Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, wrote this deeply moving and personal account of his “illegal alien” status. The piece itself was thought-provoking in exploring the helplessness in many young immigrants whose futures are shaped by their parents’ wishes and hopes, as well as the immigrant mentality that tries and tries and tries to belong, yet never being able to shake off the anxiety of not belonging, amplified by the undocumented status. It was also great to read an account that goes against the typical “undocumented immigrant” image in the media that paints them as having lower socio-economic status and uneducated. Then I started reading more about the circumstances around that article, about how the Washington Post (where Vargas was a staff reporter) killed the story – thus leading Vargas to pitch it to the New York Times instead. Racialicious did a great post outlining the circumstances surrounding the story, and speculated whether “they are worried about seeming too liberal friendly going into 2012.” They also discussed the Post’s opinion piece on the matter, written by the Ombudsman, which was a little bit problematic in its tone, attempting to dismiss the authenticity of the piece by calling Vargas a “relentless self-promoter.” He also said it was “disturbing” that Vargas has formed a nonprofit group to advocate for immigration reform. He has crossed the line from journalist to advocate.”
All of this makes me think about the notion of objectivity and who gets to claim it. Basically, the Post is questioning the veracity of Vargas’s account because it’s too subjective, too personal. But this seems like a strange critique for the piece since he is talking about his own life as an undocumented immigrant. Vargas also wrote in his piece that he tried to avoid reporting on immigrant issues as much as he could, lest his bias or his status get in the way.
But is that what objectivity is? An undocumented immigrant can’t report on immigrant issues because his identity is in the way? Does the same rule apply to other areas – what about an LGBT reporter writing about LGBT rights? An African-American from reporting on African-American issues? A book or a film review from a self-proclaimed fan of the author/director? It seems that objectivity or a blank slate is a space that cannot be claimed easily (or at all?) by those who are not seen as white, heterosexual, and utterly devoid of passion.
To be objective is to have privilege. It’s easy to tell someone to be rational when a certain issue does not affect and threaten one’s livelihood, or his/her identity directly (which is also why the pervasive image of an “angry woman of colour” is so derided by those who claim the privileged space, not thinking for one second about the hardships of being multiply marginalized others). Of course, I understand being a journalist requires a certain kind of privilege, especially now where unpaid internships are pretty much a requirement (and working for free for prolonged periods is certainly a kind of economic privilege). But as journalism moves on to reflect the diversity of this world, having people like Vargas on staff, I wonder if objectivity must be re-examined in some way or another.
As Latoya from Racialicious asked, “Are we still trying to hold on to the tattered notion of “objectivity” – or did Vargas usher in a whole new take on radical transparency?”