How questioning journalism’s role post-Trump got Lewis Wallace fired

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Former Marketplace reporter Lewis Wallace got widespread attention after losing his job over a Medium post in which he questioned the fate of journalism in the Trump era. Wallace knew what he was getting into when he defied American Public Media’s order to take down the post, which is why it’s not surprising he was able to appear on our podcast The Pub to discuss the incident. His identity as a transgender man is woven through the whole story, as much of his essay was about his unwillingness to feign neutrality over policy issues that directly imperil him. Wallace spoke with Pub host Adam Ragusea about the firing and the argument that precipitated it.

Lewis Wallace: It happened pretty quickly. I’ve been at Marketplace since last May as a reporter, mostly doing daily news but also feature reporting, working a lot with the Marketplace Morning Report. I have really loved that work; it’s gone really great for me in terms of just that day-to-day reporting and journalism that the show does focused on the economy. Amazing colleagues.

On Wednesday of last week, I published a post on my personal blog on Medium. It’s about the idea of objectivity and grappling with journalistic objectivity and journalistic ethics in general. As a transgender person, as a member of a marginalized community, and especially given the new environment under Donald Trump and “alternative facts” — things that just aren’t true — how do we stake out an appropriate stance as journalists, an appropriate approach to responding to those lies and also holding our ethical line and figuring out how to be both honest about where we’re coming from and fair in our reporting. I had some thoughts about that based on just my own experience as a transgender person and as somebody who often comes into situations, including journalism itself, as kind of an outsider.

Wallace (Photo: Andy Snow)

Wallace (Photo: Andy Snow)

In any case, I wrote about that on my personal blog. I was asked — or I shouldn’t say “asked” — told very quickly by the management at Marketplace to take the blog down. Before I was given the option to do that, I was suspended from being on-air for a couple of days. A little context for that is that I love being on-air. I’m an absolute mic fiend. I’m on-air almost every day on Marketplace, and I’m very good at it, and I love what I do — or what I did with David Brancaccio on the Marketplace Morning Report.

So I was suspended from air, told to take the blog down. Initially, I did take it down. And then, after sleeping on it for another night, on the second day of my suspension I made a decision that was very personal, very based on my own instincts about what was right and necessary in this kind of scary political moment. I decided to put it back up.

I wrote a pretty emotional note to the managing editor and executive producer at Marketplace who had suspended me and said, “This is why I’m going to do this. I don’t think that I violated our ethics code. These issues about ethics and these questions that I’m raising are really important to me. I never tried to assert that we should come out and take stances on policy issues that we’re covering or on politicians that we’re covering. It was more of a heartfelt inquiry into, what are our values as journalists now, and how do we stand by them? I really want this conversation to happen, and I want it to happen publicly, and I would love if Marketplace would respond to me publicly as my employer, or even have another employee at Marketplace respond with ‘Here’s why I disagree,’ or ‘Here’s some of the problems this raises.’ What a powerful conversation that would be to build the public trust and show people that we’re taking these questions really seriously and rebuild some of the trust that a lot of us working in the mainstream media perceived that maybe we’ve lost in the process of covering this election.”

All of that sent a very impassioned message to Marketplace. I did not hear back from that message, and on Monday I was fired with no notice from my job.

Adam Ragusea, Current: Were you offered a severance?

Wallace: I was offered two weeks of pay in exchange for agreeing not to —

Current: — do what you’re doing right now.

Wallace: I didn’t accept that severance, so I won’t be receiving any pay.

Current: Lucky for me. So there’s a whole lot to talk about here. We can talk about your firing, and also the substance of the argument that got you fired, at the same time. I’m just going to read aloud the first paragraph in your original Medium post, the one that got you in trouble. You wrote:

Like a lot of people, I’ve been losing sleep over the news of the last week. As a working journalist, I’ve been deeply questioning not just what our role is in this moment, but how we must change what we are doing to adapt to a government that believes in “alternative facts” and thrives on lies, including the lie of white racial superiority.

Now I can understand how that sentence right there, Lewis, would concern a lot of editors, not just editors who are tied to really old-school standards of impartiality. And an argument that certainly I’ve made many times before is that we have to disentangle impartiality and objectivity. I think you can be objective while not being impartial and vice versa. You argue in your post that it’s really difficult for you to be impartial, especially about issues that impact your personal safety and your full status as a citizen and a human within our society, being a trans person.

But I want to challenge you on whether or not that sentence that you wrote is an objective sentence. It’s certainly not an impartial sentence, and that’s fine. But do you think that you could objectively state, “Facts prove that the present administration believes in the lie of white racial superiority.”

Wallace: I mean to nitpick the question a little bit because what I said was that the administration thrives on the lie of white superiority.

Current: That’s a really relevant distinction.

Wallace: I think that’s important because it’s true for all of us right now, as journalists, that white supremacy is one of the frameworks that we’re facing and that we need to cover. And one of the big mistakes that a lot of outlets have made in covering it is focusing on intent, and focusing on this idea of, does this person mean to be a white supremacist? Do they feel like a white supremacist?

I think we should be focusing on the nature of the policies that this administration, and people in this administration, have promoted, and focus on the effects as well as some of the rhetoric surrounding it. We’ve seen a lot of rhetoric of white supremacy supporting Donald Trump. Do I want to weigh in on whether or not Donald Trump personally feels racism or white supremacy in his heart? No, I don’t. Do I consider white supremacy to be a false framework that we should reject as scientifically false and dangerous to all of us? Yes, I do.

Current: And the assertion that his administration thrives on white supremacy: Do you think you could objectively defend that assertion?

Wallace: I think I could. There’s an element of that that’s analysis, right? That’s saying, “Here’s what I observe and have observed in covering a Donald Trump rally in Ohio, and listening to what he said, and listening to what his supporters have said, and seeing how he’s built support.” But I think this is where we get to the heart of what I’m arguing in the original posting, which is that every single one of us brings a framework and an analysis to how we decide to tell the stories that we tell. And that right now, more than ever, we need to have some courage in looking at what those frameworks are.

Current: When you were initially suspended, did they point to any particular element of your media post that they were upset about?

Wallace: Yeah, they said that Marketplace does believe in objectivity and in neutrality, and so just those ideas being out there was uncomfortable to them.

Current: Your headline is “Objectivity is dead, and I’m OK with it,” and your first bullet point is “Neutrality isn’t real.”

Wallace: I will cop to clickbait on that headline.

Current: Not a first for Marketplace.

Wallace: Right, it’s the new millennium and has been for a while. Interestingly, the code of ethics at Marketplace actually chooses to focus on the word “impartiality,” which I think has a different definition and is a concept that I’m quite a bit more comfortable with than objectivity. You can read my post to see why I have a problem with objectivity and neutrality. But in any case, those were two of the things.

And then the other thing was the section where I say that if, in our efforts to fully represent diverse communities and tell stories of marginalized people — that if we’re accused of being politically correct or liberal or leftist — we shouldn’t care about that. That shouldn’t be the thing that we worry about. I think that the concern there was that that would be perceived as me saying, “We are all secretly liberals.”

First of all, I’m not into putting out my political affiliations as part of my public role as a journalist, but I’ll give you that I would not call myself a liberal.

Current: Interesting. What would you call yourself?

Wallace: Like I said, I’m not into sharing the full extent of that, but in any case —

Current: Can I get a clue?

Wallace: I’m not a partisan. I don’t support political parties privately, and I think part of what makes me a good journalist is that I don’t trust any of these people. I think we should question all of them. But there’s a fear of the assumption that what I was saying is we’re all secretly liberals here in public media, and of course we’re not. There’s a lot more ideological and political diversity than that, and there should be. I completely stand behind that idea. But if affiliating ourselves with promoting diversity, with promoting and centering marginalized voices — like the story that I did about trans people of color in Florida — if that leads to us being labeled as such, politically correct or whatever, we shouldn’t worry about it.

Part of why I can say that so easily and so flippantly is because, of course, I’ve been called that many times because I’m a transgender person moving through the world, and I have to stand up for myself, and I have to say “These are my pronouns,” and “This is my name,” and “This is who I am,” and “It is who I am.” Some people are going to see that as politically correct, and I don’t have time to care.

Current: I asked Marketplace if they would like to comment on their firing of you, and I just got back a very brief three-sentence statement. “Our strong ethics and political activity guidelines are clear and are designed to allow us to fulfill our commitment to independent and objective reporting. Diversity is a hallmark and strength of Marketplace’s staff. We don’t discuss personnel matters about current or former employees.”

I understand not discussing personnel matters. However, if they had consented to an interview instead of just sending me a statement, one of the things I would have said to them is that I perceive some inconsistency in their application of their ethics policy. If I simply go to Kai Ryssdal’s Twitter feed, I see a lot of statements that I think are explicitly critical of the Trump administration. They seem to me to be on their face in violation of Marketplace’s ethics policy, and yet Kai, I imagine, will be on the air tonight. What do you think about that?

Wallace: I would like for people to read the Medium post that I wrote that explains the full process and details of my firing from Marketplace — and links to the ethics code links to what I wrote — and make up their own minds about whether or not that was fair.

Current: You have to decide for yourself whether you think that their treatment of you versus their treatment of their star, their anchor, is the result of favoritism or the result of discrimination, right?

Wallace: Certainly I’ve thought about that, but my priority in deciding to be public about this conversation is not to disparage Marketplace or to encourage people to pass judgment on the work of the other people who work there, because I think they’re, to a person, really talented and wonderful. My priority really is to raise these broader questions about how we find our direction as journalists in this rapidly changing world, and how we make space for more different kinds of voices and different kinds of stories. That’s what I care about.

Current: I want to acknowledge the bravery of what you’re doing right now. It’s not just that you gave up your job on principle; you are now on a show where a lot of the people who would hire you for your next job are probably listening right now, and you’re walking a very difficult tightrope where you don’t want to scare them from giving you a job, right? You don’t want them to be thinking, “Well, what if I gotta fire Lewis? Is he going to go on the show again and slag me off, too?” You’re in a tough position.

Wallace: For the record, I’ve never been fired, I’ve never been on a tear against a former employer, and I don’t think that I am now. What I’m doing is trying to raise some real issues that I think are being talked about, at least behind closed doors in all newsrooms, and especially are really important right now for people who feel like, “What if this administration is coming for me, for my family? What if I’m going to be in danger or at risk?” And I think all of us should be thinking about that, even as journalists, because journalists have been some of the people who the Trump administration has most vocally targeted. I don’t think we should take that personally, but we should plan around it, think about what it means for our industry, for our careers, all the ways that we’re going to have to stand by each other and stand up to each other. I would trust any of my journalist and host colleagues at Marketplace to do that for and with other journalists.

Current: Can we talk for a little bit about more broadly what it’s like doing the work that you do as a trans person? This is something that you’ve written about. What are some of the most common ways in which your workday has been different from a cisgendered person’s?

Wallace: It’s funny to be doing an interview about being a trans journalist after just having been fired. Of course the irony there is that trans people, primarily trans women and women of color, are some of the most likely people in the country to be without a job.

Current: In other words, put that thing number one, right?

Wallace: Maybe what it’s like to be a trans journalist is not to have a job, and I’m learning that the hard way. But all of that said, as I have been working and had the huge privilege of working as a journalist for the last few years, I would say it’s stuff that a lot of trans people would find pretty standard, being called by the wrong pronoun publicly, privately.

Current: And that’s a particularly fraught thing for you as a radio reporter, right?

Wallace: Right, because I sound the way that I sound. Some people describe that as a female voice or woman’s voice. I don’t identify as a woman, and I present in a somewhat androgynous or, some might say, masculine way, although I’m more interested in androgyny for myself. But in any case I don’t necessarily present the way that people might expect me to.

My name is Lewis, which is a name that people tend to associate with men. And so it’s extremely frequent that I call people on the phone — because of course I make a ton of phone calls, doing daily news especially. And I’ll email someone and say, “Can I call you in five minutes?” and they say, “Of course, Lewis from Marketplace! That’s great, give me a call.” And then I’ll call and they’ll go, “Oh, my goodness, I wasn’t expecting a woman.” And then I’m faced with this funny awkward choice about, do I say something to them, or not? Because of course I’m not a woman, and so there’s the opportunity for it to be a teaching moment, or not. I make different choices on different days. I respect myself, and so I let it depend on what mood I’m in. There’s some humor to it. There’s a lot of stress to it, and it depends a lot on what sort of situation I’m in or walking into.

Another big one, of course, is not being able to use the restroom, or being in an interaction like an interview, and I’m with someone and I don’t know if they’re perceiving me as male or female. And then I need to use the bathroom, and there’s a hallway, and at the end of that hall on the right is the men’s room and on the left is the women’s room. And I’m thinking, “If I do this now, is this going to throw this person way off or get me in some sort of trouble?” And of course, now we have these interesting laws making it even more of an intimidating environment in some places for trans people to use public restrooms.

Current: Where do you live?

Wallace: I live right now in Brooklyn, but I’m from the Midwest.

Current: I’m sure it’s different in Brooklyn versus when I think you recently did a reporting trip down my way in central and south Georgia. I’m sure that the vibe is different.

Wallace: The vibe is different, although to some extent the issues are the same. For me the dream would be that gender wasn’t the first thing that people were wondering and trying to figure out about you. But something that you learn when you change genders or live as I do in between genders is that gender and race are front and center in people’s minds, and they’re trying to figure you out. It’s intense, and I receive that kind of scrutiny no matter what geographic environment I’m in.

Current: Have you ever tried or thought about dealing with the issue preemptively with all of your interviews, like in your first email to everyone saying, “Hey, just FYI, here’s my gender identity, here are my preferred pronouns, and we’ll talk next week”?

Wallace: I have thought about that. … I came out as trans at this point more than 15 years ago. I was quite young; I was a teenager when I came out, and it was a long time before trans people had appeared in the media as much as they have now. It was hard to even get information about that kind of thing, so you’re almost part of this underground. But in any case, at that time something that happened was that it dominated my life. I had to have so many conversations about it. It changes your relationships with everyone you know, you’re renegotiating everything, and I ended up doing a lot of education, a lot of advocacy, almost whether or not I wanted to.

A decision that I made at some point in my life that was also from a place of privilege — I was able to go to college, I’ve been able to work in a series of really awesome jobs since then — and at some point in there, I made a decision that I didn’t want to lead my interactions with a discussion of my gender identity because it would invite people to treat me as a resource and an educator in a way that can just suck so much of my energy. Instead I got to be a journalist, and I love being a journalist.

I wish it wasn’t an either/or, but in a lot of situations it kind of is. It can turn you into something that you don’t want to be, which is like a free resource for people on questions that at this point, in this day and age, you can go to Google and find out the answer. I value my time, and I don’t always want to spend it that way.

Current: I realize the tremendous irony in my now interrogating you on these issues and therefore putting you in the position of being a free resource on them, so we’ll just go ahead.

Wallace: I freely volunteered because I care so much about public radio. I love my colleagues.

Current: If I just got on the phone with you, Lewis, and I didn’t know anything else about you, I would use the wrong pronoun. And I don’t know if that would be an indication of a failing on my part, right? I would have no way of knowing.

Wallace: I don’t think that that’s a failing on your part; I think that’s a failing on the binary gender system that says the first thing we do when we interact with a person is assign them a pronoun, “he” or “she,” and start using it. We don’t have to do that. It’s the way we do things now, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Current: Well, Lewis, as we wrap up here, what is your message to your colleagues in public media?

Wallace: I just think this is such an interesting moment for questioning who we are and what we stand for and what does it mean to fully represent the communities that we report on, that we live in, that we want to report on. I think, at this point, the tools that we need have to go beyond the form of diversity that’s about tokenism, that’s about “We have this one voice and so that’s enough,” and really sort of think about how do we change our frames to center and make new kinds of space for people of color, young people, immigrant communities, people with disabilities, trans people to be at the center of conversations where we’ve been at the margins.

The reason we’ve been at the margins is because of institutional oppression. I want to see public media organizations take that on — I really, really do — and I don’t think it means compromising our integrity. I think it’s a way for us to move forward and to expand and grow our trust with our audiences, potentially to reach new audiences in a way that’s not just transactional and “Oh, we want you to listen to us because we know you’re the future,” but we’re actually investing in these stories and these individuals as staff members, as communities that we work in in ongoing and respectful ways. I’m just so passionate about talking about that. I hope it comes through that that’s at the forefront of my thinking in terms of questioning something as fundamental and sometimes controversial as objectivity.

Current: You are one of a growing chorus of voices saying to public media in particular that “You can’t invite in different kinds of people and then expect them to behave like all the people who have been in there to begin with.” That would defeat the point.

Wallace: Right, right. And we might come off as oppositional at times — and by “we” I mean me and any other person who’s been on the outside looking in at different points — and we might come off as oppositional, and I think it’s really, really worth just taking a deep breath and wondering why. That doesn’t mean that we’re always right, right? But there’s something that somebody can bring who hasn’t been on the inside of these systems that might just be different questions that we might ask, or sources that we might have, or story ideas, or the list goes on and on.

Current: Or different conceptions of neutrality and impartiality and objectivity. However, I do think you knew what you were doing when you published this Medium post, that you were throwing out something that would be very challenging to your bosses, and I wonder if you regret not having first raised those issues in a nonpublic forum, doing it internally within Marketplace. Because I don’t think that they would have gotten mad. I think all kinds of bad things might have happened if you had made these arguments internally within Marketplace, but I doubt they would have come out and fired you — at least at first.

Wallace: I feel like I’m going to dodge the question a little because I don’t really want to speculate about how that would have gone for me. I will say that when I posted the piece I thought, “Maybe some of my colleagues will disagree with me, and that will be great. We’ll have a conversation kind of out in the open.” It didn’t occur to me as an authority issue or an ethics-code issue in the first place — which maybe says something about me, but that that’s the truth.

Current: Lewis Wallace is a reporter who is really great and is looking for a job. Shall we leave it there?

Wallace: Yes.

Current: And easy to find on the internet. Thank you very much.

Wallace: Thank you, Adam.