: The Boston Globe ombudsperson — and the critics who complained to her — get it exactly wrong when they go after Globe tech reporter Hiawatha Bray for expressing his political opinions in comments on blogs.
I say we should be celebrating his openness, his transparency, his honesty — for now his critics are free to disagree with what he says and thinks — not just what they think he thinks.
Oh, I know that’s a minority opinion — even sometimes a reviled one — in the halls of journlaism. But I have come to believe that journalists’ refusal to acknowledge that they are human and are citizens and have opinions is a sort of lie by omission and we have to find better ways to deal with it than gagging them. Journalists are in the business of uncovering truths, not covering them; journalists demand to know what everyone else in the world thinks, yet they hide their own thoughts. Isn’t that a disservice to the public? For it does not allow the public to judge the messenger, as is their right.
Now, of course, this leads to many sticky questions: Do you take someone who hates Bush and have her cover Bush? Do you take someone who admires Bush and have him cover Bush? Well, but doesn’t that happen already? It’s not that we’re putting the opinionless on these beats; we’re merely hiding their opinions.
I’m not saying that a White House reporter should turn his or her reports into screeds or hosannas. It is still the job of a reporter to report the facts, to be fair, to be complete, to be accurate, to leave those opinions at the door and tell the story to the best of his or her ability. What I’m really suggesting is that it’s fair to know that that reporter voted for Reagan one year and Clinton the next.
I also know this is very difficult water to navigate in a business that has believed the opposite for so long. But things have changed (and I won’t rechart that sea again; we know all the shoals: FoxNews, blogs, the Guardian, yadayadayada). And we need to have an open discussion about this and find new rules that serve the public and serve our credibility.
But the case of Bray isn’t even that complicated. He’s a technology reporter who expressed political opinions against Kerry (opinions I disagree with, by the way). But that’s what set MediaMatters and the paper and the ombudsman after him. MediaMatters argues that he still covered politics as it related to the convention. I’d say that’s a stretch. Bray says he doesn’t cover politics.
So let’s take this out of the realm of politics — loaded as it is — and ask instead: Is it OK for a reporter to have an opinion? Well, guess what, they all do and short of hypnosis or a lobotomy there’s not much you can do about it. So is it OK for a reporter to express that opinion in other areas?
I don’t know Bray’s opinions on technology, so these are hypothetical. But let’s say that he doesn’t like Microsoft and Bill Gates and says so. Yes, that colors his coverage of technology. But it also allows us to judge that coverage. And when he says something good about Microsoft, it makes even that all the more meaningful. And you know what? Dan Gillmor — one of the most respected journalists alive — has done just that. And it only enhances his credibility; we know Dan and what he thinks but we also know he is fair and accurate and professional.
And there are dangers to pushing the precedent of this complaint and reprimand: Does this now mean that if you’ve ever had a political opinion publicly expressed, you can’t be a journalist? Does this mean that a news editor is going to have to plumb the depths of every freelancer’s blog and comments to see whether to assign a story? In a world of citizens’ media and distributed reporting, this becomes a bigger issue: Are opinions cooties in journalism? I sure hope not.
The other danger is that if you go after Bray for his anti-Kerry opinions, do you have to go after other journalists for their anti-Bush opinions? By this logic, shouldn’t MediaMatters also be going after Frank Rich because, after all, he’s letting political opinions seep — no, flood — into the arts section? Of course, not.
In the case of Bray, there’s a lot of kneejerking going on: MediaMatters wants another head and I disagree with them about this. (And, yes, I know this will sure another volley of Ollies but I don’t care.) And the paper is going with old assumptions that don’t take into account new media and the conversation it enables.
MediaMatters does point out the industry hypocrisy of firing others for having the opposite opinion to Bray. I agree, that’s inconsistent. But I disagree with their conclusion: None should be fired for having opinions per se. Anybody can be fired for being a dolt or incompetent or unprofessional. But having an opinion is not, in itself, a capital offense and should not be. I hope we get to the point where not revealing that opinion is seen as a misdemeanor.
Of course, David Weinberger says all this better — and with greater brevity — than I do:
I think it’s safe to say that Chinlund meant to say that Bray’s political writings were at odds with the appearance of impartiality, which raises the question: Just how stupid does the Globe think its readers are? Do we really believe that tech writers and sports writers and style writers don’t have political views? Do we think that out of the office they go slack-jawed when asked who they’re voting for? No, we understand that because they’re professional journalists, they do a reasonable job of keeping their personal political views out of their writing.
Transparency works better than reprimands. I’d rather know a reporter’s views so I can understand where the journalist is coming from and can compensate for those views if they affect the journalist’s writing.
Today, the ombudsman reports Bray as saying: “I make no apology . . . for my opinions. But I do apologize for expressing them in a venue that might lead some to suppose that my employers share them.”
Hiawatha, you have nothing to apologize for. No one thinks that just because you support Bush, so must The Boston Globe. Hah! And if there’s ever any doubt who a reporter is talking for on her blog, all she has to do is put up an explanation: “This is my personal blog. I’m not speaking for The Boston Globe.” Transparency is as good as sunlight.
I truly hope we’re seeing the last of this foolish idea that journalists are such pure priests of information that they must remain celibate. It is a fiction, and it demeans journalists and readers alike.
And for the record, David is no Bushie. No way.
Here’s what Globe ombud Christine Chinlund says:
Last November the Globe learned that technology reporter Hiawatha Bray was posting his political views on a web log. The editors warned him not to continue. Even with no explicit Globe rules at that point governing what’s OK in the largely uncharted, semi-public/semi-private world of blogging, Bray’s anti-Kerry and pro-Bush rhetoric was at odds with the impartiality expected of journalists. Bray agreed to stop.
End of story — until last week, when a liberal online media watchdog group reported what Bray had written. That brought dozens of angry e-mails to this office; some said fire Bray.
Responds Baron: ”Mr. Bray is a technology reporter and did not cover the presidential campaign, other than a minor technology-related story on very rare occasions. That said, his blog postings were inappropriate and in violation of our standards.” Thus, the November warning.
Said Bray: ”I don’t cover politics for the Globe and figured that gave me a fair amount of leeway. I’m a lowly tech writer; who’d care what I thought about the election? Turns out, a lot of people did.”
”I make no apology . . . for my opinions. But I do apologize for expressing them in a venue that might lead some to suppose that my employers share them.”