opinion writers, the editorial writers, the preachers and philosophers; and to the public we serve.
The problem here is that journalists use labels all the time. We always present to the public, in some way or another, a personal assessment of the truth as we see it, described using the best, most accurate words we have. Straight news reporting doesn’t need to editorialize or prescribe solutions, but on some level, what we print is necessarily poured through our personal filters of what’s true and what’s bullshit, what’s important and what’s a distraction.
In fact, going out of the way to hide our point of view often yields a more imbalanced, intentionally skewed presentation of the facts, as in the case of elevating an incorrect or fringe opinion alongside an accurate or widely accepted one—for decades, climate change reporting being the classic example. Or the presentation of each side of a polarized political landscape as being on equal moral footing, when one side is in clear violation of social and historical norms. Both are a form of bias. In other words, taking sides is not necessarily a bad thing, and not taking sides sometimes is.
Where I’m going with all this is the challenge in reconciling my role as a journalist with my politics—or as Jason Isbell might put it, what’s in my heart.
It’s not easy. And if I’m being honest I think it will always be something of a liability in my career. Consider this NPR stringer who just got shitcanned for her “activist stance.” It’s also easy to allow writing with a perspective to undermine the interrogation required in any journalism, by writing with a foregone conclusion. That’s something I struggle with constantly, as I think all writers do on some level. Am I being too credulous toward conclusions that reflect my own perspective? Am I holding back on presenting what I know is the truth because I’m afraid of coming across as too opinionated? I know, at times, I have erred on both sides.
But for my money, if you go into it with a decent inventory of what’s in your heart, at least in that moment you’re sitting down at the keyboard, you can make your call with the knowledge you need. If you’ve made your assessment with good faith and humility, you don’t have to present both sides of a story, you can present your side of the story. And try to be brave enough to say it out loud.