By Jeff Greenfield
I didn’t vote for Barack Obama last November. I didn’t vote for him in 2008, either. And I can prove it.
No, nobody violated the sanctity of a voting booth. I can prove it because I didn’t vote at all those years. In fact, I haven’t voted in any election since 1996. What began as a logistical issue—I had to be in Atlanta for CNN, and neglected to ask for an absentee ballot in time—became a deliberate decision. It became a way to distance myself, however inadequately, from choosing sides in a contest I was reporting and analyzing.
It’s also one way I have of answering a question posed by Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times’ “public editor”—a job known in other places as “ombudsman”—about how much consumers are entitled to know about the viewpoints that journalists bring to their work.
In Sullivan’s piece on Sunday, she offered the view of NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. She wrote:
“[Rosen] believes that traditional notions about impartial reporting are fundamentally flawed. For starters, he thinks journalists should just come out and tell readers more about their beliefs: ‘The grounds for trust are slowly shifting,’ he told me recently. ‘The View from Nowhere is slowly getting harder to trust, and ‘Here’s where I’m coming from’ is more likely to be trusted.’”
Rosen is certainly right when it comes to opinion columnists. There’s no “hidden agenda” when you’re reading George Will or Paul Krugman, or watching Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, because telling you what they believe and why is the essence of what they do.
But what about a reporter or, as I’ve been for 30-plus years on TV, an “analyst”—someone who tries to put news events in a broader context, but who is not offering conclusions about the right choice for president or the right course for policy? Don’t I approach stories with a basket full of opinions, preferences, prejudices (in the non-bigoted sense)? Wouldn’t it be self-delusional to think otherwise?
An example from the past might shed some light on this perennial issue.
In 1984 and again in 1990, I covered the campaign of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, whose views on race led distinguished Washington columnist David Broder to label him
“The last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.” Based on Helms’ history—suggesting that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist, railing against “Negro hoodlums” during his years as a TV commentator—Broder’s judgment was dead-on.
So what do you do if you were a reporter for ABC’s “Nightline,” as I was? Do you offer that opinion as a conclusion? I did something else: I tried to explain why North Carolina, with its relatively progressive track record on race, repeatedly sent Helms back to the Senate. I tried to show how he managed to convince just enough voters that he was a man of conviction, willing to stand up to “the elites” of both parties, protecting taxpayers’ money, and standing up for their values.
As for race, I followed the maxim of “Show, don’t tell.” In Helms’s case, that meant showing the infamous 1990 ad that had white hands crumpling a rejection letter while an announcer said, “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”
But what of my own personal views and background? Was it relevant that I had participated in the March on Washington in 1963 (and two previous, much-smaller civil rights marches)? Or that I had worked, years before those Helms’ pieces I did, in the Senate and on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign?
Would it have been important, when I covered the impeachment of President Clinton, to know that I had voted for Ross Perot in 1996 because I didn’t want Clinton to win 50 per cent of the popular vote that year? (It worked—he got 49 percent).
The problem for me is that it’s hard to know where this approach ends. Look up a member of Congress in the Almanac of American Politics and you’ll find a voting record, and ideological “scores” from a raft of organizations left and right. Does it really make sense to attach such scores to a reporter’s story? What if I’ve changed my mind over the years (as I have on all sorts of matters)? And how trustworthy are those “ratings” of journalists, given that much media criticism assumes that any critical note about a candidate or policy inevitably reveals a bias?
Look, some of these questions are easy to answer. A journalist with a family or financial stake in the outcome of a controversy should either stay away from that story, or fully disclose his or her interest. The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee had it right when he said (more or less), You can get intimate with an elephant, but don’t cover the circus. (Bradlee himself faced questions about how much he knew about the extra-marital affairs of his friend John Kennedy).
But it’s rarely that easy. The one obligation any reporter has is to acknowledge his or her beliefs, and to ask, “Why do the people I’m covering believe otherwise?” I did not have to believe in the literal truth of the Bible to cover a Southern Baptist Convention. I did not have to believe in a virtually limitless right to bear arms to cover the National Rifle Association. What I tried to do was to report as honestly as I could what they believed and why. And even as a Yahoo News columnist, with a lot more freedom to offer judgments, I try to maintain that approach.
I know many of you just don’t believe that’s possible. But here’s one of my opinions I’m happy to reveal: I think you’re wrong.
By Jeff Greenfield