Once Again, Journalistic “Objectivity” Is Failing Us — Especially Queer and Other Marginalized Writers

Jazmine Hughes was recently forced to resign from the New York Times Magazine after signing an open letter by the ad hoc coalition Writers Against the War on Gaza. The letter, which I am also a solidarity signatory of, calls for Palestinian liberation and critiques racist and revisionist news and media coverage of Israel’s ongoing genocidal obliteration of Gaza. Magazine contributor Jamie Lauren Keiles also signed the letter and announced he’d no longer be writing for the publication. In a live broadcast with Democracy Now!, the two writers discussed their reasoning for signing the letter as well as something I’ve thought about a lot in my decade of working in journalism and media: the hollow promise of journalistic objectivity.

“I think that objectivity is a wonderful, beautiful project for a world that does not exist,” Hughes says.

Objectivity assumes a lack of power differentials. Objectivity flattens and erases identity.

In recent years, newsrooms have made pushes to diversify, but hiring marginalized voices and then expecting them to remain silent or perform “objectivity” often means asking them to go against the cores of their identities and ignore the movements that are working toward their own liberation. Hughes and Keiles are queer writers, and Keiles is trans. In the time since I started writing this piece, Anne Boyer has also resigned as poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine as a direct result of the war on Gaza, and she is also queer. I don’t think these details are insignificant. There’s a history of queer and trans dissent in newsrooms, and LGBTQ groups and individuals have experienced intense censorship for decades. In 1990, lesbian beat reporter Sandy Nelson was removed from the newsdesk at The News Tribune for participating in a campaign to protect gay rights in Tacoma.

Mainstream historians often flagrantly ignore the connections between antiwar movements and queer liberation, but it’s actually quite easy to connect the dots between these struggles. And right now, we’re seeing journalists punished for standing up for trans rights and for standing against war. And it always comes back to this age-old debate about “neutrality” and who or what it’s really meant to protect in newsrooms.

“I signed the letter…as a Black person, as a queer person, as a woman,” Hughes says. “And, you know, all these identities have — all of those identities, or all of the communities thereof — have been awarded their rights by agitation, right? By protest. And I, as a person at the core of all these identities, wanted to amplify that effort.”

Writers are asked to bring their identities to their work but then are told to sit down and be quiet when those identities are under attack. We saw this over and over again in 2020 when it came to Black journalists (I realize the unfortunate irony of linking to the NYT, but Wesley Lowery’s words on the topic connect so many dots).

The lofty goal of perfect journalistic objectivity is often wielded in ways that amount not to fairness but to censorship and punishment. Hughes goes on in the interview to point out that she was not part of the newsroom. She worked for the magazine, and the work she did was political, sure, but it was also rooted in her identities and was not a mere presentation of facts in the way news reporters are expected to write. She wrote from a particular point of view. A point of view reflected in the Writers Against the War on Gaza letter.

As for Keiles, this was the second time he signed a letter while working as an independent contractor for the New York Times Magazine — a labor distinction Keiles points out is relevant to the larger conversation. On signing the letter, Keiles says:

“So, first and foremost, I signed the letter as a person. I feel like growing up as a Jew in America, you’re asked all the time, ‘What would people do if there was another Holocaust?’ And, for me, it was just really important to say this is the time when you’re supposed to speak up. This is the moment that you’ve been hypothetically asked about your entire life. So, journalism aside, I signed it as a person, and I think it’s the right thing to do. And I wouldn’t support an ethnostate anywhere else in the world for any other group, and I don’t support it for my own people. So, that was, first and foremost, why I signed the letter.”

Keiles also signed the open letter by nearly 1,000 New York Times contributors calling attention to the publication’s long history of transphobic bias and demanding change to the ways the paper covers trans issues, especially when it comes to trans youth. In this interview, Keiles says he was reprimanded for that despite being an independent contractor who does not receive benefits from the New York Times. He was told he couldn’t sign the letter because it singled out the work of other writers at the paper, and he responded that he doesn’t actually work there. That the paper could claim an ownership over Keiles’ speech when he is not a full-time employee is, indeed, especially ludicrous. He told Democracy Now! he resigned shortly after signing the Gaza letter because he could feel another reprimand coming.

Similarly to Hughes, Keiles covers arts and culture and not a ton of what is considered “hard news.” And though my personal experience is just a small microcosm of all of this, I’m no stranger to the frustration of being stymied by newsroom rules in ways that ultimately seem arbitrary and more in service of maintaining a dangerous status quo than in service of objectivity. While working at my college newspaper as an editor in 2013, I was informally reprimanded for participating in a pro-Palestine protest to demand my university divest from Israeli apartheid (a movement that, 10 years later, is still very much alive).

I was an editor in the Arts section of the paper. I was pretty sure my views on Palestine weren’t affecting my ability to edit reviews of Pretty Little Liars.

Jokes aside, arts and culture criticism is — or at least, should be — political. Art isn’t created in an apolitical void. We all bring specific points of view, cultural histories, and contexts to the page when we write. And writers and editors who are willing to take stands against things like genocide, police violence, etc. are not the true root of media bias; more often than not, forms of oppression like racism, sexism, and transphobia are. Not only was I an Arts editor, but I was also in the process of co-founding a section of the newspaper specifically dedicated to students of color. In the early days of the section, we were often criticized for being “too political.” The fact of our existence was political. Our identities were politicized no matter what we chose to write about or platform. We published stories that felt extremely pressing to students of color on campus, including policies regarding undocumented students, racist treatment of Black students, and the fight for Palestinian liberation. And it wasn’t enough to just write about these things; the actions and protests were vital, too. It was all connected. And some would have liked to use newsroom policies to stifle that. Journalism aside, like Keiles, it felt like the right thing to do, just like calling for a ceasefire is now.

Journalistic objectivity and intellectual honesty are not always the same thing. Keiles touches on that in the interview: “There are all these ideas about journalistic objectivity, but then when it actually comes down to the level of news being produced, things we would expect of news coverage on any other topic are totally being forgotten here.”

Last week, Writers Against the War on Gaza staged an action in the New York Times office lobby calling for a ceasefire and also criticizing the paper’s bias toward Israel in recent coverage. These biases run so much deeper and have far more harmful impacts than Hughes and Keiles signing the open letter ever could. Just look at this infographic compiled by Mona Chalabi — who has been a contributor to the NYT — as one small example:

In recent history, journalists have quit their jobs or been forced to resign for being antiwar, especially from the 1990s to now. Hell, even news giants like Phil Donahue lost platforms for being antiwar. Let’s think critically for a moment about what that really means: that being against militarism and war and oppressive systems is somehow at odds with being an ethical journalist.

Last month, six BBC reporters were taken off air for posting — or liking — pro-Palestine tweets. LA Times employees were recently taken off of Israel and Palestine coverage for three months after signing an open letter, a move LA Times reporter Suhauna Hussain points out effectively removes many Muslim journalists and “most if not all Palestinians” from coverage. Censorship, the criminalization of protest, and a wildly misguided crackdown on language are nothing new, especially in the post-9/11 U.S. But the extreme politicization and criminalization of the pro-Palestine movement and of Palestinian life in general, coupled with the silencing of journalists, feels more disorienting than ever. Reporters on the ground in Gaza are risking their lives to show the world what’s happening, and reporters in the U.S. are being punished just for bearing witness and standing in solidarity.

In 2021, NPR amended its policy against journalists participating in protests to be less limiting. The organization’s public editor Kelly McBride correctly pointed out at the time that aspects of the policy are still vague. Stifling political speech can mean stifling a person’s humanity. And we’re seeing a lot of news organizations actually double down on their rules about how journalists use social media to express views. In a Vanity Fair story about Hughes’ resignation and the larger culture of punishing journalists who speak out against Israel, Charlotte Klein writes that Vanity Fair’s parent company Condé Nast recently sent an email reminding staffers of social media policies. Hearst Magazines implemented a new social media policy that states staffers can be terminated for even liking content deemed controversial and channels the surveillance state by encouraging employees to tell on each other for violating the rules. (Read the Vanity Fair piece in full for a behind-the-scenes look at just how messy Hughes’ forced resignation was.)

It’s easy to see how the stalwart and dated rules on objectivity specifically target journalists of marginalized identities, especially because our identities are so politicized. We’re deemed controversial just for existing. Last year, an opinion piece in the Washington Post indeed asserted that journalism conflates “objective” perspectives with white ones, citing historical examples of white journalists participating in pro-segregation movements with no consequences. What is deemed objective and therefore acceptable by society and what is not often aligns with power.

In his book The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, Lewis Raven Wallace attempts to trace the origins of objectivity in news, which he writes “is sort of like trying to track down the origins of some of the water in a river.” Wallace eventually concludes the exact terminology of “objectivity” in journalism is really less than a hundred years old, though we begin to see its emergence in the very late 19th century and early 20th century. Wallace — who is queer and trans — makes direct connections between the emergence of “objectivity” as a code of conduct for journalists in early mainstream (and entirely white) newsrooms and the emergence of prominent Black-run publications. In fact, if we want to dig back into the history of the New York Times specifically, as Wallace notes in the book, Ida B. Wells was labeled “radical” for extensively covering the facts of lynchings, while the New York Times, under the guise of “balance,” reported on lynchings from a distinctly white perspective without gathering actual facts. (Wallace was fired by Marketplace for publishing a Medium essay about newsroom objectivity, by the way.)

We continue to see an alignment between “objectivity” and dominant narratives today, with anything that challenges those dominant narratives deemed “biased” or “radical.” As Keiles puts it, attempts to silence journalists’ pushback against Israel’s actions and the way they’re covered in the media indeed seems like a tacit endorsement of Israel’s actions. And is that journalistic objectivity? We are not seeing widespread firings or resignations of people in arts institutions, colleges, or newspapers for expressing Zionist views. But people across all of those sectors are being fired or facing calls to be fired for expressing pro-Palestinian views — even passively. There’s a disproportionality here that’s glaringly obvious.

Even slightly more progressive policies like NPR’s require that writers seek permission to participate in certain forms of civic engagement and dissent. But seeking permission to essentially advocate for your own humanity is beyond demoralizing. And so is stifling dissent against the oppression of any group of marginalized people. Newsroom policies emphasize facts, but what about moral truths? Can anyone look at what’s happening in Gaza and say oBjEcTiVeLy that it is right or justified? Who benefits from reporters remaining silent in the face of not only injustice but also media bias that attempts to flatten and minimize power and oppression?

Objectivity often just means preserving an imperialist, white supremecist, heterosexist status quo, preserving a viewpoint that allows for the continued marginalization of the people who are already at the margins. Anything that questions it is labeled “controversial” — and therefore dismissed, silenced, or punished.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 843 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Great piece – one thing you may want to correct – Lewis Raven Wallace was fired from Marketplace, which is produced by American Public Media (APM), not NPR. (It just airs on NPR – but they don’t make hiring/firing decisions).

  2. This is so important, thank you Kayla! I taught a course on anthro and the media (US-focused) for a few years, and the consolidation of media ownership (tied to repeated loosening of FCC regulations in favor of big capitalists’ profits) has a lot to do with this as well. The same handful of companies own ALL the country’s major news sources, so “objectivity” also arose as a way to replace a diversity of viewpoints. But of course it’s just privileging the one view!

    I could give a whole series of lectures about this (literally, lol) but really the point is that this is also why indie media is SO ESSENTIAL. And why I’m an A+ member. Keep putting out this good work!

  3. Thank you, Kayla.

    The faux objectivity of the New York Times is especially pernicious. Of course, these queer and trans writers would have been celebrated if they’d leveraged their LGBT identities to pinkwash war like infamous gay warmonger Andrew Sullivan. And no doubt any cis LGB person at the NYT would get a high five for “just asking questions” about trans rights.

  4. Spot on. ‘Objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ rules are incredibly selectively applied, especially at the BBC. At one point BBC reporters were told that they were not allowed to attend trans pride marches, due to ‘impartiality’ rules.

    Whereas openly transphobic BBC reporters have faced zero consequences for attending anti-trans events.

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