I met Kate Geiger when I was doing a piece for NPR in 2013 about a former GM assembly plant Dayton. She’s worked there most of her career, and when she talked about the last days of the plant, she cried. Kate was tough and also sensitive, a great source.
I called her again in 2016, when I was back in Dayton digging into the presidential election results for American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” where I was a full-time news reporter. A lifelong Republican, she had voted for Trump even though she wasn’t wild about his bloviating. We talked for hours on her living room couch about the dynamics of gender, religion, jobs, immigration, and the role of government in people’s lives.
A couple months after that, I was fired from my job over a blog post I wrote about objectivity. In it, I asked whether objectivity and neutrality are really possible for journalists, and more importantly, whether these ideals are what we should aspire to.
Curious, I reached out to some of my sources who supported Donald Trump, to find out what they thought. I thought, what about instead of guessing they’d be bothered by what I wrote, I just ask them? And I realized as I thought about it that I have no idea what most of my sources and listeners think about the idea of neutrality. Do they expect us to be neutral, or do they assume we are putting on a show? Do they trust us? Would they trust us less if we were more honest about where we were coming from, or would they trust us more?
Kate read the posts carefully, and then we had an honest conversation that lasted over an hour. Of course, this is no survey of newsroom trust, nor is Kate representative of “the typical Trump voter” (because in my opinion, there is no such thing). But our conversation revealed a lot to me about what is missing from journalism today—and how we might think differently about our role as journalists. Here’s some of what we touched on:
More than one truth. My original blog post was titled, “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it.” Kate challenged me: “My first reaction is, why are you okay with it?”
In general, she wants journalists to stay out of the opinion business. But she also said she tried putting herself in my shoes by imagining issues she’d have trouble being neutral on. She’s a recovering alcoholic, and she said, “If I’m doing stories about drunk driving, of course I’m going to have a little more investment than someone who isn’t a recovering alcoholic or an active alcoholic.”
To my surprise, we agreed that verifiable facts are just that, but truth and narrative are relative and personal. “Your truth is dependent on how you see things,” Kate said. Still, I appreciated the challenge: Is objectivity maybe unattainable, but worth striving for? What if that is really what our audiences want?
Transgender issues and Trump. Kate had some questions for me. Why, she asked, did I feel like it was so important to lead my blog posts with the fact that I’m transgender, and why did I keep mentioning Trump’s inauguration as if he was to blame for my oppression as a trans person? I was pretty uncomfortable, because I’m not used to telling sources what I think, but I gave her my perspective: Trans people had finally started to gain some visibility (see: me having a job as a national journalist), but now there’s a fear in my community over backlash and attacks on vulnerable people. People in my community, I explained, are actively afraid of violence, and many see Trump as at least implicitly endorsing bigotry against us.
To my surprise, we agreed that verifiable facts are just that, but truth and narrative are relative and personal
For her, the trans stuff is a states’ rights issue. She says she feels my pain, but she just doesn’t think the federal government should be involved. And the Trump stuff in my posts turned her off: “If I didn’t know you, and I hadn’t spent so much time with you, I would think, Oh, there’s another far leftie. I can’t listen to anything they have to say.”
Interestingly, most people assume I am a liberal or a leftist simply on the basis of my transgender identity. So, that is another complexity to the matter of whether to be “out” about it in any given situation. For me, basic gender respect may also mean perception of bias whether I choose it or not, and there is never a clear line between advocacy and just being myself. I wonder, if I had been out to Kate before this conversation, whether she would have trusted me as much as a journalist.
Listening to hear. Kate said her biggest frustration with so much of the news, especially on TV, is that people are listening to respond, instead of listening to actually hear one another. We agreed there is a national listening deficit, and that Fox News and pundits in general are making the problem worse. “You listen to hear,” she said.
So much of the work that I do is based on (maybe naive) faith in people. I believe underneath all the hollering, most people want good things for others; most people value truth and vulnerability; most people can learn to listen and be curious. It felt so good to talk to Kate and be, essentially, embodying those values in conversation. I thought: What if journalists’ role was to facilitate this kind of honest, complicated conversation where we trust each other’s intellect?
Race and representation. Right at this point of resonance in the conversation, Kate changed the subject kind of out of the blue: “The whole Black Lives Matter movement, I don’t even listen to anything they say, because they’re crazy. They don’t make sense.”
This is perhaps the most interesting moment in the conversation, because of course, open and curious conversation has its limits. I am white, so other white people often give me the benefit of the doubt, or they speak to me openly about their own racism in ways that are based on assumptions about how I see people of color.
In the spirit of the conversation so far, I decided to be honest with Kate. I let her know that I don’t share her view of Black Lives Matter activists, and that I’m quite close with people who are are involved in the movement. “If you knew I was friends with people in Black Lives Matter, would that change how you would hear a story I did on that topic?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I would look forward to it.”
And she began, as we spoke, to think critically about what she’d just said: “All I have seen covered about Black Lives Matter has been in the media … and I’m fully aware that many media agencies look for a way to slant something their direction.” She recalled that when national media would come to cover the layoffs at GM, how they always seemed to be trying to “make us all look like a bunch of hillbillies, instead of college-educated factory workers with families.”
What if journalists’ role was to facilitate this kind of honest, complicated conversation where we trust each other’s intellect?
I left my conversation with Kate with a lot of questions. Do journalists train our audiences to expect “neutrality,” and then repeatedly let them down? Or do our audiences train us to perform “neutrality” because it is the thing they really want? How can we replicate honest and vulnerable conversations like this one in our communities? What fosters open-mindedness and curiosity? What if part of the journalist’s role was to do that? Can we teach people to “listen to hear,” and if so, where should we start?
One thing this encounter reaffirmed for me is that the way journalists interact with the communities we cover needs to change. Kate Geiger shouldn’t feel that “the media” always comes looking for the drunkest guy at the bar in covering her community. And, she shouldn’t live in a world where Black Lives Matter activists are portrayed as one-dimensional reactionaries. Of course, even the best journalist can’t single-handedly overcome bigotry, propaganda, and disinformation, let alone the institutionalized racism that is the backdrop for representations of black activism. But we can battle the lack of curiosity that feeds those beasts. We can “listen to hear,” and hopefully help others learn the same skill.
Listen to Wallace’s interview with Geiger: