< Journalists as People

Transcript

Friday, November 10, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. So this weird thing happened to me last Tuesday, and I went on WNYC's morning talk show, hosted by Brian Lehrer, to talk about it.
[VIDEO CLIP]
BRIAN LEHRER:
Hello, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Hello, Brian. I've come in to confess.
BRIAN LEHRER:
That you…?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I broke my voting machine.
BRIAN LEHRER:
You didn't!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Well, you know –
[END AUDIO CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You see, many New Yorkers vote on these big, heavy, clunking machines that are like 30 years old.
[AUDIO CLIP]
BRIAN LEHRER:
These old clunky lever machines in New York. They're very solid, right? I love when you pull the bar at the end of it. [GRUNTS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Exactly, and that's where [LAUGHS] my problem began. Actually –
[END AUDIO CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, often major candidates in New York are listed on one than one party line, so you can vote for that person on a minor line if you want. And that's what I tried to do, but the switch stuck.
[AUDIO CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And so, you know, I could vote for a Hillary on that line, and I guess I'm revealing my vote, but what the hell – and not some others on that line.

So I kept switching between the Democrats on that line because there were several of those that were jammed. Then I started to pull the lever back to the right, as I'm supposed to do. It stuck. And I gave it a real yank and moved the entire machine [BRIAN LAUGHS] about five, six inches. And I heard outside the curtain, whoa! And they came in, they -
[END AUDIO CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Anyway, I broke it. But even worse for me, I revealed my vote. Or is it worse? Is it wrong for journalists to tell? Should they even vote at all? On this program, we often state our convictions regarding the importance of, say, the First Amendment and free access to information, and we've openly criticized the Bush Administration's handling of those issues.

Would knowing how I cast my vote cause you to distrust me? What about other political activities? In the run-up to the 2004 election, we put together this piece on how far journalists should go in expressing their political beliefs. When we put this question to Michael Skoler, Minnesota Public Radio's managing director for news, here's how he answered it.
MICHAEL SKOLER:
We restrict our reporters' political activity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Skoler says the policy applies to everyone, from political correspondents to arts reporters.
MICHAEL SKOLER:
So that means you shouldn't register as a member of a political party. You shouldn't participate in a Minnesota caucus. You shouldn't attend rallies or show any other public support for a party or a political cause.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
With the exception of restricting party affiliation, which is unusual, his is the policy that prevails in most newsrooms. But just because you don't trumpet your beliefs doesn't mean you don't have them.
MICHAEL KINSLEY:
This notion that journalists ought to be sort of political, ideological eunuchs who don't have any political views is just hopeless.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Michael Kinsley is an Op-Ed columnist for The Washington Post.
MICHAEL KINSLEY:
The question isn't whether they hold opinions but whether they suppress those opinions to the extent they can when they do their work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
When Kinsley was the editor of Slate, he disclosed who he was voting for and invited his reporters and editors to do the same. Mostly, they did. He admits it was less risky for Slate than for other news outlets because Slate is a journal of commentary and analysis. But -
MICHAEL KINSLEY:
I think newspapers ought to do it precisely because it's a fiction to suppose that reporters don't have political views, and it would be healthier and more honest if they simply said what they were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Len Downie, the editor of The Washington Post, is the poster child for the opposing view – the one that says reporters should keep mum. But he takes it even further. When executive editor Ben Bradlee handed him the reins 20 years ago, he stopped voting.
LEN DOWNIE:
Unlike the rest of our staff, I had the last word as to whether or not the paper was being fair in its reporting on these issues, and I didn't want to take a position, even in my own mind, on them. I wanted to maintain a completely open mind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And so, despite all the information that flows through your desk and all you know about the political environment of Washington, DC, you are able to not make up your mind?
LEN DOWNIE:
Yes. Actually, it comes fairly easily to me. I guess it's the nature of my personality to see all sides of most issues. In fact, I'm rather surprised at people that are so definite about things.
MICHAEL KINSLEY:
Does he say he can bend forks with his mind? You know, some people can do remarkable things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Michael Kinsley.
MICHAEL KINSLEY:
I mean, Len Downie, I admire. But I'm not sure that I would admire him as much if I thought that he was really able to go blank in his mind as easily as he claims to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
The argument against laying your cards, assuming you have any, on the table, is twofold. One says that if reporters state their conflict of interest right and left, editors would have to bar them from covering certain stories because the public wouldn't trust them to be fair, even if they were. It's about appearances. We'll return to that one.

But there's a second, more intriguing argument – the one that says that taking a political action makes your views stronger. Minnesota Public Radio's Michael Skoler.
MICHAEL SKOLER:
When you kind of put a sign up or put your money where your mouth is, you move from observing to acting. And I think that changes you internally. I mean, you can even see it when people purchase a car. You know, how many friends have you had where they finally – they struggle with what car to purchase, and when they finally purchase it, they try to convince all their friends how brilliant their decision was? That, you know, kind of putting a stake in the ground makes you vested.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Ethan Bronner, deputy foreign editor of The New York Times, spent decades on difficult beats and managed not to get vested in his stories, even when reporting from the most polarized place on the planet.
ETHAN BRONNER:
I spent many years in the Middle East, and I have, you know, views on what should happen or what could have happened or what has happened. But I also think that the most important view I have is, is to keep my mind open to the idea that my own view may be wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
He might say bending forks with your mind is part of the job.
ETHAN BRONNER:
I don't think it's a question of being more honest to come forward and say this is what I think, because I think that once you announce your view, you persuade yourself in addition to others – whereas if you force yourself not to come to a conclusion about a difficult question and to leave yourself open, you will stay more open.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Michael Kinsley concedes that the best argument for keeping your views to yourself is -
MICHAEL KINSLEY:
That there is a feedback loop. Yes, that's a clever argument, and I wouldn't say it's worthless. The argument that I do think is worthless is the argument that you shouldn't do it because of the appearances. And I feel pretty strongly that the job of journalism is to make appearances accord with reality, not to make reality accord with appearances.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
As we have seen recently, hypersensitivity to the appearance of objectivity can lead to some lousy reporting. We saw it in the coverage of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. We saw it in the run-up to war. A reporter should be able to call a lie a lie. But the conventions of American journalism, so attentive to appearance, make it tough to say that.

In the news pages, official statements come first. Challenges appear after the jump. News analysis arrives in a box deep inside the paper. Not so in European newspapers where news, analysis and commentary commingle -sometimes in the same story. That's the approach Kinsley prefers.
MICHAEL KINSLEY:
They're overtly opinionated, and you can call it bias if you want, except that they're totally open about it, and, and they are judged by their readers with that in mind.
JEREMY O'GRADY:
In the British case, there is that tradition of being much more overtly adversarial about things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Jeremy O'Grady is the editor in chief of The Week, in London.
JEREMY O'GRADY:
There is a very traditional ding-dong between left-leaning and right-leaning papers, which tends to up the ante quite a lot. They do look at each other a lot of the time and take account of their arguments, and throw them back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Ethan Bronner says that we should not seek a cure for what ails the American media in the European press.
ETHAN BRONNER:
I think that would be a big mistake. The editor of Le Monde, for example, will, on a given day, gather his editors around him and say, okay, let's have a main editorial saying that the Iraq war is wrong. Let's get a feature out of Baghdad, showing what's problematic about it, and I want a front page story that does something else, similar to that.

Whereas it seems to me that we come to work every day saying, what's it going to be like today? What elements, what interstices of truth are we going to discover today? And I don't mean this in a naive fashion. I think that we consciously try to keep our perspective on whether it's a good or a bad thing at bay in order to report it as best we can.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But American reporters are people, too. They tend to be biased in favor of freedom and democracy. They couldn't get a decent job if they took what could be seen in another nation as a balanced position on socialism, say, or Osama bin Laden.

And our values change with the times. What might have passed for balanced coverage of slavery 200 years ago would read like lunacy today. The fact that no one has a corner on the truth could be used to back Kinsley's argument.
MICHAEL KINSLEY:
You start with the situation of reporters trying to do their best to be objective, but having views, because they're intelligent human beings. Why don't we just find out what their beliefs are, let the readers know, and let everybody go about their business?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But the slipperiness of truth also makes Len Downie's case.
LEN DOWNIE:
So many of the most important public issues do not have a clear cut right and wrong, and, in fact, the public divides evenly over them. And if one of our journalists covering that issue were to have a strong conviction on one side or the other, it would be impossible for them to cover that story fairly.

It is very difficult for non-journalists to understand how so many journalists, so many people who choose this profession and, particularly, choose to work with the ethics of The Washington Post, have chosen almost to be monks, if you will - to be observers; not participants, but observers. That's what we do here
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Perhaps the problem isn't with the principle of objectivity, but with the form. If a person is not telling the truth, don't put that in a box labeled "analysis." Print the fact that it's a lie immediately after the lie, right there on the front page. Tell us the facts before the jump, and we don't need to know who you're voting for.