Should Journalists Abstain From Voting?

652150When CBS News issued its updated standards recently, one of the new additions was a rule forbidding CBS News employees from contributing money to political campaigns. As Linda Mason, Senior Vice President for Standard and Special Projects at CBS News, told Public Eye then, "we want our reporters to be absolutely pure when they interview candidates of either side or issues that relate to either side. … Today, with the instant reporting of political contributions, it has become obvious who gives and to whom, and this we felt would compromise the people who were doing reporting involved with political issues."

The desire to maintain journalistic impartiality is understandable, though it's a troubling rule in some respects. If you believe political contributions are tantamount to speech, such a ban could be an infringement of one's rights. Then again, contributions are a form of activism and even when it comes to free speech, most news organizations would not allow its employees to speak at political rallies or campaign on behalf of candidates. So a rule banning political contributions is not all that surprising.

More controversial is whether or not journalists should even be exercising their right to vote. That debate is being revived today, with two journalists weighing in on opposite sides of the question. Appearing on Hugh Hewitt's radio show recently, ABC News political director Mark Halperin said he does not vote and doesn't think any objective journalist should. Here's part of what Halperin said:
I don't vote, because I think that just opens up the question of how can I say I'm being objective, and fighting for truth, if I'm making a decision about who to vote for in a presidential race.
More:
I just don't think it's appropriate, if you're covering presidential politics, to put yourself in the position, in both actuality in your head, and in appearance, that you're going to weigh in. Plenty of other people in America vote, everyone should vote. I think the country can survive if the 180 of us who cover presidential campaigns understand the objectivity we must get to, if we're going to restore faith and trust in these news organizations.
In the Philadelphia Inquirer today, media writer Gail Shister asked NBC News anchor Brian Williams about Halperin's comments and the topic in general. Here's that take:
"I've thought long and hard about this," Williams says. "I think it's important to vote. People fought and died for the right to vote, and I don't believe I forfeit my citizenship because I'm a journalist."

What Williams doesn't do is discuss his personal politics with anyone - including his wife and kids, who get grilled about his views. "I give them plausible deniability."

"I defy anyone to figure out my voting record. Nobody on the planet knows it but me."
In one sense, both Halperin and Williams are saying the same thing – that it's important to maintain objectivity. Halperin takes it one step further by asserting that even the act of contemplating a vote damages the ability to be truly objective. Williams says voting is a right even journalists covering politics should exercise. There are others who would argue that journalists not only should vote, but also announce to the world just who they voted for so that we may better judge their work and that real objectivity is a false ideal.

The latter argument is probably the most realistic one in some ways. Whether one contemplates the possibility of voting for one candidate or another, journalists are human beings who form opinions and feelings towards others. Just like any other voter, a reporter might take a liking to one candidate over another for a variety of reasons. They might agree with a set of policies but they also may identify with a candidate's life story, might appreciate their achievements or maybe just be drawn to one personality over another. The act of voting does not make those connections go away.

But public disclosure can be counterproductive in my opinion. Telling the world which political candidates you voted for is not as revealing as it might seem because there are many different things that can determine which lever is pulled. And regardless of the amount of explanation given, labels would be applied. Even in this polarized environment, it's safe to say that few voters agree with any candidate on every single issue, but those labels would be applied anyway. It could also force journalists to seek balance – trying to vote for a Democrat here, a Republican there – that sort of defeats the whole purpose of voting in the first place.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that journalists should vote or not just like anyone else. And, like the rest of the country, they can keep their choices private or make them public if they wish. After all, journalists are people too.
  • Vaughn Ververs

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