How did your favorite Slatester vote? Click here to find out.
Press Box calls for other journalists to come clean—and names names. Click here.
Like many lunatic ideas, Leonard Downie’s has a certain inner logic: If opinions are corrupting, just don’t have opinions. Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, is well known for believing that—in the service of objectivity—a journalist in his position should not vote. Writing on the Post op-ed page a couple weeks ago, Downie went even further. He said he does not even allow himself the luxury of deciding whom he would vote for if he was into that sort of thing.
Many journalists (including me) find this excessive. Journalists are still citizens, with the rights and duties of citizenship. Journalists are also people, for the most part, and people naturally develop opinions about the world around them. This is not a capacity you can turn on and off like a switch. The critical faculties that make for a good journalist probably make purging yourself of all relevant opinion even less plausible. Downie is certainly right that there is no point in not voting officially if you’re voting mentally. But in concluding that he therefore shouldn’t even vote mentally, he is buying into the fallacy that having an opinion is the same as having a bias.
What’s the difference? Bias is a failure to suppress your opinions or (if opinion is in your job description) to state and defend your opinions openly. Like avoiding opinions, avoiding all bias is probably impossible. Among other difficulties, objectivity is not a huge safety zone. It is a narrow path between bias on one side and bottomless relativism on the other. Journalists are not supposed to be neutral between fact and falsehood or about certain basic shared values. We may state baldly that two plus two is four and may assume without supporting evidence that democracy is a good thing. But beyond that, the fog of disagreement sets in.
So perfect objectivity is not just unachievable but indefinable. That doesn’t make it a false ideal. Avoiding bias is a more reasonable aspiration than avoiding opinion itself. If you reject the Downie Solution, though, you’d better have an alternative way to demonstrate your lack of bias. Fortunately, the burgeoning field of journalistic ethics has an all-purpose alternative solution for almost all ethical dilemmas. It is disclosure. Let your readers know that your great-aunt’s ex-husband owns 10 shares of AT&T, and they can decide for themselves whether this biases your coverage of the telecommunications industry.
Why shouldn’t the same logic apply to politics? If you’re not going to refrain from voting, why not let your readers know how you voted so they can judge your objectivity for themselves? If you’re asking them to trust you despite your political opinions, shouldn’t they know what those opinions are? If you believe you do an adequate job of preventing your opinions from curdling into bias, what are you afraid of?
In this spirit (and to fill in the eerie voting-day news gap between the end of the campaign and the beginning of the election returns), Slate invited its entire staff to declare how they plan to vote and to briefly explain why. The exercise was voluntary, but most Slatesters joined in. You can read the results here. And Press Box launches a crusade here to get other journalists to follow our example.
One result is no surprise: Slate’s staff is voting overwhelmingly for Al Gore. Fear of confirming conservative suspicions about the liberal predisposition of the media is probably the main reason other journalists will resist following our lead.
No doubt it is true that most journalists vote Democratic, just as most business executives (including most media owners) vote Republican, though neither tendency is as pronounced as their respective critics believe. This is a natural result of the sort of people who are attracted to various careers. It is not the product of any conspiracy. There is no Liberal Central Committee drafting young liberals into journalism against their will or blackballing young conservatives. And there is nothing that can be done to change this disparity, unless conservative press critics would like to see the media institute a political quota system, favoring conservatives over better-qualified liberals (affirmative action for opponents of affirmative action).
But—for the millionth time!—an opinion is not a bias! The fact that reporters tend to be liberal says nothing one way or another about their tendency to be biased. It does suggest that when political bias does creep in, it is more likely to tilt liberal than conservative. But there are so many other pressures and prejudices built into the news—including occasional overcompensation for fear of appearing biased—that raw political bias plays a fairly small role. And any liberal bias in reporting is more than counterbalanced by the conservative tilt of the commentariat. Or so I believe.
Of course it is not easy to persuade folks of this, and many will never believe it. No doubt it is easier just to keep your political opinions secret and imply that you don’t have any. But that absurdity or dishonesty itself undermines your credibility. Or it ought to.