Dear Journalists: Whether You Vote Plays Absolutely No Role in Your Capacity for Objectivity
Opinions lead to ballot selections, not the other way around.
It seems to come around at least once every major election cycle. At some point, some major journalist or editor publicly states that he or she does not vote, not out of apathy but out of some bizarre ethical public signaling that this somehow helps guarantee that he or she is more likely to be objective.
This week's offender is CNN's Anderson Cooper, who told Howard Stern in an interview that he doesn't vote because he doesn't "want to be influenced one way or the other." No it doesn't make any sense. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post takes note of the interview (skeptically) and reminds us of others who have said the same:
When pressed on the insanity of this position — and how people in other countries don't even have this right — Cooper unfurled the rationale: "I don't want to be influenced one way or the other….My role is to ask questions." Noting that he can't remember the last time he voted, Cooper said, "I don't like feeling like I've taken a stand." [emphasis added]
On one point, Cooper is right: This is a thing, and it goes a ways back. Former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. avoided voting for many of the same reasons cited by Cooper. Heck, Downie even refused to vote after stepping down as executive editor amid the high-profile presidential election of 2008. "I'm not voting in November because I've kept my mind open about the candidates and issues during two years or so of having ultimate responsibility for our campaign coverage, so I just don't feel ready to vote in this election. I'll have a clean slate after that," Downie told the Erik Wemple Protoblog back then.
It's a silly idea that somehow voting or not voting plays any role in whether a journalist is slanted in his or her reporting. Cooper has gotten it exactly backwards. It's an individual's attitudes, positions, biases, emotions, et cetera that prompt them to cast their votes in the first place. All those psychological attitudes exist outside of a cast ballot. If Cooper thinks or feels Hillary Clinton (by way of example) would make a better president than the other candidates, his attitude is something he's going to have to consider if he wants to be seen as objective, regardless of whether he voted. His position informs the ballot choice, not the reverse.
That's why the bolded part in the quote above is so telling. Cooper doesn't like "feeling" like he's made a stand. It's not that voting compromises his objectivity, it's that the "feeling" when he votes is a reminder that his objectivity is already compromised due to his nature as human being in America whose life, like everybody else's, is heavily influenced by the decisions made by elected officials.
I used to think that these journalists who wove the "not voting" banner were attempting it as a cynical ass-covering move to try to shield themselves from criticism. But Cooper's statement here shows how much it's actually journalists trying to fool themselves into actually believing that they are above the fray.
It's possible that I won't be voting for president this year, depending on who gets the Libertarian Party nomination. Does that make me more "trustworthy" in some nebulous fashion when I report on the major candidates? Of course not. The reason I'm not voting for any of them is because I find all five of the remaining candidates in the two major parties to each be repulsive in their own ways. And it probably shows in my writing. Sometimes even not voting counts as "taking a stand." It's a silly belief that Cooper would be better served by casting off and instead considering how those already-held opinions are influencing his journalism right now.
And besides, if it makes Cooper feel any better about voting, his vote is statistically unlikely to matter anyway.