"Journalists are people, too." I'm not the first person to have said this. Leonard Downie Jr., the Washington Post's executive editor, wrote that sentence in a 2004 column explaining to readers the difference between the political endorsements on the editorial pages and the campaign coverage in the paper's news pages.
In the same column, he reiterated and explained his decision since 1984 not to vote. "As the final decision-maker on news coverage in the Post, I refuse to decide, even privately, which candidate should be president or a member of the city council or what policies should be set forth for health care or taxes. I want my mind to remain open to all sides and possibilities as I supervise our coverage."
Why is this important now? Because in a memorandum, reprinted Tuesday in the Westword blog, the editor of the Denver Post strongly discouraged his staff from participating in the Colorado caucuses on Super Tuesday (Feb. 5) and outright banned quite a few. And a day later, in a memorandum to staff reported in the same blog, the Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president absolutely barred anyone on his staff from participating in the caucuses.
This is clearly a tough issue for journalists. Most journalists still strive for what some see as the illusion but others maintain is still a worthy goal of objectivity in reporting the news. Many publications and broadcast outlets have ethical rules or policies that restrict editorial staff from campaigning, contributing to candidates, wearing electoral paraphernalia, signing petitions, marching or demonstrating, and displaying various other indicia of partisanship. The New York Times even goes so far as to impose rules affecting the family members of journalists (no bumper stickers on the family car, no signage on the front lawn). The theory is that the appearance of bias can be as harmful to a paper's credibility as actual bias.
But, voting is different. Voting is a civic responsibility, a ticket to participation in a democratic society, and the one sure way each citizen has of being heard and having an impact on that large remote federal behemoth that governs us from Washington.
Journalists pay a dear price for the special privileges they enjoy. They often have to suppress their opinions when others are enjoying a good political debate or argument. They often have to button their lips when friends or relatives trade gossip or inside information on something they've learned in confidence. They cannot make contributions to causes they may feel passionately and earnestly about. They can't take an offered free ride or keep free samples. They can't take holiday gifts from people they work with. They can't march on Washington or even their state capitols. Most reporters and editors accept such limitations as part of the conditions of employment
Barring journalists from voting -- even in a primary -- because their preferences may become public is asking too much. Ordering employees to renounce their privileges of citizenship goes way too far, even in an aim to eradicate bias or the appearance of bias. An editor wouldn't dare suggest a reporter, even one who reports on religion, quit going to church every Sunday.
In this country, with our pathetic voter turnout, we should be encouraging people - all people, from all professions and backgrounds - to vote, not coming up with synthetic reasons for banning them from participating in our democracy. I don't think any viewer, listener or reader labors under the illusion that reporters don't have any preferences. So, the ban really only perpetuates a hollow myth,
While there is a difference between going into a private booth behind a black curtain and pulling a lever in solitude and sitting in a living room or gymnasium and publicly stating one's candidate preference, it is not the journalist-voter that chose the method to cast his ballot. It is the state political party -- and that should not serve as a basis to penalize the citizen-journalist.
Let my people vote! In all primaries and in all elections. As for other restrictions on public support or opposition for candidates or causes, let that be a matter for negotiation between employees and management, as are all other conditions of employment.