On Feb. 5, I woke up, went for a run, showered, had a yogurt smoothie, took the kids to school and voted for Barack Obama. Only one of those facts is worth your knowing, and it is the one that most journalists would never tell you.
In today's confessional era, reporters disclose private matters ranging from marriage to stock ownership. Everything except voting. Some refuse to vote at alllike Washington Post editor Len Downie, who told NPR, "I didn't want to take a position, even in my own mind" on elections. (To which I say, Anyone who can perform that kind of self-hypnosis should get into the lucrative smoking-cessation business.) More commonly, reporters vote but keep it to themselves. At the New York Times, even opinion columnists are forbidden to endorse candidates.
It wasn't always so, but as grubby "reporters" evolved into white-collar, credentialed "journalists," it has become a traditiona pointless one. If a tech writer told you he had no preference between Macs and PCs and chose not to use a computer in the interest of impartiality, you would rightly consider him an idiot. But politics is not consumer journalism, right? Rightit's more important, and transparency in it is more essential.
The reasons not to say whom you're voting for boil down mainly to the interests of journalists, not those of readers and viewers. It would be a pain in the neck. Campaign sources would mistrust you. Radio hosts and bloggers would have a field day. Readers would become suspicious.
But more suspicious than they are already? The biggest reason to go open kimono is that the present system does what journalism should never do: it perpetuates a lie. Modern political journalism is based on the bogus concept of neutrality (that people can be steeped in campaigns yet not care who wins) and the legitimate ideal of fairness (that people can place intellectual integrity and rigor over their rooting interests). Voting and disclosing would expose the sham of neutralitywhich few believe anywayand compel opinion and news writers alike to prove, story by story, that fairness is possible anyway. Partisans, bloggers and media critics are toxically obsessed with ferreting out reporters' preferences; treating them as shameful secrets only makes matters worse.
And let's be honest about the worry that lies behind that reticence: What happens when the public finds out the press is full of Democrats? (An msnbc report last year found that of more than 100 journalists who made political donations, the vast majority gave to the Dems.) If people knew thisor knew, say, that a certain cable-news network tilted pro-Bushwould they trust us less? Hey, maybe they should. And maybe we should view their criticism as a help, not an annoyance.
Mainstream media organizations are all for interactivity when it means getting our audience to work for freeuploading video or volunteering prose on our websites. If we can outsource the news, why not outsource news criticism? Getting stories right takes constant attention. Let the audience help, by critiquing, analyzing and hectoring from as informed a basis as possible. Arguing that offering more information makes us less credible is not just absurd but antijournalistic. When else do reporters argue that their audience must be protected from knowledge?
Opinion is not itself dangerous. Hidden opinion is, as is journalism slanted to reflect it. I've critiqued Obama's campaign videos favorably but also criticized the press for its swooning coverage of him. I don't know if that makes me fair. But you can judge for yourself, and you should.
Of course, it's easy for me to be sanctimonious: I'm a pop-culture columnist, not a campaign reporter. The logistics of disclosing votes would be a problem; no one wants to slog through countless articles giving the writers' electoral history back to college. But the online magazine Slate handled this by doing a poll of its staff before the 2000 and 2004 general elections. It is the sort of thing websites and blogs are made for. The main reason it won't happen with the mainstream media soon, however, is simple: the other guy isn't doing it. Ultimately, it's about moneyyou'd risk losing half your audience.
But for the larger journalism business to stay relevant (and profitable), doing it could be a very good thing. The partisans who hate the media for our perceived politics are a relatively small, vocal group. More widely damaging, in the age of authenticity, is phoninessin this case, acting as if we were dispassionate marble gods. It's time to leave that Potemkin Olympus and admit that, like responsible citizens, we care about elections. And then prove that, like responsible professionals, we care about the truth more.