Press Box

The Moral Obligation of a Free Press

Dear Jack,

Let me take your points in order:

You’re right—it’s not the press’s responsibility to “maximize voter turnout,” but we never said it was. What we did say was that it’s the press’s responsibility to avoid actions that might well minimize voter turnout—to avoid inserting itself into the voting process as a player. That’s a distinctly different proposition.

With your “voter-turnout-isn’t-our-responsibility” line of defense, you implicitly concede our central point: that releasing exit-poll numbers early does indeed have the potential to influence voters. Your argument is a form of throwing in the towel, suggesting that the barn door’s already open, the horse is gone, and there’s nothing to be done. We don’t think it has to be that way.

It’s also true, as you say, that “exit polls aren’t projections of the winner. They’re merely raw data.” But how many blogs make that clear to readers? The networks have learned—the hard way—to preface their early counts of the actual returns with disclaimers. With a lot less on the line than, say, CBS, a lone blogger has no such reason for qualification. Whether or not exit polls are projections of the winner, if they’re perceived as such, the damage is done.

Moreover, you suggest that the logical extension of our view is that tracking polls from the day before could also influence voters and therefore shouldn’t be released. But there’s a difference between learning about a voter’s vague, often unformed intentions and learning what the voter has in fact just done. The psychological difference, in terms of the effect that that information can have on later voters, is marked.

Finally, as you noted in your original piece, Weblogs, unbound by the contractual or editorial constraints of more mainstream media, dangle temptation in front of the networks every time they publish the numbers early. Sooner or later, the networks may say, “Dammit, we paid for the stuff,” capitulate, and rush onto the air with early exit-poll results themselves. That’s a future we’d like not to see.

(While we’re at it, we’d like to note that in some other countries, tracking polls in the run-up to the election aren’t publicized for exactly that reason. We don’t support that idea, but it does show that the concern we raise is reasonable, even when taken to its logical extension.)

And, now that you ask, yes, on Election Day we should wait for the results from Kauai. Does it really serve the public to be able to learn the results at 11 p.m. ET instead of 7 a.m. the next day? Before cable TV, most people didn’t learn the results until reading the next morning’s paper. To use your phrase, the republic survived. Jeff Greenfield the other night on CNN called early exit polls the “crack cocaine” of political junkies. He was making a slightly different point, but the analogy holds: Want does not necessarily equal need.

Next you ask, “Why should this onerous news monopoly embargo [the major outlets’ contract with the NEP] apply to journalists who aren’t a party to it?” Legally, it shouldn’t, and doesn’t. But we’re arguing about journalistic ethics here, Jack. The fact that you don’t have a signed contract binding you not to release the numbers doesn’t let you off the hook, not in our book anyway.

Clearly, as you say, NEP clients should be more careful keeping the embargoed numbers under wraps … but arguing that if they slip up, it’s OK to take advantage of that is akin to declaring that if someone has a $100 bill sticking out of his pocket it’s OK to take it.

The emotional high point of your message is surely the line “Journalists aren’t in the business of concealing information, but of setting it free.” It’s a stirring sentiment—we almost broke out our John Philip Sousa CDs when we heard it—but it doesn’t hold up.

Information doesn’t exist on its own, like some unstoppable force of nature. It has no agency. We all, journalists and non-journalists, have information that we “release” and information that we keep to ourselves. There are cases aplenty in which journalists, quite properly, recognize a higher interest at stake than informational freedom. If you had information about, say, upcoming troop movements in a time of war, would you print it? We hope not. Bob Novak recently took heat—for publishing information that outed a CIA operative. The criticism was justified, in our view, even though there was no indication that his action put lives at risk. Others, offered that scoop, refused to publish it. Given that journalists make exceptions to the “information freedom” imperative, why should protecting the legitimacy of the democratic process not qualify as one of those exceptions?

I want to close by branching out a little from the exit-poll issue. It seems to us that in the brave new world of Weblogs, too many bloggers want it both ways. They’re fond of celebrating themselves as independent, dynamic, fast-moving sources of information, and they claim, sometimes rightly, to have already demonstrated that they can and do dig up important news that older forms of media have wrongly ignored (the Trent Lott-Strom Thurmond episode is often cited as Exhibit A here). That’s partly hype, but it’s partly true, too. What is too often neglected is the principle that with that influence comes accountability. Weblogs that aspire to affect public affairs, including this one, are piggybacking on the extraordinary freedoms that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the press; given that, they ought to stop yelping every time that someone suggests that there is a moral burden that comes with that charter.

All best,