Journalists: Take a stand

I love being a journalist. It’s the only profession in the world in which your job description suggests that you be both rebellious and irreverent. (In other words, journalism keeps you forever young.) As the late Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez used to say, this is the best profession in the world.

But we can, and we should, use journalism as a weapon to fight for a higher cause: Justice. In fact, I think the best journalism happens when we take a stand – when we question those who are in power, when we confront the politicians who abuse their authority, when we denounce injustices. The best of journalism happens when we side with the victims, with the most vulnerable, with those who have no rights. The best of journalism happens when we purposely stop pretending that we are neutral and recognize that we have a moral obligation to speak truth to power.

I do believe in the basics of journalism, though. I have nothing against objectivity. I have nothing against being balanced. Fairness in journalism has to be like a reflex, a second nature. But collecting all the facts and dutifully presenting different points of view doesn’t mean that we got the story right.

When we deal with the powerful, we have to take a stand – we have to make the ethical choice to side with the powerless. And if we have to choose between being a friend or being an enemy of a president, governor or dictator, the decision should be an easy one: “I’m a reporter, and I don’t want to be your friend” should be our response. When I’m interviewing someone important, I always assume two things: First: If I don’t ask the tough questions, nobody else will – that’s my job. And second: I probably will never talk to this person again.

Yes, I’m arguing here for “point-of-view journalism.” This is about being transparent and communicating to our audience, to our readers, that we have opinions and a code of ethics.

It is perfectly OK not to be neutral and to openly take a stand on an issue, and we have many great examples of courageous journalists who have done so in the past: Edward R. Murrow confronted the biased Sen. Joe McCarthy, Walter Cronkite openly criticized the Vietnam War, reporters at The Washington Post helped oust a corrupt president. More recently, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour once denounced President Clinton for flip-flopping on Bosnia, and Anderson Cooper illustrated the incompetence of the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

They did it; I will too. I think I can call Fidel Castro a dictator, or report that the Venezuelan government was responsible in the deaths of dozens of student protesters this year. I can also point out that there is huge conflict of interest when a government contractor in Mexico is financing the multi-million dollar home of the president’s wife.

Now, let me tell you what it means for me to be both a journalist and an immigrant. This defines me: I came to the U.S. following attempts to censor my work in Mexico. The U.S. gave me the opportunities – and the freedom – that my country of origin couldn’t. And, of course, when it comes to immigration, I take a stand.

As an immigrant myself, I speak up for other immigrants who don’t have a voice. This is why I reminded President Obama that he didn’t keep his promise on immigration when he was running for re-election. This is why I confronted House Speaker John Boehner about his blocking immigration reform at a news conference earlier this year.

As a journalist, part of my job is to make visible the millions of immigrants who live practically unseen by the rest of America.

I don’t believe in being partisan, but I believe in taking a stand. As the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once said: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” In the face of genocide, terrorism, dictatorships or abuse of power, we cannot be neutral.

The worst happens when journalists are silent. Sadly, we stayed silent before the war in Iraq, and thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians died unnecessarily. We have to learn from that. But the best happens when journalism becomes a way of ensuring justice and speaking truth to power. Take a stand.

This column was adapted from an acceptance speech delivered by Jorge Ramos at the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 24th annual International Press Freedom Awards. Ramos was awarded the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for his lifetime commitment to press freedom. A complete transcript of the speech can be read here.

Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”