Show Us Your Ballots

Our case for journalistic disclosure.

Click here to see which presidential candidate your favorite Slate writers are voting for. 

Today Slate continues a tradition initiated four years ago, when we asked our staff and contributors to tell us who they voted for on Election Day 2000. Last time, the tally was 29 for Gore; 4 for Bush; 2 for Nader; and 2 for Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate. This time, we’ve cast a slightly wider net and caught 46 for Kerry; 5 for Bush; 1 for Michael Badnarik (Libertarian); and 1 for David Cobb (Green). Interesting footnotes: One of those who voted for Bush in 2000 (our former publisher) has switched to Kerry. (The other Bush 2000 voters aren’t in this year’s survey.) One contributor who voted Libertarian in 2000 is now supporting Bush. The other four Bush supporters are new to Slate since the last election. One current Kerry voter, Daniel Drezner, was a Bush campaign adviser last time around.

Other than curiosity, we’re conducting this voluntary poll again for two main reasons. The first is to do something in lieu of an official endorsement by the magazine. Slate is a journal of opinion, but those opinions usually differ. Even writers who agree about a conclusion seldom cite the same reason. Collectivizing the fruit of unconventional minds in an endorsement would either ignore many views or yield a mushy compromise. It seems much more satisfactory to tell you who we’re endorsing individually at the voting booth.

The second reason is one Michael Kinsley and Jack Shafer cited when we conducted our survey in 2000: to emphasize the distinction between opinion and bias. Journalists, like people, have opinions that influence their behavior. Reporters and editors at most large news organizations in the United States are instructed to keep their opinions to themselves to avoid creating an impression of partisanship. Len Downie, the executive editor of the Washington Post, famously goes so far as to avoid even voting. Slate, which is a journal of opinion, takes precisely the opposite approach. Rather than bury our views, we cultivate and exhibit them. A basic premise of our kind of journalism is that we can openly express what we think and still be fair.

Fairness, in the kind of journalism Slate practices, does not mean equal time for both sides. It does not mean withholding judgment past a reasonable point. It means having basic intellectual honesty. When you advance a hypothesis, you must test it against reality. When you make a political argument, you must take seriously the significant arguments on the other side. And indeed, Slate writers tend to be the sort of people who relish opportunities to criticize their own team and give credit to their opponents. Or so we’d like to think. By disclosing our opinions about who should be president, we’re giving readers a chance to judge how well we are living up to these ideals.

Our aspiration to fairness has been more tested in this election than in most. Personally, I do not remember caring as much about the outcome of any campaign as I do about this one. In a recent editorial meeting, one of our contributors proposed a complicated investigative story that he thought might be harmful to the candidate he wanted to win. Because I did not quite understand the idea—and because we didn’t have the resources to pursue the story—I said that we should put the proposal in “the November 3 file.” This was a joke, but with enough truth to it that the writer in question didn’t think I was kidding. I don’t think we have used our (very limited) power as journalists to try to improve John Kerry’s chances of winning the election. The majority of the complaints I’ve heard this election season have been from Kerry supporters who don’t understand why we’re so hard on a candidate we mostly agree with. But the temptation to play favorites has been harder to resist than usual.

News organizations that, for understandable reasons, are less open about the political views of their staff may have a harder time with the challenge of being fair to both sides. Repressed politics, like repressed sexuality, tends to find an outlet of one kind or another. This may explain how Dan Rather and other conscientious journalists at 60 Minutes ended up promoting some sloppily forged documents thought to be damaging to President Bush’s re-election effort. Conservatives were right to point out that an equally flawed story harmful to Kerry almost certainly would not have aired. What if CBS reporters and producers openly acknowledged that the vast majority of them prefer Kerry and the Democrats? Perhaps in openly expressing their political leanings, they would be forced to try harder to be fair to the other side, lest they be dismissed as biased.

The case most commonly made against fuller disclosure of opinion at “straight” news organizations like CBS—as opposed to journals of opinion like Slate—is that the information would be misused by media critics on the right. Movement conservatives would seize on the revelation that most journalists vote Democratic to discredit professionals who are doing their conscientious best to be fair. But wait—conservatives already dismiss the press as biased against them, on the well-supported assumption that most journalists at national news organizations are liberal. Is denying a cheap shot to critics really a good enough reason to withhold information that many news consumers would deem not only interesting, but useful and relevant?

What’s more, greater transparency of opinion, if it became a trend, would make it harder for conservatives to use surreptitious liberal bias as a license for their own malignant imitation of what they understand to be that practice. CBS journalists, whatever their politics, are professionals who aspire to be fair and resist bias. Many of those at Fox News Channel, on the other hand, aspire only to advance the fortunes of the conservative movement, even as they parrot the laughable slogan, “fair and balanced.” Fox is not biased because it is a conservative network. It is biased because of the intellectually dishonest way it proclaims its neutrality while loading the dice for the GOP and for George W. Bush.

As evidenced by this survey, the vast majority at Slate wants John Kerry to win the election on Nov. 2. But don’t get the wrong idea. We’re not trying to help him do it.