Monday, September 11, 2006

Rock the Vote

I cocked my head at the words coming out of the mouth of my former professor and current mentor.

"I've never voted," she said, matter-of-factly, just before taking a sip of coffee. "I take my journalistic objectivity so seriously that I don't vote."

It was the summer of 2004 and I was visiting her Syracuse home during a long weekend from my internship in Binghamton, N.Y. As always, the conversation turned to the craft, and then, to politics.

"I may have to cover these people one day," she said. "I don't want them to be able to point to my voting record as a sign of bias."

The other reason, she said, was that she didn't want to form an opinion about the candidates - which you have to do in order to vote - and subconciously become biased toward the other candidate.

She made the decision when she was a Washington correspondent for a midwestern newspaper.

For her, she said, the decision was simple. She was a journalist in the 70s and 80s, when women were still fighting for equality in the newsroom. She'd climbed her way to bigger and better beats by being able to "write any throw-away story onto A1." She'd travelled to other countries investigating civil wars, and the deaths of a set of nuns in Africa.

Of course, she said, you can never be truly and completely objective, just by nature of living in the world, but you could do your best to limit the judgements you allow yourself to pass on others.

Some journalistic pundits say, it's really not that serious. Robert Jensen, a University of Texas associate journalism professor with a Ph.D. in media law and ethics, told the San Antonio Current this when an issue about journalists signing petitions for politicians came up:

“Everyone knows that journalists have political opinions, just like all people,” he said. “I see no reason why journalists shouldn’t be able to sign petitions for candidates or issues, so long as they don’t directly impact the beats they cover.”

I knew her view was an extreme one, but that conversation still sticks in the back of my mind. It comes to the forefront in times like these.

In Rhode Island, tomorrow is Primary Election Day.

I registered as an Independent when I came to this state. I mince my words when I speak to residents who ask me my opinion on a politicians actions. I agonize over stories about political candidates who are always friendly to me, but who have a sordid past. When a friend of mine held a garden party fundraiser for a local politician, I had to call my mentors to see if it was okay if I attended.

I take my journalistic objectivity seriously. But, I value my civic duty even more.

I think a lot of it comes down to race: my mentor is white; I'm black. For me, it's a lot harder to ignore a right that my ancestors - that my mom - fought so hard to give to me. By virtue of my age, I've never actually voted before. I cast an absentee ballot during the last presidential election. So, tomorrow will be my first chance to actually pull the lever. Or punch the chad. Or touch the screen, however they do voting these days.

I'm excited about it.

"Not voting is what's right for me," my mentor told me on that summer day. "You have to make the decision that's right for you."

Guess that means I have to get up early to make it to the polls before work.

Posted by T Dot at 10:57 AM | link

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