Why calling Jorge Ramos an advocate isn’t the insult Trump supporters think it is

When Donald Trump abruptly dismissed Univision anchor Jorge Ramos from an Iowa presser on August 26, he did so in a very physical manner, enlisting the help of a bodyguard. But after being roundly rebuked for telling Ramos to “go back to Univision,” in a similar vein as a xenophobe would tell a Latino person to “go back to Mexico,” Trump dug in his heels, questioning whether or not one of country’s most powerful news anchors is actually a journalist.

Instead of defending a fellow member of the media, however, a number of other reporters attempted to discredit Ramos, slamming him for supposedly acting unprofessionally. As Jake Flanagin notes at Quartz, “Politico’s Marc Caputo called it bias—’taking the news personally, explicitly advocating an agenda.’ The Washington Post’s Michael E. Miller called Ramos a ‘conflict junkie.’” They were backed by a flurry of tweets accusing Ramos of “advocating” on behalf of so-called “illegals.”

But what’s been lost in the discussion, one in which Ramos has been accused of being an “advocate,” is that journalism—when done well—can indeed be a form of advocacy. If a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth, they can still be fair, responsible reporters while holding leaders accountable for their words and actions. Whereas Trump and others accuse Ramos of bias on issues of immigration—mainly because of his heritage—the attacks are a baseless attempt to remove legitimacy from his important questions about Trump’s supposed policy ideas. 

In other words, Ramos was doing his job, challenging a candidate whose racially inflammatory remarks have upset a wide swathe of voters. If affirming the humanity of Latinos is considered advocacy, then we have the wrong idea of what constitutes the truth. And through his example, Ramos proves that advocacy and journalism are not mutually exclusive.

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In a segment on his show, Bill O’Reilly claimed that Ramos’ actions “superseded his job as a journalist” because of his alleged political agenda. But a look at the history of journalism over time shows us that the field has undergone countless different shifts and changes since its humble beginnings. Many of the first periodicals emerged out of necessity, chronicling important information like military advances for decision-makers, and economic market prices for people like merchants and shop owners. Now, another big change continues transforming journalism, as an industry primarily dominated by white men becomes more and more diverse—with people of color, women, LGBT individuals and other underrepresented groups becoming part of newsrooms across the country. 

To call him inherently biased betrays a racial double-standard, wherein the viewpoints and reportage from white journalists on issues of race are deemed more legitimate than those who have lived experience.

It’s no surprise, then, that Latino journalists would take exception to assertions that undocumented immigrants should be deported en masse, that a wall needs to be built between the U.S.-Mexico border, and claims that Mexicans are “murderers” and “rapists.” Questioning Trump on these matters, or challenging his rigid points of view, doesn’t mean he’s an advocate. He’s asking questions to keep politicians honest on social issues and immigration policies. 

But whereas many journalists quickly piled on to dismiss Ramos as an “advocate,” that same criticism could easily be applied to any number of journalists or broadcast outlets, including Fox News. What makes Ramos’s action so different? It’s that he’s a journalist, who is also a Latino man, asking questions and reporting about an issue that affects not only people from his communities, but also his viewership on Univision. To call him inherently biased betrays a racial double-standard, wherein the viewpoints and reportage from white journalists on issues of race are considered the default. As the flawed logic follows, they’re removed from the issue, so they won’t be affected by any bias. 

The backlash against Ramos is highly indicative of an industry that’s still undergoing massive change. Undoubtedly, the Internet has had huge impact on journalism, forcing industry leaders to rethink long-upheld business and advertising models, and resulting in the shutdown of many print publications. While once upon a time it was true that only large, powerful news organizations owned the printing presses necessary to spread information, the Internet made it possible for anyone to become a printing press. But even further, it’s meant voices not otherwise traditionally included in the industry have found platforms to challenge the views of the establishment. 

Ramos’s naysayers use the language of “advocacy” to dismiss his style of reporting, as though he’s a stalwart politician or a protester, rather than as an active citizen navigating complex subject matter.

Ramos’s naysayers, then, use the language of “advocacy” to dismiss his style of reporting, as though he’s a stalwart politician or a protester, rather than as an active citizen navigating complex subject matter. It’s an approach rooted in fear, with a number of longtime journalists clinging to the field as they knew it, attempting to immunize it from any change that reflects present-day needs and concerns. While “objective,” unbiased reporting has long been a tenet of journalism as an institution, it’s important to remember that everyone has a distinct set of life experiences and identities that will affect how they understand the issues of the day—regardless of race or ethnicity.

Slamming Ramos as simply an “advocate” and not a journalist dismisses the reason journalism exists in the first place. As prominent Internet thinker Clay Shirky writes:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

The guidelines of journalism formerly existed so that newspapers could continue to exist, and preserve them from becoming rags filled with propaganda. We can still safeguard journalism from such a dismal state, but that’s not the kind of battle the media faces when journalists like Ramos gain prominence. Indeed, journalism undergoes mutations that may be unfamiliar, even daunting, to some. Tom Rosenstiel, publisher of the seminal Elements of Journalism with Bill Kovach, required reading for journalism students everywhere, agrees.

“Journalism is no longer the province of a homogenous group, once dubbed ‘the working press,’ whose financing is generated to produce journalism for its own sake,” he writes. “In the 21st century, journalism may come from think tanks and corporations, from advocacy groups and passionate advocates, from accidental witnesses and curious beginners, and more.” By incorporating the voices, issues, and concerns of underrepresented groups, journalism isn’t being destroyed, it’s being enhanced.  

Ethan Zuckerman, an American media scholar and Internet activist who teaches a class called “News and Participatory Media”at MIT’s Media Lab, argues that journalism needs to help people be effective and engaged civic actors. If it doesn’t, he says, it shouldn’t expect to survive financially or in terms of influence. “The problem isn’t journalism that advocates,” according to Zuckerman. 

It’s journalism that advocates a sadly limited set of options: vote for this guy or for that guy. We need journalism that helps us understand how we can participate and be effective, whether it’s through an election, a petition, a boycott, a new business model or technology. We need to ask whether our stories are teaching our readers to be helpless, or helping them become effective citizens.

Journalism as advocacy is still journalism. And it works. Some may dismiss programs like Last Week Tonight as “explainer comedy,” but it’s actually journalism as advocacy in its finest form. John Oliver’s so-called “acts of journalism” (i.e. thorough research and verification), are indispensable tools of the journalist’s trade. They lead to real, tangible action, rather than just news for news-making’s sake. If Oliver’s “professional counterparts” can’t explain a topic like net neutrality as clearly and coherently as the team behind Last Week Tonight can, who then, counts as “the news?”

For many millennials, shows like Oliver’s serve as a primary form of learning about the issues, even moreso than mainstream news outlets. Before his departure as host of the Daily Show, a 2010 poll showed a third of people under 30 believed Jon Stewart’s program, along with the Colbert Report, was taking the place of traditional newscasts. Those shows may not be news programs, but they still did journalism in many ways, with a healthy helping of humor to boot.

Journalism as advocacy is still journalism. And it works

Even further, these programs don’t often fall into some of the same traps as traditional media outlets—where all too often, the perspectives of underrepresented groups aren’t included as part of the reporting process. News audiences know how to vote with their ratings, or their clicks. And with the emergence of digital media—and “viral” news—many consumers are making it clear that they appreciate culturally-competent journalism that takes into account the importance of identity.

It’s an awareness that Ramos unapologetically evinces through his work. By drawing attention to important social issues, he’s using his platform to bring the political concerns of immigrants and Latinos to the forefront of the discussion. And if that makes some other journalists uncomfortable, maybe they should think about how they can best treat diversity as a necessity rather than as a luxury.

Kasia Pilat is an Intern at the Daily Dot. Her work has appeared in Paste, the Metro, Vogue, The Prague Post, and WNYC.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Kasia Pilat

Kasia Pilat

Kasia Pilat is a multimedia journalist who worked with the Daily Dot while completing her thesis project with New York University. She's also contributed to WNYC, the Guardian U.S., and Paste Magazine. In 2016, she was a finalist for the SXSW Interactive Innovation Award for her multimedia website What Is Home?.