Ida B. Wells and the Power-Serving Myth of ‘Neutral’ Journalism

16 July 2015 is the 153rd birthday of Ida B. Wells, the fearless journalist and civil and women’s rights activist.

If Wells were alive today, the reactionary media and the public whose opinions it generates would claim she is “not a real journalist” and is “biased” because she believed all human beings deserve equal rights.

They would claim her journalism is just “propaganda” because it is not “neutral” and doesn’t give credence to “both sides” of issues (that is to say, because it doesn’t give a platform to bigots who believed she, as a black woman, was subhuman and not worthy of basic human rights).

ida b wells full

In Wells’ day, establishment journalists covered up white supremacist terrorist attacks and blamed black victims for the crimes committed against them. She was committed to documenting the real reasons behind lynchings.

As a young woman in the US South in the late 1800s, Wells established herself as an indomitable journalist, writer, and orator. At age 25, she served as editor of the black newspaper the Free Speech and Headlight. A white supremacist mob destroyed the publication’s press in 1892, yet Wells bravely continued her work.

Through painstaking research, Wells showed lynchings were not forms of punishment for crimes, but rather ways by which white supremacists and the racist systems that supported them violently exerted power over black Americans. Her investigative journalism—which, as is the case with the work of so many dissidents and radicals in history, is now renowned, but was in its day reviled—detailed how racism and patriarchy were used as forms of social control, to keep Americans of color and women subjugated and allow the ruling class to continue to exercise hegemony.

The crucially important work of Ida B. Wells is a testament to the fact that the notion of “neutral” journalism is inherently problematic. Her legacy demonstrates how this myth of “neutrality” invariably serves power. It is a myth that exists and is ceaselessly propagated to reinforce the status quo and to reify values that serve the interests of economic and political elites.

Yet Wells did more than just write about injustice; she herself actively struggled against it. Scholar Lee D. Baker writes

It was in Memphis where she first began to fight (literally) for racial and gender justice. In 1884 she was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man and ordered her into the smoking or “Jim Crow” car, which was already crowded with other passengers. Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color, in theaters, hotels, transports, and other public accommodations, several railroad companies defied this congressional mandate and racially segregated its passengers. It is important to realize that her defiant act was before Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the fallacious doctrine of “separate but equal,” which constitutionalized racial segregation. Wells wrote in her autobiography:

I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.

Wells was forcefully removed from the train and the other passengers–all whites–applauded. When Wells returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad. She won her case in the local circuit courts, but the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and it reversed the lower court’s ruling. This was the first of many struggles Wells engaged, and from that moment forward, she worked tirelessly and fearlessly to overturn injustices against women and people of color.

Wells embodied the dictum of American historian Howard Zinn: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

For Wells, there was no difference between journalism and activism. Her journalism was dedicated to the indefatigable pursuit of not just truth, but also of justice.

Ida B. Wells reminds us, at a time when the US government is viciously cracking down on whistleblowers and journalists who dare to challenge power, that the muckrakers of yesteryear are later celebrated as the principled iconoclasts who make history—while the muckrakers of today are smeared as “propagandists,” “traitors,” and “terrorists.”