Journalists’ votes matter

Media have an Obama problem they’re going to have to grapple with now or after the election: They love him. They hate Hillary. And the gap between the two is clearly seen in coverage, which surely is having an impact on the election.

This, to me, only gives more weight to the argument that journalists should be disclosing their allegiances and votes. Reporters are not just covering the story. This year, they are part of the story. The ethic of transparency that I have learned online and that journalists apply to everyone they cover should also apply to them. I say that journalists have a responsibility to reveal their own views and votes — even as they endeavor to report apart from them with fairness, completeness, accuracy, and intellectual honesty — and we have a right to judge their success or failure accordingly as we also have a right to judge their roles in the stories they are covering.

No, I don’t buy for a second that journalists don’t have opinions. They’re human. To say that they are above opinions is just another means for journalists to separate themselves from the public they serve, to act as if they are different, above us. But journalists couldn’t do their jobs if they didn’t have opinions, if they didn’t have a reason to do this story over that, if they didn’t have a goal. Yet this is the fiction some journalists tell when they try to prove they are opinionless by not voting. As far as I’m concerned, that’s only evidence that they are trying to delude themselves or us.

And this year, the media’s role in the Obama wave is an angle of the story that itself warrants reporting. Says Bill Clinton:

The political press has avowedly played a role in this election. I’ve never seen this before. They’ve been active participants in this election.

Don’t you want to know the opinions of the political press? Don’t you want to be able to judge their reporting accordingly? what makes them think that they can and should hide that from us?

* * *

Terence Smith wrote a dead-on column about the delta between negative Hillary and positive Obama coverage:

The coverage of Hillary during this campaign has been across-the-board critical, especially since she began losing after New Hampshire. . . .

And her campaign has taken the tough-love approach with the reporters who cover it, frequently ostracizing those they think are critical or hostile. That kind of aggressive press-relations strategy may sometimes be justified, but it rarely effective. Reporters are supposed to be objective and professional. But they are human. They resent the cold shoulder, even if they understand the campaign’s motivation.

The result is coverage that is viscerally harsh: her laugh is often described as a “cackle.” Her stump speech is dismissed as dry and tiresomely programmatic. She is accused of projecting a sense of entitlement, as though the presidency should be hers by default, that it is somehow now her turn to be president. When she makes changes in her campaign hierarchy, she is described as “desperate.” . . .

And on Obama:

By contrast, has the coverage of Obama been overly sympathetic? Have reporters romanticized the junior Senator from Illinois? Have they glamorized him and his wife? Did they exaggerate the significance of Ted Kennedy’s endorsement? Have they given him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his meager experience?

Of course they have.

His rise to front-runner is described as meteoric, his speeches as mesmerizing, his crowds as enraptured, his charisma as boundless. Obama is characterized as the second-coming of JFK, etc. etc. It is all a bit much.

On NPR, media watcher David Folkenflik says:

Many reporters admit privately that they feel differently about the two candidates. And there’s a phrase that’s surfaced to described the phenomenon that’s afflicted MSNBC’s [Chris] Matthews: the Obama swoon.

And why should reporters get away with saying that privately? I want a camera in the voting booth with Chris Matthews — he of the too-frequent too-late apologies — to verify the obvious. I want to know how they’re voting.

But some journalists try to evade that legitimate question by not voting, as if that absolves them of opinions and blame. Len Downie, editor of the Washington Post — and by that evidence, a damned good editor he is — has long argued that by not voting he keeps himself pure: “Yes, I do not vote. . . . I wanted to keep a completely open mind about everything we covered and not make a decision, even in my own mind or the privacy of the voting booth, about who should be president or mayor, for example.”

Sorry, but I still don’t buy that and I fear that excuse is seeping down to others in his staff. Here is the Post’s Chris Cillizza — a fine political correspondent himself — arguing that not voting makes him objective:

. . . [O]bjectivity in covering these races means that you stay objective before, during and after the contests. As, or perhaps more, importantly, however, is the obsession among some people to sniff out a reporter’s “secret” political leanings. Time and time again, I find people commenting on this blog and elsewhere accusing me of having a pro-Clinton or pro-Obama or pro-McCain or pro-someone else viewpoint. I know in my hearts of hearts that I don’t have any of those biased viewpoints, but if I did vote — even in a local or county election — it would add fuel to the fire of those folks who think I am a secret partisan.

I have to say I smelled some Obama roses blooming in this from Cillizza on Howie Kurtz’ show:

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy. It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline….

If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

After a line like that, there is good reason to ask where his heart is. You can stay away from the voting booth but that doesn’t make you into the Tinman.

I agree with John Harris, head of Politico, who calls this a tedious argument — “a subset of the most endless and least satisfying debate in the whole profession: Is true objectivity ever possible?” Harris does vote — sometimes.

It is admirable that [Politico colleagues] Mike and Jim cleave to a scientific ideal of journalistic detachment, the way a surgeon cannot tolerate even the slightest bacteria on his instruments. Their piety on this subject is especially notable in an era when traditional lines governing journalism (or even who counts as a journalist in the first place) have blurred, and many new arrivals to the business don’t care at all about old notions of neutrality and fair-minded presentation.

But Jim is right that I find his obsession a bit silly — and a bit self-deluded. . . .

My belief is that being a journalist for an ideologically neutral publication like Politico, or the Washington Post, where I used to work, does not mean having no opinions. It means exercising self-discipline in the public expression of those opinions so as not to give sources and readers cause to question someone’s commitment to fairness.

But Harris turns around and says he didn’t vote in the primary because he didn’t want to declare a party and then have readers make assumptions about where he stands. So he’s pulling the same trick: He’s trying to hide his opinions. Isn’t that a form of deception by omission? Isn’t it at least coy?

I like his scientific analogy but I’ll take it a different way: A scientist surely has desires. A doctor studying cancer naturally wants to cure it; she’s against cancer. That doctor has opinions and beliefs, hypotheses to prove or disprove. But intellectual honestly will demand disproving a hypothesis that is wrong even if she believed it to be true. One can have opinions and still be factual, fair, honest, truthful. Indeed, it is easier to judge that scientist’s work by knowing what she’s looking for.

Steve Baker of Business Week goes one step farther:

I think it’s impossible for a person who thinks about politics, and cares about it, not to prefer one candidate to another. It’s fine for journalists not to broadcast our political views, but why pretend that we don’t have them? What’s important is to be fair. And if we want to keep our views secret, well that’s why it’s good that voting booths have curtains.. . .

I don’t think either Harris or Baker goes far enough. I believe that journalists should vote. They are citizens — and some get mad at me when I refer to amateurs as citizen journalists because they demand the label, too. They are human, too — they have opinons. They also have ethics that demand that they try to be — repeating the list of verities — fair, honest, complete, intellectually honest and I believe most hold to that. But now add the ethics of transparency and openness — and trust in the public you serve — and I believe that especially this year, journalists owe it to us to tell us what they’re thinking. The only thing worse than an agenda is a hidden agenda.

: I didn’t think it was necessary to append this to every post on the topic but judging by the comments, it couldn’t hurt: I voted for Clinton in the primaries.

  • http://www.therealestatebloggers.com/2008/02/15/dr-horton-selling-400-california-homes-for-up-to-50-off/ Tom

    “This year, they are part of the story.”

    It is interesting that lifelong Democrats are seeing this as a new phenomenon while Republican’s have been dealing with it for decades.

    It is tough to have the press against you when trying to support your candidate.

  • http://www.action-squad.com greedo

    No journalist is going to declare his/her vote, because nobody trusts a writer who at least doesn’t “appear” objective.

    For years the GOP has been railing about the media’s subjectivity against them. So why does it only becomes an “issue” when they turn against your candidate, Jarvis?

    I’d like to wager that if Hillary gets the nomination, and the media bias is on her side during the general election, your request for transparency will change.

  • Pingback: LB's Rambles

  • Kathleen

    Jeff,

    Journalists such as Cilizza and Downie choose not to vote for two reasons. First, they genuinely believe that it reflects their commitment to fairness. Second, there is the pragmatic recognition that, in today’s attack-environment for journalism, voting (and revealing their vote) would summon the howling pack.

    The last thirty years have been a free-fire zone against the press–a conscious effort (largely by the conservatives) to gain political advantage and de-fang the watchdog. The left has done little to defend the institution upon which they–and all of us–depend for the information we need as citizens.

    Like the fellow who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan, conservatives today decry the lack of respect for authority and institutions–yet have been central in destroying the credibility of the press, government at all levels, higher education and public schools. I am not complaining about the legitimate criticism due here–I am pointing out that conservatives benefit politically by demonizing these flawed but vital institutions.

  • http://www.thepulse.ca shawnpetriw

    Should that disclosure be made on every story? If this was the first post I ever read from you I would not know you are a Hillary supporter because you didn’t disclose it. (I could probably figure it out, however).

    Furthermore, where would it end? Would a city reporter have to disclose his displeasure for potholes when reporting on the road resurfacing budget?

    And to what degree does one have to disclose? Being a supporter of Hillary: does that mean that’s who you’re passively voting for, or does that mean you are passionately promoting her via blog posts, phone calls, coffee shop debate, financial contributions, etc. etc?

    Would it be enough to know who Chris Matthews is voting for, or should you also know how much money he contributed, how much time he contributed, how many people he called and lobbied off the air?

    This disclosure thing is a non-starter, Jeff. Life is too messy. This type of disclosure would create more problems than it would solve. We’d have to come up with a new label: Misinformation Disclosure – disclosure that is the truth, but not the whole truth.

    It would simply be easier for us to eliminate the expectation of that myth called objectivity from journalism. Editorialize everything and let the reader do his own due diligence.

  • Keith1965

    Jeff,
    Your claim about more positive treatment for Obama may be true. But I think the evidence in favor of that is tempered by some real world observations.

    I live in Iowa. I saw all the candidates. And I caucused for John Edwards.

    When I saw Hillary Clinton speak to 1200 people in my hometown, I thought the performance was “dry and tiresomely programmatic.” Other Iowans I know detected in the campaign a “sense of entitlement.”

    When I saw Obama speak to a similar sized crowd, his speech was a little “mesmerizing,” the crowd seemed “enraptured,” and his charisma looked indeed “boundless.” (using the words of Terrance Smith)

    None of this was enough to move me off my support for Edwards. (For the record, when I saw him speak, he was very passionate. He pushed to remind me of the things which seem to be at the root of America’s problems. I felt re-inspired that these problems can, in fact, be overcome.)

    But… I did not have to cover these events as a journalist. If I did, I think I would have a hard time not weaving these impressions into the coverage. In fact, would you want me to ignore these things in my coverage?

    If I were a reader in California, reading about the candidate appearances in small town Iowa, I could read the text of the speech for myself. I could read the candidate position statements on the Web. So what I would really like the reporter on the ground to give me is some flavor of the crowd, some sense of the candidate’s demeanor, some indication of how the crowd responded. How can we accomplish that?

    (To be fair, I know others who met Clinton in very small groups, 12-20, and they were impressed by her warmth. From seeing her on stage and on television, they were surprised to find such a real person in their living room. I tend to believe this disconnect between Clinton’s abilities in small groups vs large groups to be something that is “real” to some degree and not a manufactured by the media. But other can disagree.)

    Keith

  • chico haas

    Tom and Greedo: Stop reading my mind.

    Mr. Jarvis: Learn to live with it. Others have.

  • Pingback: Trust me, it sticks » shelbinator.com

  • PXLated

    Jeff…You should put a big red seal on this whiny post…”Hillary Supporter”. Your gal is losing, get used to it.

  • http://www.tyndallreport.com Andrew Tyndall

    Since Rodham Clinton is running as the practical, diligent candidate who has no truck with hi’ falutin’ phrases and airy-fairy idealism, it might be to her benefit that Obama gets portrayed as their darling by the liberal media elites. The phenomenon of “swoon,” if it exists, may not redound to Obama’s benefit. The primary calendar, heading through Wisconsin to Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, does not seem to favor a candidate who induces swoon. On the contrary, it probably helps Rodham Clinton mobilize her demographic base of working class, older, less educated voters. Rodham Clinton’s slogan — “Speeches do not put food on the table” — relies on practical common sense trumping glamor, just as Mondale trumped Hart — “Where’s the beef?” — in 1984. Being beloved by the Gang of 500 can be a curse, not a blessing.

  • Benjamin

    C’mon, Mr. Jarvis, isn’t this all sour grapes on your part? Your preferred candidate is losing – blame the media!

  • Benjamin

    Jeff,

    Let’s face it, the biggest problem Hillary’s got is this:

    Bush, Clinton, Bush… Clinton?

    That’s not the media’s fault.

    Personally, I think voting intention is a private matter. It can be volunteered but there should be no rule or expectation that it be divulged. Journalists have views, but professionally they should keep that separate as much as possible and report in a fair manner. If that is not done, then flag it up, but I don’t think its right for them to declare their voting intention, I think that is an invasion of privacy.

  • Your Neighbor

    Jeff, how did you feel when the media was in love with BILL Clinton?

  • Steve Mays

    You are one of my blogger heros. Please don’t whine.

  • http://www.therealestatebloggers.com/2008/02/15/dr-horton-selling-400-california-homes-for-up-to-50-off/ Tom

    Jeff has been one of my favorite bloggers since day 1. Great writer and understands that we all have biases.

    I have tried to point out that the media has an inherent bias to the left on this site over the years and Jeff has been honest and fair.

    The whole Democratic examination of the media from a conservative perspective does remind me of the kid who thought the bullies were having fun and it is not big deal when their ire was directed in another direction.

    But when the bullies aim at oneself then it takes on a whole different flavor. I agree that we all have our biases and Jeff has been a standup guy on that point, it is one of the reasons I appreciate his site.

    Now the Democrats have to recognize that these biases are there and that they either need to be recognized and on the record, or that the Republicans have had a point and that there needs to be more diversity in the newsroom.

  • Pingback: I agree with Jeff Jarvis on bias | Zac Echola

  • Pingback: I fatti e le opinioni « mastroblog

  • http://www.lexalexander.net Lex

    If you’re going to disclose — and I’m undecided on that question — how much do you disclose? Party affiliation? How you voted in the last presidential election? How you voted in other elections? How much is enough?

    Moreover, how much would it take to convince people predisposed to believe in bias that no such bias exists (if in fact it does not exist in a particular case)?

    No answers, just questions.

  • http://emerson.typepad.com Dale Conour

    The bigger issue here is that the Internet and the improved access to information means the public needs to understand journalism, be taught it in school as part of civics and government, and be motivated, and able, to ferret out the truth for themselves. Particularly online, professional journalists should be required to pass along links (whenever possible) to the sources they’ve used to write their reports, making the process more transparent.

    After all, I judge the merit of political books by how well they’re footnoted. No footnotes? Then there’s nothing to support your opinions and comments and you’re wasting my time.

    Of course, I’m assuming that people want the unvarnished truth rather than just believing what they want to believe. And that’s a huge assumption.

  • http://www.hesnottooyoungforyou.com Barbara LeBey

    Jeff,
    This article was long overdue. The media bias has been so bothersome to me and to so many people I know who are sincerely supportive of Hillary Clinton and her message. It is disheartening to see a vibrant, intelligent woman with a wonderful track record of experience insulted and demeaned by the media to a point where she is demonized–her campaign hurt, and, in turn, those of us who support her, also hurt. We have a hard time maintaining trust and respect for the reporters who are doing this, and they do it with so much transparency, with impunity. How can we have real honest democracy if our own press is now operating like the press does in countries ruled by dictators, that is putting forth a bias rather than objective coverage?

  • Alma Freedman

    Jeff, maybe it is time to go back to the old way. When opinion is involved it is labeled
    Commentary. When straight facts are written or spoken it is called reporting and you can make up your own mind
    I’m not sure if it’s not too late. The media today seems to think no one has a mind and that they, the media, have the right to tell everyone how they should think. If not directly then by innuendo. This of course is why the media have fallen below lawyers on the list of people least respected.

  • Guy Love

    The current media food fight between Obama and Hillary is very ironic as the press wrestles with being honest with itself. Up until now it was easy for most members in the press to dismiss the “Vast Right Wing Conspiracy” complaining about the built-in dogmatic support for all things “Democrat” by most of the traditional media. The current manufactured Obama effect seems to have awakened the Clinton supporters in the press to the group think that often becomes prevalent in the traditional media. The Clintons actually seem stunned that the media is not rolling out the carpet for them as they did in the 90′s, further adding to the irony.

    Jeff does an excellent job of dissecting the subtle nuances of media bias that has driven conservatives nuts for years. Has anyone noticed that recent Hillary pictures are often presented with exaggerated facial expressions while Obama is usually presented as very calm and collected? What the public craves is honesty from the press, they have grown weary of these types of games and are savvy enough to ignore them. This constant subtle manipulation to stage a story in a particular way defines the current traditional media and also helps to explain why they are losing market share to the more diverse internet blogosphere.

    The question I have is what percentage of this behavior is done consciously and/or subconsciously by the individuals who make up the traditional media? Do they actually make decisions behind closed doors to submarine the Clintons? Or does it just play out that way as the herd mentality takes over?

  • http://blowingintheether.blogspot.com/ LCaution

    I hardly think disclosure is necessary this season. The TV network pundits (I’m not sure there are any TV journalists left) have made their preferences clear from the beginning, esp. in the Democratic race.
    They decided, day 1, that only 3 candidates mattered and didn’t bother covering the rest of the field. When the rest of the field failed to get votes, the media attitude was “we were right” rather than “we caused it”.

    The hatred for Hillary & Bill (greater than anything directed at George W. Bush) is so venomous it could melt the video tube. I suspect the Media have never forgiven Bill for maintaining his popularity and not being kicked out of office in spite of all the effort they spent trying to bring him down. Everybody wants to be Woodward & Bernstein, even Woodward & Bernstein.

    Similarly, the love affair with Obama. There are not words enough of praise, even if, as it turns out, most of Obama’s words come from others.

    Hillary can barely open her mouth without generating criticism. Nothing Obama says or does is bad; there is always an explanation.

    The only positive side to an Obama-McCain race in the GE is that, since the Media love both men, there is a chance that the coverage will be fair.

  • Pingback: Redaktionsblog: www.berliner-journalisten.com » Blog Archiv » Brauchen Bürgerjournalisten Regeln?

  • Pingback: When everyone is a reporter - even donors « Bente Kalsnes’ blog