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?
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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.