Why Journalists Should Take Stand

Jorge Ramos 2014 Burton Benjamin Memorial Award acceptance speech from Committee to Protect Journalists on Vimeo.

The text of Ramos’ acceptance speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.

I love being a journalist. It is the only profession in the world in which your job description is to be rebellious and irreverent. In other words, journalism keeps you forever young. As Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez used to say: This is the best profession in the world. But we can, and we should, use journalism as a weapon for a higher purpose: justice.

The best of 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 an injustice. 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 tell truth to power.

I believe in the basics of journalism. I have nothing against objectivity. Our profession is based on finding the facts, on reporting exactly what happened, on being obsessed with details. We should not get it wrong. If five people died, we have to say five, not six or seven. We should get the name right, the quote right, the numbers right. Our credibility depends on this.

I have nothing against being balanced. Every story has at least two points of view and we have to report both. This has to be like a reflex. If a Republican said something, I bet you a Democrat has a response, and vice versa. If a president proposes a new law, the opposition should also have a say. This has to be second nature.

But to get all the facts and to present both points of view doesn’t mean that we got the story right.

When we deal with the powerful, we have to take a stand. Yes, we have to take an ethical decision and side with those who have no power. If we have to decide between being a friend or an enemy of the president, of the governor, of the dictator, it should be an easy choice: I’m a reporter and I don’t want to be your friend.

When I’m doing an interview with someone important, I always assume two things: First, that if I don’t ask the tough questions, nobody else will. That’s my job. And second, that most probably I will never talk to that person again. Some of the worst interviews that I’ve seen happen when the reporter refuses to ask difficult questions just to maintain access to his sources. That’s self-censorship.

Yes, I’m arguing here for “point of view journalism.” It means being transparent, it means recognizing to our audience, to our readers, that we have opinions and a code of ethics. We don’t live in a vacuum. All the time, we are taking moral choices right before the interview, right before the investigation or the coverage. It is perfectly O.K. not to be neutral and to openly take a stand.

We have many great examples of courageous journalists who decided to take a stand:

Edward R. Murrow confronted biased Senator Joe McCarthy.
Walter Cronkite openly criticized the Vietnam War.
The Washington Post reporters got rid of a corrupt president, President Nixon.
Christiane Amanpour denounced President Clinton’s flip-flop policies and made him accountable for what happened in Bosnia.
And Anderson Cooper showed the incompetence of the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina.
If they did it, I can do it. Therefore, I think I can call Fidel Castro a dictator, even though I can’t get a visa to go to Cuba.

We were right to report early this year that the Venezuelan government was behind the killings of dozens of students. Obviously, President Maduro hasn’t given us an interview.

And we are right to report now that there is a huge conflict of interest in Mexico because a government contractor is financing the $7 million home of the president’s wife. That’s not saving Mexico. That’s corruption.

Can you imagine what would happen here if a government contractor would secretly finance the private home of Michelle Obama? Well, that is happening in Mexico and, believe it or not, there is not even an independent investigation on this matter. Because of the so-called “White House” in Mexico and the disappearance of 43 students, thousands of Mexicans want President Peña Nieto to resign. We have to report that. No, Peña Nieto doesn’t want to talk to me either.

Now let me tell you what it means for me to be a journalist and to be an immigrant. This defines me. I came to the U.S. after they tried to censor me in Mexico. So this country gave me the opportunities that my country of origin couldn’t give me. And, of course, when it comes to immigration, I take a stand.

As an immigrant myself, many times I speak up for other immigrants who don’t have a voice. That’s why I told President Obama that he didn’t keep his promise on immigration and that’s why I told Speaker John Boehner, to his face, that he blocked immigration reform in the House. I think I was just doing my job. As a journalist, part of my job is to make visible the millions of immigrants who are invisible to the rest of America.

I don’t believe in being partisan. But I believe in taking a stand. As Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” In front of genocide, dictators, and politicians abusing their power, we can’t be neutral.

The worst in our profession is when we stay 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. Silence is the worst sin in journalism. But the best is when journalism becomes a way of doing justice and speaking truth to power.

That’s why tonight I want to dedicate this award to all the journalists who have been recently killed in Syria and in Mexico. You were our eyes. Now you are part of our soul.


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