Hello, my kittens.
Before I get started, a wonderful thing happened tonight: New York legalized (what appears to be basically a fairly good facsimile) of marriage equality. Amen, halle-loo. I keep hearing that our country is on an ‘evolutionary journey,’ thanks to some less than mindful quotes by our President. Let’s hope he takes this as a cue to #evolvealready so he can catch up with the rest of the country.
[And I hate to be that guy, and I don’t want to take away from anyone’s rightful jubilation, but marriage in Iowa is hardly a safe bet. We can talk about a sea change and yadda yadda, but I’m taking a Paula Abdul for the moment: two steps forward, two steps back.]
Which brings me to what I actually want to talk about tonight: the largely unchallenged assumption that you are not capable of telling your own story.
Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas this week revealed in The New York Times Magazine that he was undocumented. He found out he was undocumented when he was 16, his family having come to the US when he was 12. He rose to great heights in his profession, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his reportage on the Virginia Tech shootings. And now colleagues, most notably his former boss, Phil Bronstein of the SF Chronicle are coming out of the woodwork to level bewildering and bigoted criticism at Vargas.
Oh, Mr. Bronstein. I gotta stop you right at your headline: I was duped by Jose Vargas, illegal immigrant. Yowza. People are not illegal, Mr. Bronstein. You write in your (pitiful self-victimizing hateful) diatribe that Mr. Vargas has landed you somewhere in the middle of the debate on illegal immigration into this country, but even if you didn’t want to be here, nothing stopped you from using incendiary oppressive language to talk about it. Actions may be illegal, Phil, but not people. And you can quit it with the dramatic imprecations that Vargas might get you arrested for “harboring him” in your office. Oh, and buying him coffee. I’m sure the INS is all up on that.
The crux of the issue, really, though, is that Vargas has apparently written at least three times about illegal immigration while working as a professional newsman in the States. Specifically, Vargas covered people who sell fake papers, when Vargas himself was using fake papers.
Bronstein told Mike Pesca, the guest host of NPR’s On the Media this week, that Vargas had disqualified himself from being a journalist, as he was now an advocate, and added that meant he couldn’t hire him – before uncomfortably acknowledging he couldn’t hire him because he was undocumented.
And this is what gets my goat, flays it, and sacrifices it to the Greek gods. The assumption that because journalists – the non-opinion type – must remain dispassionate and inform, not persuade, that we are incapable of telling stories that in some way reflect us.
Well, that is, if we’re undocumented, people of color, queer, women, poor or some combination of these. Bronstein acted as though it were self-evident that, because Vargas’ family came to States without papers, he was incapable of reporting on undocumented people and Pesca seemed pretty solidly along for the ride. In fact, there was a fact-checking bit at the end of the interview to point out that Vargas had written thrice, not once, on the topic.
Was the reporting good? Were his pieces well researched? Did he have reliable sources that he quoted credibly? Was the tone balanced and appropriate to the subject matter? Did he do good work?
This is what is never in consideration.
Let’s take the case of the Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided in the challenge to California’s Proposition 8 which held that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Judge Walker ruled that the Prop 8 was indeed unconstitutional – and then revealed that he was gay.
There was an enormous outcry. How could a gay judge rule impartially on a case potentially involving his right to marry? Well, this is how. In a challenge to Walker’s decision, US District Court Judge James Ware ruled that Walker had ruled impartially, stating:
“It is not reasonable to presume that a judge is incapable of making an impartial decision about the constitutionality of a law, solely because, as a citizen, the judge could be affected by the proceedings.”
The implicit and often explicit notion behind the idea that Walker must have ruled with prejudice is that a straight judge should have done it instead. Because everyone knows all heterosexuals have completely impartial feelings about QTBGL people.
It is one of the more bizarre and yet wildly pervasive ideas of modern American democracy that the majority should always rule on the behalf of and represent the minority or other.
We hear that male feminists often have more cache because their feminism is not seen as “self-interested.” Allies are told what they do is important because other people won’t listen to us. And a certain well known journalist keeps a tight lid on his sexuality (well, not that tight) lest people doubt his ability to uncover evil in the world.
Because if you can successfully cover up your connection to a story, your opinion still counts.
The only thing Phil Bronstein should really be worried about is his editorial guidance of Vargas. If Vargas’ reportage demonstrated an inappropriate bias, that should have been dealt with in-house. But, no one is saying his reporting was biased, only jumping to the conclusion that it must have been because the story in some way touched on his own experience.
And to all the editors out there tonight: we happily await your assignments on stories about every American citizen, heterosexual, man, white person, rich person and Christian – since we wouldn’t want you to see your organization caught up in any impropriety.