Bolding added to highlight a good point. Everything was politically charged, of course, back in the day (1998) when then-Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. discussed his very own policy of not voting. In a 2008 chat before he left his post, Downie was asked whether he’d exercise the franchise in the future: “I’ll have to think about that since I didn’t just stop voting, I stopped having even private opinions about politicians or issues so that I would have a completely open mind in supervising our coverage. It may be hard to change.”
After leaving The Post, Downie registered to vote but stayed away from the voting booth at his first opportunity: “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.”
Whether practiced by Downie or Baker, the no-voting stuff amounts to an amusing bit of performative impartiality. Unless these folks have some opinion-bypass wire in their brains, that is, they are powerless to escape their own critical thoughts. They’re there; they exist; they cannot be suppressed by steering clear of the local polling station.
As this blog has written many times — generally crediting Michael Kinsley — the occupational imperative for journalists isn’t to attempt avoiding the formulation of opinions. That’s impossible. The trick, instead, is to produce objective journalism that’s not driven by those opinions, a process that depends on smart editing.
With his comments on impartiality, Baker alights on a timely topic. Just last week, ABC News announced the suspension of David Wright, a correspondent who spoke openly with someone at a New Hampshire bar about his political viewpoints. That someone turned out to be equipped with a recording device, and Project Veritas published the results, including: “I would consider myself a socialist. Like, I think there should be national health insurance. I’m totally fine with reining in corporations, I think there are too many billionaires, and I think there’s a wealth gap — that’s a problem.”
ABC News issued this statement: “Any action that damages our reputation for fairness and impartiality or gives the appearance of compromising it harms ABC News and the individuals involved. David Wright has been suspended, and to avoid any possible appearance of bias, he will be reassigned away from political coverage when he returns.”
Absurdity in action: Wright is no more or less capable of sidelining his private opinions from his journalism now than he was before he spoke openly and generously with people in that New Hampshire bar. The suspension confuses having opinions with weaponizing them.
Applications of this principle extend beyond journalism. President Trump and others have attacked the forewoman in the Roger Stone criminal case, citing opinions that she has presented online. “There has rarely been a juror so tainted as the forewoman in the Roger Stone case,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Look at her background. She never revealed her hatred of ‘Trump’ and Stone. She was totally biased, as is the judge. Roger wasn’t even working on my campaign. Miscarriage of justice. Sad to watch!” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson may as well have been writing an Erik Wemple Blog post when she noted, “Having an opinion about the president and some or even all his policies does not mean that she couldn’t fairly or impartially judge the evidence against Roger Stone.”
Downie and Baker are both serious journalists who, we’re quite sure, came about their no-voting stances with the best of intentions. But there are undersides to their posture. One is that the right to vote is something that many have died to secure and protect. If you’re going to refrain voluntarily from exercising it, a more compelling reason would help.
The other drawback is that non-voting journalists lend credence to the idea — furthered by the ABC News suspension — that merely having political viewpoints is, at some level, a disqualifying or problematic thing. It isn’t. What matters is what’s in the article (or the segment, or the video, or the podcast).
Baker declined an interview request. Downie told the Erik Wemple Blog, “I had a very easy time as a human being and as an editor seeing many sides of an issue, and politicians,” adding that this multilateral capability “made it easier for me to deny myself making that final decision in my mind.”
When we declared that Downie, if shoved into a voting booth during his abstemious years, would have had little trouble deciding which candidate he favored, he responded, “Perhaps,” though he said certain elections would have been tougher than others. “I did sometimes have opinions about things to some extent, but I was always questioning them.”
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