Monday Daniel Denvir wrote an excellent takedown of the journalists attacking Jose Antonio Vargas for the crime of Reporting While Undocumented. Vargas came out as an undocumented American in a New York Times piece last week. What I find most striking about the attacks on Vargas is the tension they reveal on the boundaries of perceived American normalcy.
Take this Romenesko piece published last week: “Vargas wrote at least 4 stories about immigration for San Francisco Chronicle, not 1.” The alleged offense is that Vargas continued writing about immigration and undocumented immigrants after, according to his editor, he had said he would stop to avoid a conflict of interest. Romenesko is run by the Poynter Institute, which exists “to ensure that our communities have access to excellent journalism—the kind of journalism that enables us to participate fully and effectively in our democracy.” Rather than counting how many times an undocumented immigrant wrote about other undocumented immigrants, it would be more interesting to see them explain what problem – if any – they think readers should have with it.
No one has come forward showing that Vargas was writing about specific organizations that he had an undisclosed relationship with. The allegation seems to be that he had personal experiences that could influence his reporting and that he in turn could be affected by the issues he was reporting on. Isn’t this true of many or most journalists writing about national issues?
Is it a conflict of interest for LGBT people to cover LGBT issues? For people who get parking tickets to write about parking issues? How about wealthy people writing about other wealthy people?
Vargas’ undocumented status strikes some Americans as a conflict of interest because they place it outside of the boundaries of American normalcy. They see it as a departure which must be accounted for. That’s why accusations that Vargas doesn’t belong on the immigration beat are of a piece with the accusations that non-heterosexual judge Vaughn Walker doesn’t belong on the bench ruling on Prop 8.
There was a time when it was acceptable to bash an African-American for writing about race, or a Jew for covering Israel. Today if you said that such reporters had “conflicts of interest” they needed to disclose to their readers, you would be publicly condemned. There’s a formal consensus that Blacks or Jews are normal enough that they need not flag what makes them different from Leave It To Beaver Americans. That day hasn’t come for undocumented Americans. But behind the attacks on Jose Antonio Vargas is the fear that it will.