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May 16, 2006

Censored sex and the city paper


A few words on journalistic objectivity. In the 90s I wrote a feature for a NY paper on the city's Colombian community in the borough of Queens -- home of the largest Colombian population outside their country. I was interested in reporting on it because it defied some Anglo-American notions of a barrio. To wit, there was a certain amount of prosperity, albeit some of it from illegal business -- in that sense no different from the history of many immigrant communities in American cities. I learned of a couple of upscale women's boutiques and went to interview their owners. These female entrempeneurs showed me the clothes they sold, all of it European latest fashion, all of it very sexy -- the shoes would've made the ladies in Sex and the City blush, the slacks and jeans were curve-revealing skintight. "American women are not as comfortable with their bodies and their sensuality as we Latinas are,'' one of the boutique owners told me. I quoted her. When I filed my copy, one of the paper's editors who was overseeing the project told me, "You're very sexist.'' Since it was a man talking to me, I thought it was some kind of macho joke. But no, he was serious. Then he showed me a photo one of the paper photographers had taken to illustrate the article, of an aged and poor Colombian woman in church. "Is she sexy and proud of her body?", the editor asked me. It did not matter that I insisted I had not said it, a woman had, a Colombian woman, a Colombian woman who ran her own business. Sexist he thought it to be and so that whole section was deleted.
Journalistic objectivity is sloppy at best, biased at its worst. There was no science in my method of finding suitable subjects for my article, nor was there any in the photographer's. However, I approached my topic from the perspective of a Latin American, someone who knew both the neighborhood and the country where its residents came from, and a former academic Latinamericanist. My editor approached it from the point of view of (stupid) accepted wisdomo: a Latino neighborhood is the home of the suffering and downtrodden, like the woman in the photograph and not like the sassy ladies who ran their own successful upscale business. Where does objectivity lie?
To echo Joe's plea for engagement, I submit that my personal engagement in Latino communities guides the choices I make as a reporter. Do not confuse this with identity politics, which I have grown to detest. This has nothing to do with ethnic pride, ugh. It has to do with experience, in my case both in training (academic experience in Latin American culture) and life (having grown up and continuing to live inside Latin American culture). Lacking any scientifically verifiable standard of objectivity -- and, as I have indicated before the very notion has no scientific basis -- I use what most journalists use: my nose (er, perhaps a bad choice of words in reference to my Colombian brothers and sisters). No one is born with a nose for culture, whether it's politics or the arts, any more than with a nose for wine. One acquires it. And the strongest way to acquire it is to be engaged with the subject matter at hand.
As for artists publishing, I refer you to a brilliant NTY Tijmes article by Brazilian singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso on the film Orfeu (based on the same work as the popular though naive Black Orpheus) for which Veloso -- Mr. Veloso at the Times -- wrote the music. That an artist was asked to write and to write about a work in which he was a creator was truly exceptional. As exceptional as the article, one of the most intellectually informed and rigorous I have read in Arts & Leisure (Veloso's intellect is as rich as his musical gifts). It was rigorous but not "objective" and it argued cogent theses from the perspective of engagement. More of that, please!

Posted by at May 16, 2006 6:53 AM

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