Friday, February 08, 2008

An open letter to David Zeeck, Executive Editor of The (Tacoma) News Tribune

Dear Mr. Zeeck:

I don't know all the requirements that go into being the executive editor of such an esteemed paper as The News Tribune, but I would think a basic understanding of the principles on which this nation was founded would be one of them.

Alas, that is evidently not the case. I write this regarding your recent arm-twisting directive to your newsroom staff that they are not to participate in Washington State's political primaries and caucuses.
Because both parties have real contests for their presidential nominations, and because Washington is the only Northwest state with an early primary, Washingtonians who vote in the primary or participate in caucuses here might actually have an impact on the nomination in one or both parties.

We'll cover the party caucuses and the primary votes with interest, but we're asking our news staff not to participate in either.

We have no restrictions on staffers voting in general or special elections. We ask them to check their preferences and biases at the door of the newsroom. But they're citizens, too, and we encourage them to exercise their rights in picking candidates and voting for or against ballot measures in open elections conducted by secret ballot.

But caucuses and party primaries aren't general elections – they're activities of political parties. One has to record allegiance to one party to participate. The caucuses and the primaries are set up for party members to decide who will represent the party in elections to follow or for party members to demonstrate who they favor.

We ask our newsroom staff not to participate in any party activities. For anyone covering anything even remotely political or for any supervising editor in the newsroom, participation in caucuses or primaries is prohibited.

Now, the issue is being discussed at other newspapers across the country. Should reporters vote? In all fairness, that's a legitimate matter of debate. But unfortunately, most of those folks weighing in on the issue are missing one very important point: Does your employer, does anyone, have the right to dictate your right to vote?

I am not a civil-rights lawyer, so I can't say whether or not this is legally defensible. But I can say, as a journalist, it's certainly not morally defensible.

I realize that you sent that memo for only the noblest of reasons: to limit, as you say, the "perception of bias." But I'm afraid your position stems from an utter ridiculous misunderstanding of objectivity. If journalists are doing their jobs, they're the best able to cast an informed vote. Yet, we're supposed to pretend we have no thoughts, opinions, knowledge, of the issues that we are supposed to devote ourselves to studying. That we are merely sponges that soak up information and wring it back out of ourselves, leaving us dry and unchanged.

And while I realize that journalists have to make some concessions, telling them that they may not participate in the selection of this nation's next leader in order to somehow create the appearance that they are neutral is both absurd and, with everything that has happened in the past eight years, obscene and represents so much of what is wrong with newspapers today.

That being said, I draw your attention to a terrific little book you might want to read: The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Seriously, you should read it.

There's actually a great passage in which the authors explain that when Walter Lippman coined the phrase "objectivity" in the 1920s, he wasn't saying that journalists didn't have opinions. Rather, he was calling on a unity of method, a way of setting aside our biases to get to the truth. Objectivity was never supposed to apply to the journalist, it was supposed to apply to the news gathering process.

Basically, he was saying that objectivity is the reporter's version of the scientific method. How cool is that?

But anyway, back to your mandate, in your column you wrote:
To be a journalist at The News Tribune, one surrenders some privileges.

Ummm, this privilege you speak of? Are you saying the rights of citizenship is something you get to dictate? I think that's what you're saying. May I point out to you the words of the 15th Amendment?
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Or how about the 19th Amendment?
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

See that? A right, not a privilege.

Oh yes, almost forgot, about your argument that these are the primaries of political parties. Employees may still, as you so generously wrote in your memo, participate in the general election. Let me clue you in on something, because I don't think you understand how these things work, for many people who live in areas heavily dominated by one or another party, voting in the primary is often the only opportunity to choose their elected representative.

See, sometimes the political battle is decided in the primary. By the time the general election comes around, the contest has already been decided. In York County, I know many people (and for years, I was one of them) who register Republican in order to have a voice in the outcome of the local elections.

Mr. Zeeck, you also write that "It seems to us a small price to limit the perception of bias by staffers."

A small price? You really think so? Wow. Because, even as I think about it, it's more than a right. It's a solemn responsibility based on our system of representational democracy.

Since my sons were old enough to walk, I would take them into the voting booth to watch me participate in this sacred act. Behind the pulled curtain, I explained to them that by pulling this lever, I am saying that my voice matters. And that we all have a voice. It's a beautiful concept. And, I hope you know this, it's not one that exists in all countries.

I told my sons of those who stood up to men who would deny people their voice, of the people who were beaten with clubs and faced attacking dogs, who were humiliated, beaten, tortured, murdered, because they believed that the words of our founding fathers applied to all citizens.

I told them of how less than 100 years ago, their mother wouldn't have been standing in this voting booth – solely because I was a woman. And I told them of all the brave women who stood up to violence and dreadful slander, who made it possible for me to be here, who believed that we also had a right to choose our nation's leaders.

I told my sons that when they were old enough to vote, they would not disrespect the sacrifices made by these people. They would not shame this nation's history with apathy, or disinterest, or because they believed their voice didn't matter. They are now men in their 20s. On Tuesday, my youngest called me from California giddy with excitement after casting his vote in his first presidential primary.

If you have so little respect for your employees that you feel compelled to step all over their constitutional rights – Hey, it's you who signs the paychecks – at least have more respect for this nation's democratic principles and history.

Lauri from York



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