The Convenient Lie of ‘Objectivity’

Marie Solis | Jezebel

When Washington Post editors banned national politics reporter Felicia Sonmez from reporting on sexual misconduct because she is an assault survivor, they reportedly told her that they were worried about the “appearance of a conflict of interest.” Top editors reassured her that they themselves didn’t think there was a conflict; they believed she could write an unbiased story on the subject, they said.

Sonmez spoke out about her sexual assault in 2018, following a letter she wrote to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China accusing Jon Kaiman, her former colleague, of assaulting her one night when she was drunk. A woman named Laura Tucker had made similar allegations against Kaiman earlier that year, and national outlets picked up both of their stories. Kaiman, who was working at the Los Angeles Times at the time, resigned after the paper launched an investigation into the accusations. (Kaiman has denied both Sonmez’s and Tucker’s allegations and insisted that “all acts we engaged in were mutually consensual.”)

Months later, when sexual misconduct allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh emerged, Sonmez was told by Post editors that she couldn’t cover the story. The restrictions were temporarily lifted before being reinstated in 2019, according to Somnez. Since then they have prevented her from writing about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s revelation that she is a survivor of assault; the several allegations against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens; and the Violence Against Women Act.

After Sonmez tweeted on March 28 about these restrictions on her reporting—and after Politico and Jezebel covered Sonmez’s story—the Post announced that it would be lifting the coverage ban. “Following a newsroom discussion two weeks ago, editors began re-evaluating limitations on the scope of Felicia’s work as a breaking-news reporter,” Kristine Coratti Kelly, Chief Communications Officer at the Washington Post, told Jezebel. “They have concluded such limitations are unnecessary.”

What might at first seem unusual and anomalous about what Sonmez faced at the Post is in fact the opposite. Her treatment is symptomatic of newsrooms’ sometimes uncritical devotion to the principle of “objectivity,” which can easily be warped and deployed for sinister ends. Part of the problem with objectivity is that no one can quite agree what it is: Does it mean attempting to occupy the exact middle ground between two extremes of opinion (what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and others call “the view from nowhere”)? Or does it mean balancing the scales, because doing so creates a more precise rendering of the truth? Is the latter what we would call “fairness,” and if so, is this what many of us actually mean when we say objectivity, or is it a separate idea entirely? These are difficult questions which don’t necessarily have a single, definitive answer. Reporters face them anew each time they sit down to write a story.

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