Bill O’Reilly went after Univision anchor and reporter Jorge Ramos last night for his interest in immigration issues, and naturally, their prime-time fracas quickly got picked up by countless blogs and websites, delighted to see these two journalistic behemoths go head to head.
“You’re an activist, Jorge!” bellowed Bill O, in his typical manner. “You’re an anchorman. How could you possibly cover illegal immigration fairly when you’re an activist, when you’re a proponent of allowing them amnesty? How can you possibly cover the story? You should excuse yourself from it, or recuse yourself from it. Or become like me — a commentator.”
Ramos, when it was his turn to speak, had a little something to say about O’Reilly’s style of journalism. “I don’t think you are the right person to lecture me on advocacy and journalism, when you spend most of your program giving opinions and not asking questions, defending Republicans, criticizing Democrats, and, frankly, conducting interviews — soft interviews — with conservatives that you agree with,” he said. “The difference between you and me is that you’re partisan — I’m independent.”
Ramos handled himself beautifully in the Fox hot seat, but unfortunately O’Reilly wasn’t alone. O’Reilly’s criticism joined a chorus of mainstream journalists calling Ramos an “advocate” or “activist” for asking Donald Trump aggressive questions on immigration — questions that got him kicked out of The Donald’s press conference because they displeased The Xenophobic One, Trump himself.
Unfortunately, O’Reilly’s opinions aren’t that far out of the mainstream, reflecting a persistently ill-thought-out concept of journalistic objectivity. At the Washington Post, Michael E. Miller wrote a column in a similar vein, complaining that Ramos was looking for a fight. His words received this sharp rebuke from Jezebel‘s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd:
Ramos is focused on asking the candidates about immigration because it is one of the most important issues facing our country today, and as a Mexican American who has been in the same position, he not only has a particular understanding of the issue, he is giving a voice to Americans who don’t always have one. For Miller to imply that he is an “activist” simply because he, too, was an immigrant, is uncomfortably close to racial profiling.
Besides, flip the switch and imagine someone telling O’Reilly or one of his Fox cronies that they should have no business covering white men because they are white men and believe white men have rights. It’s absurd from that lens.
Shepherd’s point is also important because it speaks directly to the diversity issue in journalism. Having a particular experience as a member of a minority or other social group and believing in your own dignity as a human being doesn’t make you any more biased than being a white dude learning about something for the first time. In fact, it likely makes you better informed when reporting on issues that affect your group. If being an immigrant and believing that mass deportation is a pretty bad idea renders one an activist, then by extension women shouldn’t report about equal pay, black reporters can’t cover Black Lives Matter, LGBT journalists can’t cover marriage equality, and people with children can’t cover education.
It goes just beyond trusting journalists to be able to cover issues pertinent to their own histories, families, and experiences. Because let’s face it: most issues that journalists cover, even elections, have ramifications for their lives. Objectivity is impossible, and smarts — the ability to filter and transmit good information — is much more important. We accept certain human rights as given; some journalists are just better than others at seeing all human rights as a given. Presumably most working journalists aren’t going to “report both sides” on outdated issues like, “Wives: are they people or property?” So why should they pretend to take both sides seriously on topics like, “Immigrants, let’s round em up and deport them, because that’s worked so well in the past!”
Believing that Trump’s outrageous, dangerous comments about Mexicans and other immigrants deserves a healthy challenge isn’t being an advocate, but rather a tenacious journalist. Indeed, immigration is an important issue to Ramos’ viewers. By bringing questions on the matter to subjects as disparate as Trump and Obama, he’s serving them very well.
And if you learn a little bit more about Ramos, you’ll realize that’s kind of his thing. This New York Times article points out that rather than being known as an anchor, Ramos’ reputation rests on being a fearless questioner of regimes in Latin America, so much so that he’s received death threats. “It is precisely this pattern of confrontation — not his poker-faced anchoring of the nightly news with his colleague Maria Elena Salinas on Noticiero Univisión — that has won Ramos the trust of so many Hispanics,” writes Marcela Valdes. “They know that in many countries south of the United States, direct questions can provoke not simply a loss of access but also a loss of life.”
When we learn what millions of Univision viewers already know about Ramos’ career, it’s even more embarrassing that O’Reilly had the nerve to call him to the mat. Many American cable pundits should probably be sitting at Ramos’ feet, listening to his experiences, rather than snidely telling him to stop asking Donald Trump tough questions.