On reporting and identity

A few weeks ago, I sat in the basement studio of Boise’s brand new community radio station discussing #OccupyBoise with eight or nine people who were fired up to cover the movement in some way. The radio station has only been on the air for about six months and we don’t have a local news segment established yet, but two talented and creative volunteer DJs who host mostly music shows wanted to report on the surprisingly robust Boise wing of #Occupy. Part of our discussion was whether or not the guys had been “too involved” in the organizing of the marches and general assemblies in Boise to credibly report on the phenomenon.

I am very reticent to judge who is credible to report on anything these days, as I think journalism ought to be—and is—judged more for the character of its content than for its pedigree. Also, I am just a volunteer at Radio Boise as well, bringing my decade of experience in the mainstream and alternative media to the table to help establish a news department at the station. Furthermore, community radio was doing consensus and direct democracy work before hash tags were even invented, so I was not about to make any decrees about who can report on what. But I did suggest that anyone who wanted to report on #Occupy Boise ought to be very clear on their involvement in it—both to themselves and to the public.

Jose Antonio Vargas defines American

Jose Antonio Vargas, the undocumented reporter who is reporting on immigration through his own new organization, Define American, has done just that, and he comes off as extremely credible. Vargas, borrowing from journalism prof Jay Rosen, calls this style of journalism “The View from Somewhere“—the idea that our experiences and biases and power of ideas make our journalism more interesting and useful. But Vargas, while clearly advocating for justice in his own case and in the case of millions of immigrants stuck in what a large majority of Americans believe is a “broken” system (in whatever way they feel it may be broken), has made the clear distinction that he is a reporter first. He is taking on the role of investigator, critic, chronicler and working in the realm of ideas first and foremost. It is a great feeling of liberation—a graduation of sorts—to move from the he said/she said, transcriptionary, third person, “fair and balanced” approach that young reporters are still taught at newspapers across the country to realizing that the reporter has thoughts and feelings and a mind as well and that his or her thoughts and feelings matter.

I worked as an immigration reporter in the mainstream system for about six years, first at the Idaho Press-Tribune, a small town paper in Idaho’s second largest city, just west of Boise. It was my first real job and the place that I learned how to be a newspaper reporter. And I quickly realized, perhaps because I had moved to Idaho from the East Coast, that there was a large population of Latinos who were excluded from the community in many ways, including in the pages of the newspaper. So I created my own beat: the Latino beat and started writing about farmworker labor issues, offering farmworker perspectives, publishing short A&E (Arts and Entertainment) pieces in Spanish and English on cultural events and music in the Latino community and looking into bilingual education in the schools.

But my first inkling that I was not going to make it as a straight up newspaper reporter came when I witnessed an act of blatant racism at a city event before the annual rodeo—the biggest show in town. The story was supposed to be something like “City Council Excited for 75th Annual Rodeo” or something like that. But I returned to the newsroom with a much better story: “City Councilman Pans Black Rodeo Clown with Fried Chicken and Watermelon Jokes.” The newsroom was not equipped for such a story questioning the town’s most sacred traditions. There was literally no newspaper mechanism to get that information on the front page the next day—I, the reporter, was the only witness who was talking. But to their credit, my editors let me write an op-ed about the experience for the weekend paper, after the rodeo was over, if I recall, and it generated record numbers of letters to the editor, some urging me to go back to where I came from and others thanking me for pointing out the overt yet unspoken racism in the community.

That’s just one example of how the view from somewhere ought to work; the op-ed, or whatever we called it, should have run on the front page the next day.

In Vargas’ call to action for reporters to take a new line on immigration, he refers to the nefarious role that FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies have played in media coverage of immigration for the last decade or more. The groups, part of the Tanton Network, espouse what I consider to be an anti-immigrant or racist position but masquerade as think tanks or mainstream policy groups and get quoted all the time.

Vargas cites a Republican source:

FAIR, CIS and Numbers USA have “played an outsized role in speaking for conservatives. They’ve had an outsized role in this debate. They’ve framed the debate in their terms and that’s been really unfortunate,” Robert Gittelson, a Republican businessman, told me.

I have quoted them and I knew at the time that it was an intellectually dishonest thing to do, but my editors wanted to know what the antis had to say so I had to make the call. In 2005, I wrote a story for the Contra Costa Times, where I was the Immigration and Demographics reporter, about a woman whose husband was undocumented and had gotten stuck in Mexico after tending to his sick mother. It was a great story and one of the early inspirations for Amor and Exile. But I was forced to add these two lines to the story:

But for advocates of stricter immigration enforcement, having a family is no excuse for breaking the law.

“The illegals need to either get on the path to get their citizenship squared away, or they shouldn’t be here in the first place,” said Rick Oltman, western field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In those two sentences, my only chance to frame Oltman’s comments were in my definition of his camp: strict enforcement. At least the tone of Oltman’s comment speaks for itself and he is not the focus of the story in any way. Vargas generously refers to the Tanton network groups as the “anti-immigration reform community.”

Despite my discomfort with these mainstream journalistic habits of framing stories in terms of conflict and stripping the pyramid of any personality, they are difficult habits to unlearn. It’s taken me several years as a freelancer and at an alternative weekly to come out of my shell and it’s still hard for me to write lengthy, self-referential blog posts like this one. But I’ll give one more example of how it can be done before getting back to #Occupy.

I went into coverage of the Tea Party phenomenon in 2009 with the same (kind of boring) questions that are being asked of #Occupy today: What’s this all about? And I wrote about it with some degree of personality (snark) at first and then with an all-out opinion formed from spending the time talking to people at many Tea Party rallies in Boise in this post entitled Tea Party Inspired by Racial Fears. My point is that I was neither for nor against the Tea Party or the Tea Partiers. I was acting and writing as an informed observer, staking out an informed position and offering readers a viewpoint that they could make use of. Many of my friends showed up to protest the protestors, but my form of activism has almost always been through the media. I suspect that is the way Jose Antonio Vargas views his activism—an informed observer with a lot to say about immigration in the United States. Though his coverage may well serve to rally the public—as good journalism should—it is journalism first, not preaching or protest.

So my advice to my friends at Radio Boise was this: you can have opinions and stances on #OccupyBoise and present them as news reporting if they are well developed and fair. You can let the marchers and occupiers speak for themselves on the air and call it news reporting. You can do any number of creative audio reports from the rallies and marches and call it news reporting. But you can’t claim to be part of #OccupyBoise and still call it news reporting (even if the movement is leaderless and tries to embrace “99 percent” of America), because that’s called public relations or propaganda and it’s not fair to news consumers and it’s boring.

It remains to be seen if we will break in the news department at Radio Boise with a story on #Occupy, but one thing we all learned is that despite the democratization of the media through the internet, journalism is still hard in two ways: it’s a daily applied ethics debate and it’s damn hard work.