Thompson: Advocacy journalism lacking in 2016 campaign

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump and his supporters’ contempt for immigrants was vividly exemplified by the recent treatment of premier Hispanic journalist Jorge Ramos, a Univision anchor who some have dismissed as more of an activist than a journalist.

The rush by journalists to label Ramos after his removal from an Aug. 25 news conference in Dubuque, Iowa, for questioning a politician who repeatedly has insulted women and whose call for forcibly removing 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the United States, is out of sync with reality underscores the sorry state of journalism in holding major political candidates like Trump accountable.

Take, for example, Politico reporter Marc Caputo, who took to Twitter to rant against Ramos saying “this is bias, taking the news personally, explicitly advocating an agenda.” Caputo added that reporters can report the news without being activists.

Washington Post reporter Michael Miller in an article under the headline “Jorge Ramos is a conflict junkie, just like his latest target,” wrote that “by owning the issue of immigration, Ramos has also blurred the line between journalist and activist.”

Throughout history, advocacy journalism often has forced this nation to come to terms with its sordid past. It was advocacy journalism by the likes of journalists such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett that documented the racial lynchings in the South. Wells-Barnett made no bones about crusading against lynching and fighting for women’s rights.

Advocacy journalism gave us Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave who challenged and influenced President Abraham Lincoln during the Antebellum period on ending slavery. Douglass’ emancipation campaign would lead to Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.”

And advocacy journalism has produced Jorge Ramos, an immigrant who personifies the American Dream while sitting at the top of American journalism with millions of viewers on his weekly program and advocating for an issue that some say will define this nation’s character for a long time.

Let’s be clear. America is a nation of immigrants. That is why it was all the more troubling to hear after that Aug. 25 news conference, a Trump aide pointedly tell Ramos, a U.S. citizen, to “get out of my country.” That remark was significant because it underscores the kind of audience that Trump’s campaign has been appealing to and explains why he kicked off his campaign in June by calling immigrants “rapists.”

Trump’s campaign has attracted mixed bag of followers — those who are rightfully angry at the government, others who are tired of professional politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) and others who do not believe President Barack Obama was born in this country. Trump, you’ll recall, backed the birther campaign against Obama.

Ramos represents one of the most politically maligned communities in the U.S.

He’s taking on an issue that is at the frontburner in the Hispanic community and wants candidates like Trump to explain in detail their immigration policy and not just issue a blanket deportation statement.

“I’m a journalist; my job is to ask questions,” Ramos explained on Fusion network, which broadcasts his “America with Jorge Ramos.” “Donald Trump is a presidential candidate; his job is to explain to voters what he would do if he were elected. Our objectives were bound to collide.”

Ramos added, “As a journalist, an immigrant and an American citizen, I had a right to ask questions. But rather than provide answers, Trump ordered one of his guards to escort me out of the room. I’ve been working as a journalist for more than 30 years, and in all that time, I’d never been kicked out of a news conference. That’s the sort of thing that happens in dictatorships, not democracies.”

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists added its voice to the debate.

“Ramos was simply trying to hold a candidate for president accountable for statements he made about a very important topic to the American people,” NAHJ president Mekahlo Medina said. “Mr. Trump has avoided Mr. Ramos’ attempts for an interview to reasonably discuss Mr. Trump’s opinions and ideas about immigration and American children born to undocumented immigrants.”

Christian Christensen, an American professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden, said the media is not holding Trump accountable.

“The removal of a journalist is completely unacceptable. The notion that Ramos is a political activist as opposed to other journalists is very problematic. It says a lot about the state of journalism that critical questions about policy can actually be reframed as some sort of political activism,” Christensen said. “Journalism that questions power has actually become journalism that works hand in hand with power.”

C. Paschal Eze, a former newspaper editor and media critic, said he does not see Trump backing down.

“The only persons who can make him do so are Republican primary voters who seem to like his brashness,” said Eze, the director of communications and public relations for Detroit Rescue Mission.

“It would be interesting to know what Trump would do if he were a German politician, and Syrian refugees were trooping in as they are doing right now,” Eze added. “Would he erect a wall higher than the demolished Berlin Wall? Would he try to stop German families from welcoming them with open arms? Or penalize the Roman Catholic Church for standing with the desperate refugees?”

There is also precedent of journalists holding politicians accountable over controversial issues. During the Vietnam War, CBS’ venerable Walter Cronkite was openly against the war. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped bring down former President Richard M. Nixon for abuse of power in the Watergate scandal.

The Ramos saga also underscores the burden that journalists of color face. It is no coincidence that a Hispanic journalist has launched a crusade for immigration reform.

As history has shown advocacy journalism gets people to demand answers from their government.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett said it best: “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.