Friday, February 15, 2008

Should Reporters Vote/Is There Such a Thing as Truth? (JM)

So there is a rather interesting debate going on amongst several online journalists about whether or not political reporters should vote in elections. Over at The Politico, John Harris, Mike VandeHei and John Harris all contributed their views on this argument. In turn, Chris Cillizza at The Fix (an AOTG favorite) weighed in noting that while he does not vote he can see that it it possible for reporters to be both fair and neutral. I would highly recommend reading both of these articles, they are interesting and present good arguments from every perspective. But let's take a look at this issue from a ground up perspective.

The primary reason why a reporter would not vote is that he wants to maintain a level of objectivity. I reject this initial premise on face, not voting does not remove the preference from the realm of existence. It's an outward symbol of objectivity, but it is not itself objectivity. If a reporter has no desire to vote, that would be something different, as the desire to vote is actually the meter stick of objectivity, not the action. Simply not voting means very little in the philosophical sense of maintaining an objective press corps as a sort of fourth column.

But for advocacies sake let's say that the very act of voting forces journalists to consider questions they otherwise try to avoid. That by voting they sublimate an opinion that was only partially-formed at the time. Is this a problem? I think not, in fact I think it is totally impossible to separate one's personal preferences from any knowledge-based activity. When a journalist investigates, writes about or argues an issue he or she is already beginning from a set of personal preferences and premises which inform their investigation. For instance, most journalists begin with a very real opinion of what "truth" might be. They have a standard for determining just how many sources they require and the veracity of those sources. They further have a standard for setting opinions on strategy, judging the merit of policy arguments and any other manner of issue they attempt to evaluate.

I think the barebones truth is that there really is no such thing as objectivity. Objectivity would call for some sort of natural law existence of right and wrong that doesn't exist. All people have opinions skewed by our position in society, our childhood, the people know, the things to which we have been exposed. We can be as fair as we like, but we have to remember that applies only to our own deeply personal sense of fairness. So, what does this have to do with journalists voting? It is an action that grants journalists the ability to think about these core premises and preferences. Probably the best way to move towards some sort of standard of objectivity is to be clear with ourselves and others about where we are coming from intellectually. I recognize my opinion on this is informed largely by my belief in social and moral relativism. Not that I think we should just allow anything to go, but I believe that most of what we believe to be wrong or right is conditioned by the society in which we live. This is not the most controversial position, but rarely do people think about what this means in practice.

However, when it comes to journalism I sincerely wish we could move away from the we must be objective standard, to the we must be as fair as possible standard. It is INSANE to me that people like Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly claim to be objective arbiters of the truth. In fact, by doing so there is never a chance I can accept their evaluations fairly. However, if I am explicitly clear on the premises from which a particular individual operates then I can evaluate the internal consistency of his or her logic and consider the premises from which they build arguments as well. This is why the blogosphere has been an amazing thing for news analysis. More of the blogs I see are way more intellectually honest about their political positions, then mainstream media, and this allows me to evaluate the worth of the arguments in a much more cogent way.

In sum, vote all you want, you're citizens, in fact some of the best equipped citizens for voting. I would say there is an argument that just allowing Chris Cillizza to decide our next president is better than allowing the entire country to decide. But either way, I would like it more if you were clear about who journalists vote for and why you're doing so. Not voting doesn't mean you have no preference, it just means that you don't want your readers to know it, and that's a shame.

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