Bad Thinking About Journalists’ Political Contributions

This article details monetary contributions made by journalists to political campaigns. What a surprise: journalists have political preferences, just like the rest of us do.

The article contains a number of quotes from media representatives who fret about the supposed corruption that comes from allowing journos to make campaign donations. IMO these concerns are backwards, and reveal a confusion about the nature of bias that is more troubling than any donations would be.

The main effect of political donations in these cases is not to create bias but to reveal existing biases that might otherwise remain hidden. That’s good. The only objection to donations that I can think of is that campaigns might show favoritism to reporters in hopes of gaining donations from them. But even with a donation ban, journalists would always have the ability to provide favorable press coverage that is far more valuable to any campaign than would be the few thousand dollars that an individual journalist might contribute.

The real problem here is that many journalists act as though the appearance of being unbiased is more important than bias itself. We have a class of media people who are as partisan as anybody, but engage in silly verbal kabuki dances in which they claim not to vote or participate in elections, as if that makes them less biased than they would have been if they did participate. And then they don’t understand why the public doesn’t trust them.

Everybody is biased: it’s human nature. And the way for journalists to deal with it isn’t to remain ignorant, or shun open participation in politics, or engage in ostentatious rituals of non-partisanship. It is to admit their biases and allow their customers to make up their own minds about how to interpret information the media provide.

Political contributions are among the clearest indicators, certainly clearer than words, of contributors’ political biases. Far from forbidding them, we should encourage journalists to make such contributions as long as they disclose them. The public is smart enough to evaluate the results. And by permitting political participation by journalists we might encourage better people to become journalists, because becoming a journalist would no longer mean trying to ignore one’s own carefully developed opinions, or abandoning a high-level career in the industry one covers. Disclosure, not bureaucratic restriction of behavior, is the answer here.

(A similar argument applies to financial journalists and analysts, who should be allowed to trade stocks in industries they cover, as long as they disclose their trades.)

1 thought on “Bad Thinking About Journalists’ Political Contributions”

  1. Newt Gingrich, along similar lines, proposed that anybody or any entity could give unlimited amounts to any political candidate, so long as the source and amount were immediately posted on the Internt. I still think that is the correct approach.

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