Confession: I have never voted in a presidential election. Or a midterm. Or any election at all— aside from when a friend ran for a neighborhood council seat during my time at Georgetown nearly 25 years ago.
The reason — ostensibly — is because I have been a journalist my entire adult life. And I was raised, journalistically speaking, at the Washington Post, which, at the time, was run by a guy named Len Downie.
Len didn’t vote. And while he made clear that he wasn’t saying no reporter should vote, I — young and impressionable as I was — took his pledge very much to heart.
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I admired the hell out of him and thought that if he believed voting was something that could lead to bias in a reporter then I was going to follow his lead. (Never mind that Len was the executive editor of the Washington Post and I was a lowly junior reporter. I had aspirations!) I wanted to be objective — and this was the way to show how truly objective I was.
As the years went on, I stuck by that not voting pledge — out of what I told myself was principle. No one could say I was biased because of who I had voted for. I wouldn’t have to dodge any uncomfortable questions from either side trying to sniff out my “real” politics.
It was always a bit of a tenuous position to hold. After all, I knew — and know — lots of great journalists who voted. It didn’t make me think less of them that they did. I considered voting a few times but always had the Len Downie example in my head — and passed.
All of which brings me to a new essay by Downie, who is now a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
In it, he reveals the results of a study of how mainstream media operations do — and should — operate.
“What we found has convinced us that truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever ‘objectivity’ once meant to produce more trustworthy news. We interviewed more than 75 news leaders, journalists and other experts in mainstream print, broadcast and digital news media, many of whom also advocate such a change. This appears to be the beginning of another generational shift in American journalism.”
In slightly more abbreviated terms: Objectivity is dead. Or as Emilio Garcia Ruiz, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (and a former WaPo senior executive), put it: “The consensus among younger journalists is that we got it all wrong. Objectivity has got to go.”
Which, well, whoa.
The critique that Downie offers up of the idea of objectivity is simple: It was never really a thing.
As Downie writes:
“Throughout the time, beginning in 1984, when I worked as [Washington Post executive editor Ben] Bradlee’s managing editor and then, from 1991 to 2008, succeeded him as executive editor, I never understood what ‘objectivity’ meant. I didn’t consider it a standard for our newsroom. My goals for our journalism were instead accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth.”
Downie also notes that the people in thrall to the notion of objectivity tended to see it through the lens of white men, who almost exclusively ran newsrooms in those days.
He quotes Kathleen Carroll, a former executive editor at the Associated Press, on that point. “It’s objective by whose standard?” she told Downie. “That standard seems to be White, educated, fairly wealthy. … And when people don’t feel like they find themselves in news coverage, it’s because they don’t fit that definition.”
As someone who once bowed at the altar of objectivity, I look back and am embarrassed. The truth I have come to too is that objectivity is largely a farce.
We are all — journalists and everyone else — shaped by the world in which we come from. We come to every issue with feelings and opinions — informed by our own lived experiences.
To deny that basic human quality is to ask people to believe that when you become a reporter, you forget everything that has come before that moment in your life. Which is a) impossible and b) short-changes good journalism. Knowing who to talk to and the right questions to ask are critically important to getting the story right. And that knowledge is informed by who we are outside of our jobs.
The solution is not — as journalism has long preached — to try to hide or memory hole the views, experiences and opinions that we bring to a story. Instead it’s to be transparent about them, letting the reader know where we are coming from and why.
Which can be scary. And, at times, fraught. But, we have a trust deficit with the American public. This, from Pew, is humbling in that regard.
The best way to bridge that gap is to be as open and transparent as we can be. Explain how and why we reported a story. If someone is lying based on objective facts, say that. Show our notes. Invite people in. Be honest with them. Treat them like adults. Let them make up their own minds. That’s good journalism.
What I’ve come to realize is that whether or not you vote — or who you vote for — is a poor stand-in for whether or not you can fairly cover a story. Participating in democracy is not a disqualifying characteristic in a reporter.
Which is why, come 2024, I will be casting the first ballot of my life.
"Why I have never voted."
Because you think politics is a game. That's the answer. Because you don't see how the fun little horse race stuff you like to write about has very, very real effects on people's lives. It's always been a game to you because you do not have an ounce of empathy for another living person whose name isn't Chris Cillizza. While people were scared, you were too busy giggling to yourself and writing "Why Donald Trump is the Michael Jordan of nicknames!" or "The 10 wackiest lines from Trump's most recent speech" where half of the entries are just you going, "Um.... no," "Mitch McConnell, call your office," and "[narrator voice]."
You have always been what's wrong with US political media, Chris. You still are.
I'm a political junkie but professionally I'm a film critic. My definition of "objectivity" is that you should be able to read one of my reviews (which, of course, is my OPINION) and be able to disagree with it yet still get sufficient information to let you know if you would want to see the movie. I think the notion of newspeople not voting -- John Chancellor, I believe, was another -- is a pointless, empty gesture. Don't campaign for a candidate or contribute to them, but in the voting booth you're a citizen, and not a journalist. And no one need know who you voted for.