We’re all familiar with newspaper endorsements. But what about individual journalists whose job descriptions include expressing their opinions about politics and politicians?
Is the old rule that opinion journalists shouldn’t reveal whom they’re voting for still relevant?
I’m referring to columnists for newspaper op-ed pages, certain types of magazine writers, journalists for websites that combine news and opinion, and the like. I’m not referring to partisan commentators whose loyalties are explicitly with a political party or candidate. That would apply to cable talking heads such as David Axelrod or Rick Santorum. They can do as they like.
But opinion journalism, properly understood, is bound by the same ethical considerations as straight news reporting. You don’t make political contributions, you don’t put bumper stickers on your car or signs on your lawn, and you certainly don’t take part in a campaign in any way.
I’ve been working the opinion side of the street since the early 1990s, first as a writer for the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix, now as a panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press” and as a columnist for the WGBH News website. I’ve always tried to take the ethics of my craft seriously.
Though bound by the same ethical considerations, there are some differences between opinion journalism and straight news reporting. The most relevant difference is this: I am free to write (for example) that I think Elizabeth Warren is the best-qualified candidate for president by virtue of her policy positions, her experience and her temperament. What I’m not free to do is to take the next logical step and say I’m voting for Warren.
Unfortunately, as with so many customs, President Donald Trump has broken the mold. Four years ago I made it clear that I would vote for the Democratic nominee against Trump regardless of whether it was Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. I considered Trump a threat to journalism and the First Amendment, and I thought it was important for journalists to take a stand in defense of both. And I’m repeating that in 2020: I will vote for the Democratic nominee.
I’ve seen others make the same assertion. I’ve even seen a few mainstream opinion journalists come very close to disclosing their preferred candidate. Some find themselves in conflicted positions, including two New York Times columnists: Michelle Goldberg, who has disclosed that her husband is a consultant for Warren, and Thomas Friedman, whose every effusion on behalf of Michael Bloomberg is accompanied by a statement that Bloomberg gave money to a literacy museum Friedman’s wife is building.
As with any custom, it makes sense to revisit this one from time to time and ask if it still matters.
The argument in favor of disclosing your vote is that traditional notions of objectivity are obsolete (although I would argue that Walter Lippmann’s original conception of objectivity as the dispassionate pursuit of truth is as relevant as ever), and that journalists should aim to be as transparent as possible.
The argument against disclosure, which I’ve always accepted, is that not only does disclosing your vote change your audience’s perception of you, it also changes the way you write and comment on the candidates.
Some years back, I wrote a commentary for The Huffington Post arguing that President Barack Obama’s crackdown on leaks within his administration was a threat to the First Amendment. His Justice Department at the time was threatening to jail journalists if they refused to reveal their sources. The headline: “Obama’s War on Journalism.”
I admired Obama then and admire him more today. I wrote all kinds of laudatory things about him as a candidate and as president. But I never wrote that I would or had voted for him. If I had, I think it would have changed the calculation, not just for readers but in the way I would have approached writing such a commentary. I don’t need those kinds of entanglements, and readers have a right not to have to wade through them.
I put the question up on Twitter and Facebook earlier this week. A few thought disclosure was acceptable, but most believed that the old rules should still apply.
“Wouldn’t go there,” said Mike Pride, editor emeritus of New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor and retired administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. “Makes future commentary too easily dismissible. Readers/listeners may figure out where you stand from what you write/say, but keep your vote to yourself.”
Added liberal columnist Michael Cohen of The Boston Globe: “If you take sides, particularly in the primary, it makes it harder to be an effective analyst.”
The other side was perhaps best expressed by Joshua Benton, editor of Nieman Lab, who also used the occasion to snark at The New York Times for its dual endorsement of Democrats Warren and Amy Klobuchar:
“I don’t see why someone paid to have public opinions should be prevented from having this particular one,” Benton said. “I think it’s a useful clarity. In the same way I wouldn’t want an editorial board to interview all the candidates, have clear strong opinions, and then not pick one.”
So is there still a meaningful difference between expressing your opinions about politics and saying whom you’re voting for? I think there is, and I come down on the side of withholding that last piece of information — with just a few obvious exceptions, such as my “anyone but Trump” assertion. (I may have let my 2020 choice slip once or twice on Facebook, and I shouldn’t have.)
“I am a champion of old rules in a new world,” is the way Pride puts it.
I’ll be away on a reporting trip next week, so I’m going to take advantage of early voting by casting my ballot in the Massachusetts Democratic primary this Friday.
But no, I’m not going to tell you my choice.
Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and a contributor to WGBH News. His most recent book is “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.