Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What's so wrong with being a journalist and an activist?

The backlash against US journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who outed himself as an illegal immigrant, seems out of all proportion to his supposed crime.
The cheers outweigh the jeers by some margin in this posting on the Inquirer Global Nation site, which bears the slogan "the home of Filipinos worldwide."

But the US journalistic community has been altogether more sniffy. Note first the tone of the above tweet by leading US media commentator Howard Kurtz. It's only just about supportive, and maybe not even that.More remarkable still is the take by the Poynter Institute's writer, Steve Myers, headlined Vargas still considers himself a journalist while advocating for immigration reform.
There's only one way to read that: a journalist should not advocate anything openly beyond... well, beyond what? Beyond anything?
Yes, I know this is the result of some fanciful notion that American journalists must be - in public at least - political and social eunuchs (and "objective" ones at that).
Clearly, Vargas is breaking the ethical code by campaigning for immigration reform (see his website, Define American).
Myers was not out on a limb in purveying this pompous nonsense. He was reporting on an interview given by Vargas to National Public Radio (NPR) in which the questioner, Michelle Norris, seems to believe Vargas has done something utterly offensive to the journalistic "profession."
Here's an example:
Norris: "So you decided at one point that you were covering the story, but actually you were the story."
Vargas: "Yeah. And I think all of us as journalists, you know, were trained to be objective, sort of. But you know, objectivity is a luxury. I've written enough stories, that I think they stand on their own, that no one can question the journalistic acumen, and the journalistic ethics, in them..."
Norris: "You're a former journalist at this point, or do you still consider yourself to be a journalist? You're an advocate, and it's sort of hard to be both."
Vargas: "That's a very good question. I am a journalist. I go to church every day; it's journalism. It's my church. It's my religion. It's all I know how to do. It's all I've known what to do.
"And what I'm hoping to do in the next few months, leading into the 2012 presidential campaign, is really to try to make sure we're looking at this issue [immigration policy] as holistically as possible."
A "former journalist"! He's not allowed to be one any longer? Why? And here's another section:
Norris: "One of the things people wonder about is the sort of duality in your life... When you were actually working as a journalist, in order to hold on to that position and that job, you had to tell a series of lies.
"And journalists are usually known as people who don't take sides in controversial issues. They usually pursue the truth and explain the laws. In your case you broke the laws and avoided the truth.
"And some of your critics say that two words that are missing from your story so far are, 'I'm sorry.'"
Vargas: "I am sorry for breaking the country's laws – my country's laws. I am no different from anybody else in that I wanted to live my life and I wanted to survive.
"And if I didn't tell those lies, I couldn't have gotten work and I couldn't have survived. The hardest conflict for me has been, how can you live honestly with lies...
"This idea that I've lived kind of a dual life: I have written 650 news articles... I have tried to do my job the best way that I could do it. And the work I think speaks for itself."

Yes, the work does speak for itself. What is so wrong with a man being a journalist and a campaigner for immigrant rights?
If one reads his story in the New York Times, My life as an undocumented immigrant, it is hard to imagine that anyone in his position would not have done the same.
Sources: Poynter/NPR/New York Times/The Guardian/Global Nation

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