A For Activist: No Longer Journalism's Scarlet Letter

BY RORY O'CONNOR

From Anderson Cooper to John Oliver, it's become fashionable of late -- even in mainstream media circles -- to laud those daring enough to combine journalism with activism. That's good news -- but it wasn't always that way.

For too long, any reporter who dared to combine journalistic endeavors with advocacy in support of causes for the social good faced near-universal scorn and professional opprobrium. The idealized pursuit of such myths as "objectivity" forbade "taking sides" or "expressing an opinion" when reporting events -- even when those events were at times patently one-sided. Those working within major news organizations -- including commercial and public media -- knew that speaking out and stating the truth about certain topics was at least to court trouble, if not to purchase a one-way ticket to oblivion.

The late Danny Schechter was one of the first to fight against this sort of self-censorship. While at CNN and then ABC News in the 1980s, he pushed hard against the constraints of the mainstream broadcast and cable news media. In frustration, he left ABC to join me as what he dubbed "network refugees" to partner in the independent production company Globalvision. Together we began producing regular programming about such hot topics as apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses around the world.

We knew from first-hand experience that the commercial world was not open to such coverage. So we offered it instead to public television -- where both of us had started our broadcast careers and to which we felt a naive natural affinity. Rather than being welcomed at PBS, however, we were instead told by top media executives there that our acknowledged opposition to the racist regime in South Africa was "too controversial," and later that a weekly series on global human rights was "an insufficient organizing principle for a television program." The PBS reaction, combined with deceitful, highly organized right-wing protests against us, led to our being branded with a metaphoric scarlet letter -- A for Activist -- and told that our advocacy meant that we weren't really journalists at all.

Such views, while they are eroding, are still somewhat prevalent in today's media world. But as the pace of change within that world continues to accelerate at a dizzying pace, many within the field of journalism have begun to raise intriguing questions about the role of advocacy and the concept of reporter "objectivity." It was a reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union, after all, who broke the news about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. And the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting went to InsideClimate News, an environmentally-conscious site dedicated to coverage of global warming science and politics. More recently, independent journalists Jamie Kalven and Brandon Smith exposed the Chicago police cover-up of the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Increasingly journalists with strong points of view are giving us news and insights we can't find elsewhere -- particularly in mainstream journalism. Should we even bother any more trying to distinguish between so-called "objective" journalism and advocacy? Many knowledgeable observers now say no.

"We might have passed the point where we can talk about objectivity in journalism with a straight face," says Patricia Aufderheide, University Professor of Communication Studies at American University. "Objectivity was always a shortcut. It was a useful little shortcut of a concept to say you should be fair, you should be honest, you should have integrity, you should tell people accurately and responsibly what you think are the important things about what you saw or researched. If what we're doing is advocating for the public, that's our job."

And if a piece of journalism "isn't advocacy, it isn't journalism," says media theorist Jeff Jarvis, professor at the CUNY School of Graduate Journalism. "Isn't advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public's behalf. Don't we believe that we act in their interest? After all, what is a journalist, if not an advocate on behalf of the public?"

I couldn't agree more. That's why I am proud to announce today the selection of Jose Antonio Vargas as the first recipient of the Danny Schechter Global Vision Award for Journalism & Activism, to be awarded annually to an individual who best emulates Schechter's practice of combining excellent journalism with social activism. The award includes a $3000 stipend to support future reporting and advocacy.

In 1993, when he was just 12, Vargas moved from his native Philippines to the United States. Four years later he learned he was an undocumented immigrant. By the time he turned 30, he had become a celebrated journalist: part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Washington Post, a top executive at the Huffington Post, a writer for the New Yorker, a documentary filmmaker. But even after this meteoric rise, Vargas was still running from his past. "I spent all of my 20s being scared of the government, scared of myself," he recalls. "I didn't know if I could keep going, if I could keep lying."

So Vargas took a bold and dangerous step, going public with his status in a 2011 cover story in the New York Times magazine entitled My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant. "After so many years of trying to be a part of the system, of focusing all my energy on my professional life," he wrote, " I learned that no amount of professional success would solve my problem or ease the sense of loss and displacement I felt... I'm done running. I'm exhausted. I don't want that life anymore. So I've decided to come forward."

Vargas focused renewed attention to a volatile front in America's ongoing cultural and political wars. His sudden flip from reporting to advocacy led to greater recognition -- within a year he and other undocumented immigrants were on the cover of Time magazine -- but also to increased scrutiny and danger. Nevertheless he embraced his new role as an activist, even while expanding his efforts to reach people through journalism. Vargas says he always viewed his activism "as an act of journalism."

To that end, he has added another title to his resume: publisher. First came Define American, a non-profit "using the power of stories to transcend politics and shift the conversation around immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America." Most recently, he launched EmergingUS, an online news organization aimed at exploring the "evolving American identity" and creating"a new kind of journalism that represents all of us."

What kind of journalism can we expect to see in the future from Vargas? One that is both factual and empathic. "Facts are to me, a religion as a journalist," he says, but quickly adds, "I traffic in empathy. I try to be vulnerable with people so they can be vulnerable back."