Lewis Wallace Stood Up for Journalism. It Cost Him His Job.
Lewis Wallace wasn’t expecting to be fired from his public radio job at Marketplace when he published a blog post about journalistic neutrality and the challenges of being a transgender journalist in the era of “alternative facts.”
“I thought it was important to carry on that conversation in a public way,” he told The Daily Beast. “It wasn’t my desire to do it at the expense of my own job.”
But that was exactly the cost of that conversation.
In a follow-up post published Tuesday, Wallace announced that he had been first suspended from air and asked to remove his original blog post about journalistic neutrality, and then terminated when he made the decision to republish the post, knowing that it could cost him his job.
“I think I was at the point, especially after the election, of feeling like if I can’t stand up for this particular thing—small though it may seem to some people—I don’t know who I am anymore,” he told The Daily Beast.
Wallace has worked in public radio for four years and for Marketplace, a portfolio of radio programs produced by American Public Media, since May 2016. He was, by his own estimation, the “only out transgender reporter at Marketplace” and a rarity in radio reporting more broadly.
According to Wallace’s account, he was told that his blog post violated Marketplace’s code of ethics because he questioned the way that journalistic ideals like “objectivity” and “neutrality” can be abused by people and organizations who don’t believe in facts or who hold “morally reprehensible” positions like white supremacy. Wallace also wrote that journalists shouldn’t care if they are labelled “politically correct” or “liberal” for simply “reporting the facts.”
Most powerfully, he laid out his own position as a transgender journalist at a time when basic human rights for transgender people are under siege: “After years of silence/denial about our existence, the media has finally picked up trans stories, but the nature of the debate is over whether or not we should be allowed to live and participate in society, use public facilities and expect not to be harassed, fired or even killed.”
“Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity,” Wallace continued. “The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood.”
When asked several questions about Wallace’s termination and the Marketplace ethics code, American Public Media communications director Angie Andresen told The Daily Beast in a statement: “Like most employers, we don’t discuss personnel matters about current or former employees. We value our strong ethics and political activity guidelines. They are designed to allow us to fulfill our commitment to independent and objective reporting. Diversity is a hallmark and strength of Marketplace. We do not discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”
Public radio, in particular, has been grappling with strict internal standards about objectivity and impartiality as we enter the Trump administration. For example, where the New York Times called Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud a “lie,” NPR’s senior vice president Michael Oreskes has notably refused to do so, saying that “the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you.”
Trump certainly lies—frequently, too—but actually reporting that he does has been challenging media organizations that are looking to do traditional forms of “balanced” coverage in which “both sides” weigh in.
These were exactly the sort of challenges that Wallace was weighing in his blog post when he wrote: “I think we are past the point where [news consumers] expect us to speak to a fictitious and ever-shifting center in order to appear ‘neutral.’”
But Marketplace’s ethics code still places a strong emphasis on “fairness” and “balance,” advising reporters not to “advocate for political or other polarizing issues online” and to avoid airing “personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air.”
“We should do nothing that could undermine our credibility with the public, damage our newsroom’s standing as an impartial source of news or otherwise jeopardize Marketplace’s reputation,” the code states.
Wallace told The Daily Beast that Marketplace management took exception to two main points in his blog post: the assertion that “neutrality” isn’t real because the idea of a “center” is historically-constructed and shifts over time, and the idea that reporters shouldn’t be afraid of being labelled “liberal” or “PC” if their reporting is based in fact.
“I think [Marketplace’s] concern there was that that would be perceived as me saying everyone in public radio is just a leftist or a liberal,” he told The Daily Beast. (Wallace clarified in his second blog post that he is “not a liberal.”)
Again, the details of Wallace’s conversations with Marketplace’s management could not be confirmed as they will not “discuss personnel matters about current or former employees.”
Ultimately, Wallace believes that his firing is a symptom of the very problem he was identifying: an “ever-shifting center” that is now making more room for false viewpoints like climate change denial that have gained new ground in Washington.
“I think it’s ironic given the content of what I said because I was making the [same] point that now has been made more broadly by what transpired,” he told The Daily Beast.
He will keep reporting wherever he goes next—ideally, he says, somewhere that wouldn’t ask him to delete opinions about the state of his industry.
“I’m still gonna do journalism and tell stories and figure out ways to do it where I feel like I can maintain my integrity,” he told The Daily Beast, adding that he wants to “keep carrying on these conversations and work with people who want to have them, too.”