Lewis Wallace and the Coming Crisis of Identity-as-Advocacy

Does having an identity make you an activist?


One way to look at the story of Lewis Wallace—the reporter who was fired from American Public Media’s Marketplace radio show on Monday over concerns about his neutrality as a journalist—is as just another example of the media’s age-old struggle with “objectivity,” and how that relationship may need to evolve under the fact-averse administration of President Donald Trump. For a thorough parsing of that angle, as well as a tick-tock of the events involved—a petite saga of a blog post published, retracted, and republished; a suspension leading to Wallace’s dismissal; and both sides’ statements—check out Laura Hazard Owen’s excellent piece on the fracas over at Nieman Lab.

Here, I just want to tease out another thread: how this foolish decision highlights an emerging phenomenon around identity post-Trump—and one that is probably only going to get worse.

As Owen points out, Wallace’s mistreatment at the hands of APM was more than a little hypocritical. The same people responsible for the reporter’s dismissal had recently touted Marketplace’s institutional rejection of the “view from nowhere,” an investment in a naive objectivity that does not exist. And host Kai Ryssdal himself maintains a fairly opinionated presence on social media—in fact, Wallace says it was his superiors who encouraged his more voice-y blogging and tweeting in the first place, as part of brand building. Until, that is, it became evidence of the “kind of journalism” he really wanted to do, which is to say: advocacy.

At this point, Wallace’s identity as a transgender man comes into play. For Wallace’s bosses, raising (wholly legitimate) questions about what neutrality means under a regime that actively lies to journalists and the public and, more to the point, noting that his identity makes certain claims—say the legitimacy of transgender lives—beyond dispute marked him as an activist. Deborah Clark, the executive producer and VP of Marketplace, evinced this connection in a statement to Owen:

When I talk about not being part of the ‘view from nowhere,’ that doesn’t mean we do advocacy or biased journalism. We do independent, objective reporting that brings forward a balanced point of view on the news we cover. We put real people on air—our interview subjects—and their real life experience is what helps shape that view, not the personal point of view of our journalists.

To be clear, Wallace never said his own point of view should be the focus of Marketplace’s reporting. He simply observed that his identity and position raise productive and important questions about whether “objectivity” is as firm a concept as some journalists would like to pretend. And therein lies the problem: It’s Wallace’s very identity that makes him a liability.

It’s not that Marketplace is being transphobic here. Rather, the decision feels of a piece with the mood, post-election, that “identity politics” was somehow responsible for the result—that, were it not for the “distracting” presence of trans people at bathroom doors or black lives in city streets, Hillary Clinton would have won. Marginalized identities, as subjects of discourse or sites from which demands emanate, have become suspect to many on the center-left. To have a gay or trans person or person of color in a supposedly neutral role speaking about those identities is increasingly a threat to the cause—we have white, working-class voters (those most fragile of creatures!) to woo, after all.

Or, in the case of APM anyway, to convince of their nonpartisanship. But at this point in American history, to employ a trans person—indeed, to pursue the goal of a diverse newsroom at all—is to take a side. It’s a shame that a shop seemingly so committed to its principles proved so cowardly when one of its own simply acknowledged reality. That’s a commodity of which, these days, we have little to spare.