The next time I poll a bunch of journalists, remind me to conduct it in a bar.
On Monday of this week, I announced the death of journalistic objectivity. It’s no secret, I wrote, that most reporters are opinionated cusses, and most of them are Democrats. And, I wrote, the sooner they own up to their opinions, the better–the better for them, for journalism, and for our readers. Having opinions doesn’t necessarily disqualify reporters from doing good journalism. In fact, I wrote, it’s almost impossible to do journalism of any kind–short of stenography–without having an informed point of view. And making a full disclosure of who we vote for could provide our readers with a valuable data point from which to judge the fairness and accuracy of our coverage.
That’s the short form of the argument. Having buried objectivity, I disclosed who got my vote for president (Harry Browne) as did my Slate colleagues. Then, in an effort to expand the circle of self-disclosure, I queried 33 prominent political journalists to see who they voted for.
Only eight journalists responded to the poll, and none gave up the name of their man for president as you’ll see in their comments below. I thank them for their participation, but I’m certain that had I conducted my survey in a bar and spiritually lubricated them, the outcome would have been much more candid.
As other members of the great 33 respond to my survey, I’ll post their comments here.
WHO GOT YOUR VOTE FOR PRESIDENT?
Walter Isaacson, Time
I voted in Yonkers, N.Y., this morning and cast votes for such things as local judgeships and bond issues. However, I did not cast a vote in the presidential race (or for that matter the Senate race). In races that Time has to cover, I felt it made sense to remain neutral and nonpartisan by not forcing myself to decide, even in my own mind, whom I favored. I don’t proclaim this to be a grand matter of principle, merely an approach that I felt personally most comfortable with.
Joe Klein, The New Yorker
I’ve read your argument. But my vote is my business. Sorry.
William Powers, National Journal
Open up my secret ballot? Not a chance! Three reasons:
1) Kinsley’s idea is cute, but it’s based on a false premise, which is that Leonard Downie’s views on journalistic ethics are influential and need to be knocked down. The Downie “philosophy”–that opinions are dangerous for journalists to have and the responsible thing is to not have any–is one of our trade’s biggest jokes. Nobody inside or outside the Washington Post, where I worked for years, buys into this or even takes it seriously. It’s a source of endless newsroom mockery and merriment.
2) My magazine has a different approach to this question. National Journal works hard to cover politics in a nonpartisan way, without favoring any particular candidate or ideology. Our reporters and columnists have all sorts of political leanings and biases–they run across the spectrum, near as I can tell. But we all come together every week to offer up reporting and analysis that, though undeniably influenced by those biases, also strives to transcend them. One way we do this is by keeping our personal voting choices just that, personal, and letting the work speak for itself. This isn’t the only way to do political journalism, or necessarily the best way. But it’s our little niche, and our readers seem to like it. With all this in mind, my editors asked me not to out my vote in your survey. Since they’re paying me and you’re not, I have a strong bias for them.
3) A confession: I like not knowing the precise political leanings of political journalists. A world in which every hack’s work is labeled for its hidden ingredients, like a can of soup–“White House correspondent Jane Smith is a socially liberal, fiscally conservative married heterosexual who voted for Bill Clinton twice though she personally detests him and has bottomless admiration for Hillary, with the exception of health care and several other issues. As for school vouchers, Smith is quite torn …”–that’s a world I don’t want to live in. Many of the journalists on your hit list are interesting in part because we don’t know their leanings. The mystery of Maureen Dowd’s “true” beliefs is one of the things that draws us back to her work again and again, and I’d hate to read a clinical rundown of her politics. Frankly, your staff’s confessions told me a lot more than I needed or wanted to know. Political journalism is like sex in the movies: It’s better when some things are left to the imagination. Slate’s leanings were already clear to me. There was no need for you all to get naked.
Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal
Sorry. … Couple of reasons:
1) It is a private vote; we don’t even know what politicians do in the voting booth.
2) I cover these guys. There’s already enough suspicion of reporters generally and the Wall Street Journal in particular among political types. (Republicans and Democrats make different assumptions about Wall Street Journal news reporters based on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. None of the assumptions are valid.)
3) I think opinion journalism can have a different standard. People expect an ideological slant from an opinion writer. Revealing it in more detail shouldn’t harm the writer’s credibility; rather, it would give readers a deeper understanding. There’s more of a bond … hmm, this is starting to sound like the relationship viewers might believe they have with Katie Couric.
Michael Isikoff, Newsweek
I mistakenly voted for all the candidates, and I’m now protesting that my ballot has been invalidated. I’ll see you in court.
Joseph Lelyveld, New York Times
Of course I won’t tell you how I voted. I’ll tell you this much though. I’m a quirky and impulsive voter and, from time to time, a stupidly tactical one. I think anyone, including myself, would be hard put to predict or even find a pattern. That includes the people with whom I work. They don’t know how I vote, and, for the most part, I don’t know how they vote. It’s not an admission to be proud of, perhaps, but on election night our major “ideological predisposition” (your words) is in favor, overwhelmingly, of telling a story.
Jodie T. Allen, U.S. News & World Report
I deny the allegation that I am a prominent journalist and resent the implication.
Maureen Dowd, New York Times
None of your beeswax, you nosey parker.
Matt Cooper, Time
It’s not a matter of principle, but I didn’t vote. I usually do but didn’t this time. I live in Washington, D.C., and on Monday I went to New York with the full intention of being back in the capital in time to vote. Alas, I had to stay in New York and didn’t have time to make the emergency provisions for getting a ballot that I gather is available to District residents. However, seeing that the District went 85 percent for Al Gore, I don’t feel like my vote (at least in the presidential race) would have made any difference, so I feel a bit better.
I’m not being coy here. Had I voted, though, I probably wouldn’t tell you. I see the merit in your argument, and I’d also rather that the ethos among journalists was that we not feign having no opinions. That said, we’ve got a secret ballot in this country to reduce the pressure on people. Declaring my vote would be an invitation to pressure–from colleagues, readers, sources, bosses, etc. I’d rather not go there.
By the way, while it was fun to read how Slate filled out its slate (Jack, you really did vote for Harry Browne! Only 641 people did in D.C., I saw.), it’s not a great act of courage for persons at an opinion magazine to declare their preferences. If I were back at one of the two opinion magazines I’ve worked for, the New Republic and the Washington Monthly, perhaps I’d do the same. But that’s not where I work now. Try me in ‘04.