Featured photo: On April 11, Ben Shapiro spoke at UNCG, drawing a crowd of close to 2,000. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)
The view from nowhere. That’s what generations of journalists have aspired to in this profession. It’s the idea that we as reporters, those of us tasked with “getting the record straight,” are completely objective beings who must simply observe, document and move on. It’s how news reporting and news gathering was taught — or so they tell me; I didn’t go to journo school — for decades.
But I’m here to tell you that it’s a fallacy.
As human beings with distinct backgrounds, upbringings, identities and experiences, the idea that we are completely dissociated robots capable of only reporting the “objective truth” is mere fiction. And not only is it impossible, it’s dangerously irresponsible.
That’s why, when the administration at UNCG this week allowed Ben Shapiro to speak on campus, it struck me so deeply. The argument that the university made — that they have to allow Shapiro onto campus because of “free speech” — is the same kind of thinking that predominantly white, male, cisgender, heterosexual newsrooms have used to ignore, quiet and turn a blind eye to the oppressions against BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities for centuries. And that in and of itself a conscious decision, isn’t it? Not one of objectivity.
Freedom of speech is protected in this country, yes. But a free platform to spew abhorrent views is not. As an alumna, I understand that UNCG rejecting Shapiro would likely have had dire and complicated consequences for the university, which is part of the larger UNC school system and funded by the state. Some would say it was impossible for UNCG to reject Shapiro because of existing laws. But what are laws if not made by humans? If they allow this kind of behavior, should we not work to change them?
Like newspapers, universities — which take money from young, impressionable students who are often just working to find their place in the world — are institutions of power that have a responsibility to cast aside the notion of “objectivity” or a blanket policy of “free speech” all for the appearance of “fairness.”
In his book, The View from Somewhere, Lewis Raven Wallace quotes radio producer Ramona Martinez.
“Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo.”
On Monday evening, as I watched close to 2,000 people fill Fleming Gym on UNCG’s campus, I was surprised and dismayed at the sheer number of those attending, as well as the diversity of the crowd. It’s true that there were some dissenters who made their way into the sea of Shapiro supporters during the event. But listening to the crowd, it became obvious that most of those in attendance — young and old, POC and white — were there because they believed the words coming out of Shapiro’s mouth.
And as I sat in the back of the room, taking in Shapiro’s hateful rhetoric, I became increasingly concerned with how I would cover the event.
Should I quote what he’s saying and then back it up with the science and data that proves him wrong? Should I interview people to ask why they’re there and then push back against their arguments in print?
Maybe a few years ago I would likely have done just that. I would have turned in a news story that counted the number in the audience, outlined a play-by-play of the event including what Shapiro said, interviewed a few of those in attendance and been on my way.
But as I exited the building and walked across the lawn to a counter-event that the university hosted at the same time as Shapiro’s appearance, my path became clear.
In front of the fountain at the entrance of the campus’ food hall, hundreds of students gathered in front of live DJ. On the outskirts of the gathering a small circle had formed where students took turns dancing. They slid, they stomped, they spun. It was a picture of love, a picture of resilience.
And I was reminded why I entered this profession in the first place. It’s not to maintain the status quo. It’s to uplift, center, empower those who have been cast aside from the center spotlight for far too long.
Every time we put pen to paper, every time we give a dollar, every time we approve the use of a facility, we make a conscious decision of who to center.
So, like the students who cared not about what Shapiro might have been saying less than a mile away, I decided to center you, me, us. And so too did Andrew Mails-Saine, the Methodist and Lutheran campus minister at UNCG and the director of the campus’ food pantry.
“I am convinced that hate is really, really loud,” he said at the event. “And love is really soft. It’s when a mother whispers to their child. But that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful. It’s all the moments that will go on after Shapiro has left.”
And watching the smiling faces of students dancing in front of the fountain, those draped in pink and blue flags to those lightly tapping their feet on overhanging patios up above, I was again overcome with emotion. But this time, it was joy.
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