How circumspect is NBC anchor Brian Williams about his political leanings? According to a piece in the Yale Daily News (via Romenesko), Williams says that he doesn’t even tell his wife or daughter whom he votes for:
“I’ve trained myself in twenty-six years in this business to not have [opinions],” Williams said in an interview following the talk. “I try to call as an umpire would — balls and strikes — and see it right down the middle.”
There in a nutshell is my problem with the practice of journalists’ keeping their political preferences secret. Williams has not trained himself not to have opinions. He votes; therefore he has opinions. He is an informed human with a functioning brain; therefore he has opinions.
What he has done—rightly—is to train himself to be professional and fair anyway. And what he, and most mainstream political journalists, also do—wrongly—is train themselves to conceal their opinions.
Look, I get why Williams and the like keep their votes to themselves. If Williams were the only major network anchor to tell you who he voted for, that would be a pain for him and probably a ratings disaster disaster for NBC. But while it could change the perception of his coverage, it would not change his coverage itself. If he does in fact cover politics neutrally, like an umpire—and I believe he does—then by he is proof that one can vote (as he admits he does) and still call the shots fairly. And if he called the shots unfairly, it would be just as bad whether he votes or not.
In any case, as the Yale article shows, this reticence doesn’t keep anyone from speculating, obsessively, on whom Williams actually supports. He and the rest of his colleagues (I’m only picking on him because he opened his mouth this time) simply perpetuates, through their coyness, a set of myths: that it is shameful for journalists to have opinions, that one cannot have opinions and still be fair, that it is even humanly possible for one to will one’s self into neutrality. (You can control your actions to be fair; you can’t control your thoughts, at least without surgery.)
And this only enforces the suspicion of journalists—because if having opinions is shameful, and journalists vote without telling you whom they vote for, then most journalists must be doing shameful secret political things that bias their coverage.
It would be better for all of us if journalists at Williams’ level dropped this pretense, but for practical reasons it’s never going to start at that level. Which is why I’ve tried to do my little part by letting you know that I’m voting for Obama. Today the TV critics, tomorrow the bridge columnists!