Journalistic ethics is only sort of an oxymoron

As a general rule, media ethics debates work best in journalism schools (where they can safely and entirely be discussed in theory). But here we go.

Dave Sommer, a former TV producer, today’s Post. “I sincerely believe that when your job is to spend every day learning about other people, places and cultures, you’re automatically bound to develop a more liberal worldview, and to me that’s a good thing. But professionalism matters even more, especially when the political cultures of the United States and Canada are so divided. What are my Obama-loving journalist friends really saying on Facebook anyway? That they couldn’t care less about their responsibility to report the news to people who don’t share their politics? It’s shameful, and I’m astonished at how brazenly so many former colleagues of mine would abandon their duty to the public when it comes to their online selves … if I ever go back to news, I wouldn’t be caught dead acting like a star-struck fool when I’m paid to conduct myself in exactly the opposite way — in public, in private and in cyberspace.”

Fair enough.

Aside from the Facebook-specific stuff, this isn’t far removed from the idea that journalists shouldn’t vote. And though that opinion assumes that a person’s duty as a journalist overrules a person’s duty as a citizen, both positions are based on the same idea: that journalists can’t have, or at least express, opinions (unless they’re columnists, of course).

In 2000, Slate decided this was a bit simple-minded and asked, instead, its writers to disclose who they voted for. The magazine repeated this in 2004 and again this year.

The wisdom of that particular measure aside, here is what Michael Kinsley wrote in explaining it.

“Like many lunatic ideas, Leonard Downie’s has a certain inner logic: If opinions are corrupting, just don’t have opinions. Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, is well known for believing that—in the service of objectivity—a journalist in his position should not vote. Writing on the Post op-ed page a couple weeks ago, Downie went even further. He said he does not even allow himself the luxury of deciding whom he would vote for if he was into that sort of thing.

“Many journalists (including me) find this excessive. Journalists are still citizens, with the rights and duties of citizenship. Journalists are also people, for the most part, and people naturally develop opinions about the world around them. This is not a capacity you can turn on and off like a switch. The critical faculties that make for a good journalist probably make purging yourself of all relevant opinion even less plausible. Downie is certainly right that there is no point in not voting officially if you’re voting mentally. But in concluding that he therefore shouldn’t even vote mentally, he is buying into the fallacy that having an opinion is the same as having a bias.

“What’s the difference? Bias is a failure to suppress your opinions or (if opinion is in your job description) to state and defend your opinions openly. Like avoiding opinions, avoiding all bias is probably impossible. Among other difficulties, objectivity is not a huge safety zone. It is a narrow path between bias on one side and bottomless relativism on the other. Journalists are not supposed to be neutral between fact and falsehood or about certain basic shared values. We may state baldly that two plus two is four and may assume without supporting evidence that democracy is a good thing. But beyond that, the fog of disagreement sets in.”

And here’s what Jacob Weisberg wrote four years later.

“Journalists, like people, have opinions that influence their behavior. Reporters and editors at most large news organizations in the United States are instructed to keep their opinions to themselves to avoid creating an impression of partisanship. Len Downie, the executive editor of the Washington Post, famously goes so far as to avoid even voting. Slate, which is a journal of opinion, takes precisely the opposite approach. Rather than bury our views, we cultivate and exhibit them. A basic premise of our kind of journalism is that we can openly express what we think and still be fair.

Fairness, in the kind of journalism Slate practices, does not mean equal time for both sides. It does not mean withholding judgment past a reasonable point. It means having basic intellectual honesty. When you advance a hypothesis, you must test it against reality. When you make a political argument, you must take seriously the significant arguments on the other side. And indeed, Slate writers tend to be the sort of people who relish opportunities to criticize their own team and give credit to their opponents. Or so we’d like to think. By disclosing our opinions about who should be president, we’re giving readers a chance to judge how well we are living up to these ideals.”

And here is Jack Shafer’s explanation.

“There are those who believe it is possible for a journalist to purge herself of all opinion about the world before showing up for work every day. I am not one of them. The test of a good journalist, like a good scientist, is not whether she has a predisposition but whether she is willing to abandon or modify it on the basis of evidence and argument.”

If I may state an opinion, for whatever it’s worth, I tend to find the argument of Kinsley et al. to be more persuasive.

(“But of course you do Wherry! You’re a total shill for the Liberals! You go to bed each night dreaming of Prime Minister Stephane Dion!” There. I’ve covered all your obvious retorts.)