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Should Journalists Disclose Who They Voted For?

(Getty Images/Karen Bleier)
While telling a story about her struggles with a voting machine on WNYC's morning talk show, "On the Media's" Brooke Gladstone revealed who she voted for. The admission prompted her to question whether she had done the right thing.

"Is it wrong for journalists to tell? Should they even vote at all? On this program, we often state our convictions regarding the importance of, say, the First Amendment and free access to information, and we've openly criticized the Bush Administration's handling of those issues…Would knowing how I cast my vote cause you to distrust me? What about other political activities?"

Gladstone asked a number of journalists their opinions on the matter, and here's what some of them said:

Michael Skoler, Minnesota Public Radio's managing director for news: "…you shouldn't register as a member of a political party. You shouldn't participate in a Minnesota caucus. You shouldn't attend rallies or show any other public support for a party or a political cause."

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Michael Kinsley, Op-Ed columnist for The Washington Post: "This notion that journalists ought to be sort of political, ideological eunuchs who don't have any political views is just hopeless…the question isn't whether they hold opinions but whether they suppress those opinions to the extent they can when they do their work."

Len Downie, editor of The Washington Post, who stopped voting when he took the job: "Unlike the rest of our staff, I had the last word as to whether or not the paper was being fair in its reporting on these issues, and I didn't want to take a position, even in my own mind, on them. I wanted to maintain a completely open mind."

As Gladstone lays out, there are two primary arguments against a journalist revealing his or her vote or becoming politically active. The first is the notion that there is a feedback loop. "When you kind of put a sign up or put your money where your mouth is, you move from observing to acting," says Skoler. "And I think that changes you internally. I mean, you can even see it when people purchase a car. You know, how many friends have you had where they finally – they struggle with what car to purchase, and when they finally purchase it, they try to convince all their friends how brilliant their decision was? That, you know, kind of putting a stake in the ground makes you vested."

The second is that it is necessary to keep quiet in order to maintain the notion that a journalist can be objective. It's an argument that Kinsley rejects. "…I feel pretty strongly that the job of journalism is to make appearances accord with reality, not to make reality accord with appearances."

I agree with Kinsley that the first argument is the stronger one, but the reason that most journalists don't reveal their voting habits has a lot more to do with the second. It's not a huge risk for Kinsley, an op-ed columnist, to say who he voted for, just as it isn't a huge risk for Gladstone, at liberal-leaning NPR, to say she voted for Hillary Clinton. (If she had copped to voting for George W. Bush, it might be a different story.)

For someone like Katie Couric, however, saying who she voted for could have more serious consequences. The "Evening News" is trying to attract the widest possible audience during a politically-polarized time, a time in which partisans on both sides distrust the media and see it as biased in favor of their political opposites. If Couric were to say she voted for Bush, liberals might write her show off; if she said she voted for Kerry, the same could happen with conservatives. Networks expect their nightly newscasts to make money. Alienating a significant chunk of the potential audience isn't exactly the best way to goose ratings.

Is this how it should be? Probably not. Journalists all have political views, whether they want to admit it or not, and most can still do their jobs objectively and fairly. But news outlets are desperate to hang on to their audience, and they're not going to risk driving it away. Even if it means less than 100 percent disclosure about the true feelings of the people delivering the news.

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