Tuned In

It's 2008. Do You Know Who Your Reporter Is Voting For?

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Writing about election coverage, I have disclosed, probably to the point of tediousness, that I voted for Obama. I think it’s a good thing for you to know, but I really do it for me. It’s important to me that I have enough perspective to critique campaign coverage whether it works for my candidate or against him. Having you know more about where I’m coming from helps you keep me honest and forces me to police myself.

Of course, when it comes down to it, I’m a pop-culture columnist. Who really gives a crap who I’m voting for? For political writers it’s different. But it shouldn’t be.

There are a lot of reasons reporters don’t reveal their preferences, and they’re understandable. Showing your cards in public can make it hard to get access to sources, the argument goes; it will make readers suspicious; you and your publication/network/website will drown in charges of bias.

Pretty much all the reasons, though, boil down to the fact that revealing your preferences is a royal pain in the ass. But journalistic practices shouldn’t be judged by whether they make our jobs harder; they should be judged by whether they serve you better.

Modern, mainstream, American political reporting is based on maintaining the transparently bogus illusion of neutrality: that reporters do not care about the outcomes of elections that they spend far too much of their lives covering. It is also based in the legitimate, and true, premise of fairness: that people can have preferences and yet not use their work in service of those preferences. Showing one’s voting cards would shatter the bogus illusion of neutrality; but it would not only serve the premise of fairness, it could actually help media outlets convince a skeptical public that fairness is possible.

It may be that going open kimono would make it harder to get some kinds of access–the tidbits from candidates, the confidences from campaign operatives–but not only is that access sometimes useless (amounting to better access to spin and endless horserace news) but it’s entirely possible to state opinions and still get access. Columnists like Robert Novak–whatever you think of their politics or work–have done it forever.

And one of the best pieces of journalism to come out of the 2000 election was the Alexandra Pelosi documentary Journeys with George, where Pelosi got vast access to candidate Bush and offered a sometimes-scathing analysis of the media bubble on the campaign plane–even though she was not only an open liberal but the daughter of Nancy Pelosi. Bush knew she ws never going to vote for him; but then neither was most of his press entourage. She, at least, was willing to say it. (In a telling section, the press pack gets furious with Pelosi after she takes a straw poll of them–which Gore wins–and it gets leaked to the news.) In other countries and other times, reporters with political points of view have been the rule, not the exception.

Would it make readers and viewers more mistrustful? Ha! More mistrustful than what? One reason that the media-criticism blogosphere is so suspicious and often toxic is that everyone is a tea leaf reader now. The objective of media criticism becomes figuring out a journalist’s motivations and loyalties first, and whether the report is actually any good second. (If a story is a piece of crap, it’s a piece of crap regardless of who the writer supports.) There’s no illusion of neutrality to protect anymore; people don’t believe it anyway, nor should they. The more journalists state their views, the more we can get past the I-know-who-you-voted-for-last-fall game.

Anyway, why is having readers challenge your fairness a bad thing? This is one of many ways where the mainstream media treat blogs et al. like the enemy when they could be a help. Any honest journalist will tell you that fairness is a tough ideal to achieve: let your audience help you do it. It doesn’t mean you have to let people work the refs or accept every criticism. It means accepting that having a million readers means having a million editors, and learning to use that to your advantage.

Believing that offering more information would make us less credible sums up much of what is wrong with the media today. Bias is pernicious because it is hidden. When you put your views out in the open, at the very least it makes it harder for anyone to claim you’re trying to flim-flam them. If they dismiss your work as a result, let your work argue for itself. Do enough good work, and your partisan critics will reveal themselves as just that.

But how will it make you, your employer and your profession at large look? If people were to discover that–let’s get crazy here–a lot of journalists voted for Kerry in 2004, or that a lot of Fox News talent was pro-Bush (name your organization and candidate here), does that mean people would trust the media less? If so–hey, maybe they should. If the reason not to come clean with our votes is that it would be too embarrassing, maybe we need to look at the reasons for being embarrassed.

By the way, this isn’t just an MSM issue. Over at Talking Points Memo, there’s been reader discussion about whether the site, or its editor Josh Marshall, would endorse in the Democratic primary. Note the Democratic–TPM is not shy about being a site that does straight journalism yet has clear left-of-center viewpoints. “We know full well how Josh and the other writers will vote in the general election,” one reader points out. “Drawing the line at the Democratic primary seems arbitrary to me.” But the site hasn’t picked a candidate (and some readers said they preferred it that way). Marshall gave his rationale in the comments section:

[I]t’s just not in my DNA. I don’t think it makes sense for the site’s mission. And on a personal level it would feel presumptuous. It’s not just a matter of my keeping something secret. I try to keep myself uncommitted even in my own head, because I think it allows me to be more open-minded and less rigid in how I evaluate the race.

Keeping yourself uncommitted in your own head–that seems like some pretty potent Jedi mind-power. But it does raise a legitimate issue: during a campaign, some reporters will be honestly undecided. Do you disclose every time your opinion changes? (Who really wants to hear that?) The only time you can definitively confess your choice is after you’ve voted–and after you’ve reported on the election anyway. And there’s the question of privacy. The secret ballot is sacred. But so what? Journalists regularly disclose things–personal relationships, investments, family histories and so on–that are relevant to the stories they cover, even though in most situations those would be no one else’s business.

In any case, the question isn’t really whether journalists should be forced to disclose their votes–just the opposite. Editors, producers and other higher-ups generally don’t want their reporters tipping their hands even if they wanted to. (The New York Times, for instance, even has a rule against op-ed columnists endorsing candidates.) Why? You can see the whole laundry list of reasons above, but they all have business implications: how many readers or viewers–and how many millions of dollars–would you lose?

A decent business question if not a journalistic one. Though most everything we’ve seen in online media suggests that transparency builds audience and trust, not the opposite. Slate.com has published its writers presidential preferences for 2000 and 2004, and its reputation is intact. At least with me. Your mileage may vary. But that’s the point: your mileage should be able to vary; you have a right to it.

Granted, Slate is an opinion outlet–a fairly obviously New Republic-center-Democrat one–but I don’t think this means that mainstream publications would have to pick sides. They’d just be acknowledging that they are human, and trying to show their audience that they can be fair anyway. In this media era, transparency works. The pompous, insulting and impossible pretense that media outlets are staffed by distant, impartial marble gods is one of the biggest factors in making people despise and distrust the media.

But in the interest of not being a distant marble god, this is where I should shut up and turn it to you. Do you even want to know who journalists are voting for? Or is it too much information?

[Update: My colleague Lisa Cullen discusses whether journalists should vote at Work in Progress. I’m linking her even though she voted for Clinton. Because I believe in ending the era of partisan division!]