Show Us Your Vote!
Why journalists should open their secret ballots
"I may be a hack," Carlson shot back in Monday's Los Angeles Times, "but I'm not partisan. I'm not a Republican or anything. I'm not voting for Bush."
If the latter two sentences come as a surprise to you (and they do to me), doesn't that make a slight difference in how we see Tucker Carlson? And wouldn't it be nice to know the corresponding information for idiot-boxers like Chris Matthews and Tim Russert, to say nothing of the Big 3 anchors, all the Sixty Minutes producers, Howard Kurtz, the New York Times' Washington bureau, Fox News, and so on?
Party membership and voting record are surely two of the top 10 data points for sketching out a public figure's basic personality. A journalist wouldn't conceive of writing a proper profile of someone in public affairs without covering personal politics (along with religion, parental origin, university education, and the like).
To cite the examples on my desk, the Oct. 18 New Yorker makes sure to tell us that Democratic Party financier George Soros "held Ronald Reagan in high regard," and that pollster John Zogby has morphed from a self-described "madman on the left," to a professional switch-hitter who "is still enough of a lefty to feel out of place" among the likes of Rush Limbaugh (perhaps because his brother James is on "the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee"). Yet I could only hazard the crudest of guesses as to the political affiliation and beliefs of reporters Jane Mayer and Larissa MacFarquhar.
This double standard is not just glaring, it's counter-productive. Instead of living up to the transparency they promote and maximizing the readers' experience (while identifying internal imbalances and kneecapping their bias-obsessed critics), news organizations are choosing to remain in a defensive, information-suppressing crouch, for fear that an inch of disclosure will result in miles of lost reputation.
The New York Times prohibits its reporters from wearing campaign buttons, marching in rallies, or displaying lawn signs. Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie has long professed an Eternal Sunshine ideal of reportorial brain-scrubbing…"to come as close as possible … to cleanse their minds of human emotions and reactions to highly charged political campaigns or controversial issues."
Downie's cleansing was duly mocked four years ago in a short-lived journalistic-disclosure campaign by Slate.com, which revealed that—surprise!—the Conventional Wisdom-obsessed online magazine was stacked to the gills with Gore supporters. When Slate media columnist (and renegade Harry Browne voter) Jack Shafer asked 33 prominent outside journalists to 'fess up, not a single one disclosed his chosen candidate. Two, however, suggested that such an exercise was a luxury only opinion magazines could afford.
But the experiences out here in opinion-magazine land suggest that straight journalists don't know what they're missing.
In the November issue, Reason asked its own staffers and contributors (plus a couple dozen libertarian-friendly figures like Penn Jillette, P.J. O'Rourke and Glenn Reynolds) whom they're voting for president this year, whom they voted for in 2000, their most embarrassing vote ever, and their all-time favorite president. The results (especially the explanations) were pretty interesting from a strictly informational point of view; here's how the editorial side of the magazine plans on voting:
Peter Bagge: Badnarik; Kerry if close
Ronald Bailey: Bush or Badnarik
Tim Cavanaugh: Badnarik
Brian Doherty: Never votes
Charles Paul Freund: Undecided
Nick Gillespie: Probably no one, maybe Badnarik
Jonathan Rauch: He'll never tell; it's "a journalist thing."
Julian Sanchez: No one; if wasn't living in D.C., then Kerry
Jacob Sullum: Probably no one.
Jeff Taylor: Bush
Jesse Walker: Undecided; maybe Elmer Fudd
Matt Welch: Kerry
Cathy Young: "That's a little private, don't you think?"
So, 13 people, only one certain vote apiece for Bush, Kerry and Badnarik. Two principled non-voters and two more probable non-voters (one of whom leans Badnarik); two I'll-never-tells, two undefined undecideds, and two undecideds who will either vote for Badnarik or a major-party candidate. I'd love to see how those numbers compare to, say, The National Review's, or The American Prospect's.
But besides producing brain candy, opinion journalists who Disclose discover one other exhilarating secret: It actually adds to, instead of detracting from, your credibility.
Voting records can be a terrific defense, or at least a crucial data point in the demonstration that there is a world of difference between partisan hackery and even the most opinionated of journalism. When I'm accused, daily, of being "in the tank for Kerry," not only can I point to the open fact that I've never (to my recollection) belonged to the Democratic Party, I can also just say "OK; explain this and this." Naderites who thought my critical post-ops on St. Ralph were based on anger for Florida lose all enthusiasm when they find out I voted for the guy. And those who misinterpret that vote as a fondness for "fair trade" and hostility to corporations soon discover that basing a whole thesis on a stranger's single vote is a recipe for misunderstanding.
The thriving Media Bias industry depends on imagined political connections and secret agendas; remove the mystery and the bubble soon deflates. At the same time, a combination of secret polling and heavily encouraged disclosure could unearth some massive danger-signs of institutional group-think at just about any news organization you could name. Make that information public, and the effort to rise above bias will be helped by 100,000 enthusiastic volunteer editors.
But that's the final roadblock. To disclose voting records, ultimately, is to entrust readers and viewers with sensitive information, and to know that they will use it to make better decisions about what they read. Reason has that faith. Does anyone else?