Column: Should journalists vote?

Published on May 6, 2008

A year ago, on his Sidetrip blog, Howie Severino raised an essential question. The problem the multi-awarded TV reporter recognized had started as a practical matter: Many journalists working on Election Day do not have time to vote. Perhaps, he wondered, there was an opportunity here, ready to be seized.

“This leads me to make an unoriginal proposal—if journalists are not going to have time to vote anyway, why not make that a principled omission rather than the result of a scheduling problem? In other words, journalists can refrain from voting as a statement of nonpartisanship and devotion to unbiased reporting.”

My immediate reaction to Howie’s question was personal. That is to say, I saw it as an identity issue. Like many other Filipinos, I wager, I see myself as a voter too, somebody who does not only take part in each electoral exercise but actually looks forward to casting his ballot. (The lesson of 1981 and 1984 remains clear to me: In the Philippines, election boycotts don’t work.) Besides, I remember thinking then, after rereading Howie’s blog post yet another time, surely all journalists have the duty to meet this minimum requirement of good citizenship.

Could I have gotten things wrong?

Howie deployed two able generals to stake out the battlefield. He quoted from Washington Post’s Len Downie, who argued for the principle of abstention in a much-read column published just before the 2004 US presidential election (and after the Post had endorsed John Kerry). “I no longer exercise my right to vote. As the final decision-maker on news coverage in the Post, I refuse to decide, even privately, which candidate should be president or a member of the city council or what policies should be set for health care or taxes. I want my mind to remain open to all sides and possibilities as I supervise our coverage.”

On the other side, Howie quoted Mike Kinsley, writing for Slate immediately after the 2000 US election. Kinsley was reacting in part to another piece by Downie, written earlier but in exactly the same vein. (I will quote a longer excerpt directly from Slate, the excellent Web magazine which, coincidentally, is now owned by the Washington Post.) “Like many lunatic ideas, Leonard Downie’s has a certain inner logic: If opinions are corrupting, just don’t have opinions. Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, is well known for believing that—in the service of objectivity—a journalist in his position should not vote … Many journalists (including me) find this excessive. Journalists are still citizens, with the rights and duties of citizenship. Journalists are also people, for the most part, and people naturally develop opinions about the world around them … [Downie] is buying into the fallacy that having an opinion is the same as having a bias.”

Ah, yes. The objectivity trap. I join the many journalists who think the distinction Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel made in “The Elements of Journalism” had already resolved the objectivity issue (or at least loosened the spring of the trap). Objectivity, properly understood, is not “in” the journalist; it lies in the journalist’s method. Verification, multiple-sourcing, disclosure: the method has many parts. Done right (and we all know how hard it is to do right), it allows journalists to account for their opinions and even their biases.

The objectivity question keeps breaking the surface, however, not only because “journalists are also people, for the most part,” but because its roots are entangled in daily practice. It starts up, again and again, as a practical matter.

* * *

Some of the best writing about the meaning and the mandate of emerging media can be found online. Jay Rosen’s PressThink, for example, has written some of the most trenchant critiques of what is now habitually called mainstream media. (Like most true subversives, Rosen is hiding in plain sight, at New York University, as—what else?—a professor of journalism.)

Soundings in print, on the other hand, have been criticized as being slow on the uptake. For instance, Nicholas Lemann’s cautionary overview of “journalism without journalists” (as the article’s subtitle summed it up) was roundly denounced when it came out in the New Yorker magazine in August 2006. (Lemann is only the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism.)

But Eric Alterman, writing for the same magazine last March on the “death and life” of the newspaper, escaped what Lemann called the “relentless sneering” of the bloggers. In part that may be because the story studies the fortunes of the Huffington Post, an Internet newspaper-in-the-making, up close. But that may also be because Alterman writes about the impact the loss of the traditional newspaper would have on democracy itself. “Just how an Internet-based news culture can spread the kind of ‘light’ that is necessary to prevent terrible things, without the armies of reporters and photographers that newspapers have traditionally employed,” is the new, fundamental question.

I am reminded of an encounter with a business executive, some time in 2004, who told me and other editors that it was really high time for us to “accept the fact” that “eventologist” Tim Yap, at that time still writing for us, had become the face of the Inquirer. It wasn’t true then; but if it were, I honestly believe we would have found ourselves wrestling with the ghost of more than one Oakwood mutiny, more than one “Hello, Garci.”

* * *

Allow me to remember Charlotte Maximo, an assistant producer during our InqTV days, who died suddenly last week. A source of strength to many of us, and to many others too, she was only 24. (Her website on Multiply lives on, a virtual shrine.)

1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column

One response to “Column: Should journalists vote?

  1. Hi John, Thanks for allowing yourself to be provoked by what I had regarded as a radically sensible idea. What prompted me to write about it was my perception of the growing public distrust in mainstream media. I constantly hear theories about hidden agendas and conspiracies behind the angling of stories in both print and TV. That kind of public attitude should be countered with extraordinary steps by our profession to restore credibility, such as a commitment to non-voting as a statement of nonpartisanship.

    But okay, if that is far-fetched, what do you think of Kinsley’s counterproposal of a “voting disclosure policy” for the profession?

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