Recently, the Associated Press fired newly-hired reporter Emily Wilder after a concerted right-wing attack on her, leading many to conclude that the hugely important and influential news service had caved to right-wing pressure. It sure looks like that’s what happened, and it’s shameful—but that’s not all there is to the story. We need to talk about the larger implications of how this played out, and particularly the dominant ethos of major news organizations that both leaves them vulnerable to attack and serves to misinform the public.
While in college at Stanford, Wilder had been active in pro-Palestinian causes, but AP—as laid out in its own story on the firing—says that wasn’t the cause of her firing, despite the fact that Stanford Republicans and conservative media outlets had seized upon it. AP insisted that it was her social media posts (primarily tweets, it seems) during the roughly two weeks she was employed by AP that violated the organization’s social media policy and led to her dismissal.
While never naming the offensive posts, the AP article did point to one tweet in which Wilder stated, “‘objectivity’ feels fickle when the basic terms we use to report news implicitly take a claim. using ‘israel’ but never ‘palestine,’ or ‘war’ but not ‘siege and occupation’ are political choices—yet media make those exact choices all the time without being flagged as biased.”
That appears to be an indirect slam against the AP Stylebook, which advises against use of the name Palestine in many situations “since it is not a fully independent, unified state.” While I think Wilder has a legitimate point, publicly dissing your new company’s employee handbook could reasonably be expected to cause some consternation. But a firing offense? Seriously?
The AP’s article on the firing controversy lays out the company’s rationale: “AP prohibits employees from openly expressing their opinions on political matters and other public issues for fear that could damage the news organization’s reputation for objectivity and jeopardize its many reporters around the world.”
Bear in mind that Wilder was based in Arizona. She was not reporting on Israel, Palestine, cease-fire negotiations or any topic remotely related to the recent bloodshed. Even so, her tweets about Palestine were seen as endangering AP’s “reputation for objectivity.”
The Dirty Little Secret of Objectivity
Okay, so let’s talk about objectivity.
“Objective” is usually defined as “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice.” That’s a perfectly valid description of the calculator app on my phone, but it does not describe actual human behavior—anywhere, anytime, in any profession. Reporters, like all humans, have feelings, interpretations and prejudices, and even a conscientious effort to set them aside doesn’t make them go away. Indeed, the attempt to do so is an inherently subjective process.
In every story they report, journalists make all sorts of judgements—about how to frame the story, whom to quote (which involves whom to consider “credible”), what points of view to include, etc. Those judgements don’t come from some mathematical formula. They are subjective, based on the assessment by a reporter (and their editors, producers, etc.) of whose perspectives are significant enough to share with readers and viewers.
Because objectivity doesn’t actually exist, news outlets resort to simulating it via “balance”: Quote both sides and let the reader/listener/viewer make up their own mind. We saw the pernicious effect of this “both-sidesism” during the early years of the Trump administration, when the mainstream press would juxtapose a flagrant Trump lie against a truthful response and call the issue “contested” or “disputed”—achieving balance at the expense of truth. Yes, there are usually two (or more) sides to every story, but sometimes one of them is lying. It took years and thousands of documented lies before major outlets mustered the courage to call a lie a lie.
But for some points of view, both-sidesism represents a step forward. I know a bit about this from personal experience.
When I first made the leap from reporting to advocacy communications at the end of 2001, I landed at an organization that argued for the sort of regulated marijuana legalization that now exists in California and many other states. Back then, though, this was seen as a fringe viewpoint, not worthy of attention. By and large, the “objective” news media did not consider us and our allies serious, credible or worth including in their stories, even the ones about marijuana and drug policy.
Indeed, the first time I called CNN’s Washington DC bureau to pitch a story, as soon as I gave the name of the organization – which included the word “marijuana” – the woman who answered the phone burst out laughing. She put me on hold for a minute, then came back on and said in as snarky a voice as you can imagine, “Okay, Mr. Marijuana, what can I do for you?” While this person wasn’t the decision-maker I was trying to reach, she was who you had to get through to reach them. She took a message, which of course was never returned.
On the rare occasions when we did or said something that major outlets deemed newsworthy, they always sought reactions from professional drug warriors in government or law enforcement. But when the drug warriors did or said something, they almost never sought reactions from drug policy reformers. That led—and still leads—to distortions, half-truths and plain lies being reported as unchallenged fact.
John Walters, the White House drug czar under George W. Bush, was fond of referring to marijuana as “poison,” as in an October 9, 2003 Reuters story that quoted him (without challenge or contradiction) as blaming Canada for “shipping poison to the United States” in the form of smuggled pot. The problem is that marijuana is not a poison, which is defined as “a substance that through its chemical action usually kills, injures, or impairs an organism.”
There has never been a recorded fatal marijuana overdose (unlike, say, Tylenol, which kills about 450 Americans per year), and scientific comparisons have found cannabis to be vastly less toxic than any number of recreational drugs, including legal ones like tobacco and alcohol.
That Walters quote and similar lines showed up in a number of major outlets, including the Boston Globe and San Jose Mercury News, never questioned or refuted. That was normal: Drug warriors would lie and the “objective” media would turn into stenographers, repeating the lie as undisputed fact rather than do basic fact-checking or at least calling someone from the opposition for a response.
“Personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice,” anyone?
I could fill many more pages with examples (actually I did, in a chapter I contributed to Mitch Earleywine’s 2007 anthology, “Pot Politics”), but you get the point. I spent eight years of my life doing rhetorical hand-to-hand combat with paid, professional liars, swimming upstream against the pervasive mainstream media assumption that the liars were credible and we were flaky potheads not to be taken seriously. Objectively true facts were simply ignored by the “objective” media.
Appearance vs. Reality
Take another look at that AP explanation of Wilder’s firing. It’s not about whether she or any other reporter is actually objective, it’s that some of her tweets “could damage the news organization’s reputation for objectivity.” But what does a reputation for objectivity accomplish if it’s not backed up by reality?
It disguises the fact that journalists are human and, like all humans, have feelings, preconceptions and prejudices. By concealing this reality under a faux veneer of objectivity, it deadens the audience’s critical impulses and need to assess the assumptions—right or wrong— that may be at work in any given news story. And there are always assumptions at work, even though they’re usually left unstated.
And that was Emily Wilder’s unforgiveable sin. The tweet that seems to have played a big role in the decision to fire her belies the reason: It calls out the choices of what terminology to use about Israel-Palestine as “political choices—yet media make those exact choices all the time without being flagged as biased.” Of course that’s true, as it is of choices about what terminology and framing to use about Trump, the drug war or just about anything else.
When a police officer shoots someone, the decision to smooth over that reality with anodyne terminology like “officer-involved shooting” is a choice that reflects bias, or at least deference, toward cops.
The line Wilder crossed wasn’t that she tainted AP’s reputation for objectivity. It was that she showed that objectivity is a fraud.