Tomorrow is November 5, which means that voters in Kentucky and Mississippi will go to the polls to elect their next governor. Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly will be up for reelection, as well as the lower house of the New Jersey State Legislature and countless municipal offices throughout the country. Of course, far fewer elections will be held this year — an off-year election — than were held last November or will be held this time next year. Perhaps an off-year election, with its relative dearth of horserace coverage and interactive maps, makes for a better opportunity to bring up an important question: Should journalists who cover politics vote?
In April 2016, less than seven months before the presidential election of 2016, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper appeared on The Howard Stern Show. In response to Stern's question, "Will you reveal who you're voting for?" — which assumes that journalists do, indeed, vote — Cooper replied: "I don't think I'm going to vote.... I don't think reporters should vote.... A lot of reporters don't vote.... It's a thing." Explaining himself to an incredulous Stern and co-host Robin Quivers, Cooper indicated his belief that refraining from voting was another small step in the constant battle waged by good-faith reporters against letting their own biases cloud their journalism.
Cooper's comments attracted a perhaps unanticipated amount of attention and were received, on the whole, rather critically. Perhaps most notably, the theatre-critic-turned-HuffPost-columnist David Toussaint blasted the CNN anchor under the headline, "Anderson Cooper's Non-Voting Arrogance," and continued on to declare, rather harshly: "Until Anderson Cooper votes, I don't want to hear him voice his opinions, I don't want to read about his endeavors...."
Criticisms in the vein of Toussaint's raise the typical points: that people around the world are willing to endure great hardships to fight for the right to vote, that to forgo this civic responsibility is to be complicit in the rise of a political movement that one might oppose, and that it is some variety of "un-American." Or least imaginatively: that everyone is biased, including reporters, so who are they kidding by thinking that failing to cast a ballot actually changes anything?
But for a long list of reporters, from Cooper, to CNN's Chris Cillizza, to Axios' Mike Allen, refraining from voting has become a tradition. Allen, who recalls voting only once in his life (to support his college roommates who had devoted every waking hour volunteering on a certain primary campaign), argues that "...we owe it to the people we cover, and to our readers, to remain agnostic about elections, even in private. I figure that if the news media serve as an (imperfect) umpire, neither team wants us taking a few swings."
To those who argue that, even if Allen, Cooper, and Cillizza don't actually go into the voting booth, they're still biased, that's both true and not the point.
Everyone has biases and, as I frequently contend, it is neither feasible nor desirable to eliminate bias entirely. Journalists are informed by ideals they hold to be valuable, books of import in their lives, and life experiences, and it is perfectly fine to let a worldview or journalistic style inform one's reporting. To do otherwise would be to reduce journalism to nothing short of the boring — dryly naming "who's," "what's," and "when's," instead of putting forward the type of analysis and storytelling that makes news reporting interesting.
But this is only true up to a point. Refraining from voting is a step towards darkening the demarcation line between having a journalistic style and being overtly biased. It is to guard against letting one's personal beliefs unduly inform one's reporting and, thus, initiate one's descent from an objective journalist to an activist with a pen.
Indeed, there's nothing wrong with having writers in the news space who are clearly conservative or liberal; actually, they ought to exist. This is because the world of ideas is as important — if not more important — than tracking the day-to-day "whodunit" of breaking news reporting. But these writers are not what most of us think of when we refer to "journalists," and they should clearly be identified as such. For true news reporters — versus commentators or opinion journalists — not voting is another dividing line.
At its core, the issue is that once someone votes or — even more so — is a registered member of a political party, they begin to see events ever so slightly through that lens. I recall, for instance, my interview earlier this year with then-2020 presidential candidate Mike Gravel, who was a steadfast, in-house critic of his fellow Democrats. After railing against endless wars, special interests, and Washington insiders, I remarked to the former Senator that he sounded a lot like President Trump on the campaign trail. He cast aside the comparison with the sort of vehemence that only underscored a political reflex where he couldn't possibly admit to sharing similar core ideas to the current standard-bearer of the opposing political party. Even for a committed critic of the DNC establishment such as Gravel, he was still viewing politics through the lens of a partisan.
To be clear, the existence of political parties — for all the demonization they receive in our polarized times — have tremendous benefits in a democracy; for example, providing voters with information about a candidate they never heard of and allowing voters to hold party leaders accountable over time by rewarding or penalizing their parties. But our well-funded two major parties have enough activists, strategists, and consultants. They don't need journalists, too.
John Baer, the longtime Philadelphia Inquirer writer, used to tell the politicians he covered that he wasn't there to be "their PR agent." The new crop of journalists coming up today would be wise to listen to that advice. To get started, not voting might be a fine first step.
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