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As we close out the 2020 election, the As The South Votes team reflects on their own political journeys—as journalists, and as active agents of change in democracy.
In recent election cycles, I have opted out of traditional campaign reporting jobs, opting instead to get paid to question how and why the government has spent so long trying to leave my genealogy voiceless.
But when I did participate in traditional election coverage, the months before were filled with fluxuations of excess and deprivation, ranging from insomnia to caffeine intoxication. My colleagues and I worked proudly towards the rush of the home-stretch, narrated and tallied as if it were a sport.
My colleagues and I felt connected through our role in a part of history—but many may still not feel like "part of the story" when their job allows them to report on historic events, but not to cast their own ballots.
The United States is a country that is uniquely characterized by an "anti-elite" journalism class, where shoeleather journalists are often praised as college drop-outs who "know the streets," but are then fired when they show signs that they are also protesting in those streets. Especially around election cycles, many journalists are subject to balancing on this balcony of "objectivity," untainted by the political biases they look down at to study.
Although the conversation of whether journalism is—or should be—"unbiased" is hopefully nearing consensus and extinction, implicit policies of nonvoting in newsrooms can intimidate young, would-be politically active people to keep quiet at the risk of their livelihoods in the media.
That's partially by design.
The New York Times Code of Ethics has a section about "Participating in Politics" that firmly begins: "Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics." That section goes on to say that voting is a journalist's right, but in the same breath states that "they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of The Times." Examples of offenses include wearing buttons, or even "a bumper sticker on the family car or a campaign sign on the lawn."
Journalists who say they don't vote are operating in fear of their employers' scorn or some nameless mass that will question their integrity. In CNN political commentator and former Washington Post contributor Chris Cillizza's essay "Why I Don't Vote," he says he abstains out of defensiveness—while pleading that doing so doesn't make him "sanctimonious" or a "martyr," nor does it make him more objective or superior to his "voting colleagues," as he calls them. Rather, his non-action is also driven by fear: Fear that, as privacy becomes diluted with the advent of social media's dominance over political discussions, someone will "divine (his) secret political agenda," by finding clues on his political leanings.
But he then paradoxically crosses his own line, going on to list other things that he thinks do offer a fair clue of his political affiliations: his past employers, his writing, his social media posts.
The problem with using car stickers, campaign buttons, or even social media posts as a way to measure a journalist's political leanings is that these are all items with a planned obsolescence. In a rigid two-party system, none of these "clues" are able to come near to an actual person's ideals for society.
Cillizza agrees with this, but because the nameless mass of social media trolls do not, he chooses not to vote. The problem is when employers insinuate that others should do the same.
Insinuating everyone who decides to become a journalist should do this insists that we live in a one-size-fits all democratic system, where everyone can choose to opt in or out as they please.
If I were to ask my family to get rid of a bumper sticker of a political party on their car for the sake of my job, I would not win that argument. Voting rights were not automatically handed to my family so that we could opt-out of them. Acquiring them in the first place required our time, money, and commitment to democracy.
My father and his siblings were forced to leave their homes in Somalia when the 1990 war broke out and three men proclaimed themselves presidents of our homeland.
While my father hopped around in different countries, his brother Hussein Samartar slowly became a citizen in America. When Hussein got his Masters from The Harvard Kennedy School of Government, my father lost his work visa after years of living in Canada. I watched the steady strides of a man breaking barriers to be able to learn and participate in American politics just as I watched the slow unraveling of a man unable to participate in the political process.
My uncle was eventually the first Somali-American to be elected into public office in the United States. He died of leukemia in 2013 after years of ignoring his medical health, on the eve of an election where, as family myth has it, he had enough votes to become the first Somali mayor of Minnesota. The loss was tragic, and he had a street named after him for generations onward.
This street means a lot to Somalis. I know this because I interviewed a former refugee and Somali-American political candidate for his ward in Minnesota—as a journalist–and he showed me a picture of him with the street sign.
As we shared a moment of recollection together, I cried. Although my father didn't have the right to vote, others could thanks to the hard work of my uncle. I did not care if this moment might make me appear biased to my employer.
According to journalist Lewis Raven Wallace, Scalawag contributor and author of the book The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, the first case he could find of a journalist fired for their "off-duty" beliefs was in 1934, when a reporter for the Associated Press, Morris Watson, was organizing unions in the midst of the Great Depression. The AP's publishers believed that if they accused the workers of being biased due to their union involvements, they had grounds to fire them. His case went to the Supreme Court and was repudiated by the judges who were protecting new labor laws.
"Objectivity was a code of professional ethics for a few years before it was used as a weapon against the status quo," Wallace says in his accompanying podcast, "The View from Somewhere."
It was also around this time that ideas about objective and impartial reporting were codified in the private policies of newspapers, as the newspapers guild was forming. The hypocrisy of media outlets who don't believe that their employees should vote is reminiscent of the Citizen United Case in 2010, which barred federal law saying that companies cannot urge employees to support specific politicians. The refutation was denounced by newspapers, but that didn't reflect these changes in their own companies' stances against implicating how they should vote—or not vote.
I went to a very political college, but never felt much optimism in my veins or political bumper stickers for the voting process. To me, elections never appeared to be a "playing field of politics" like The New York Times paints them, but a media spectacle that gives the viewer an illusion of an "insider" view of politics, when in reality, the story isn't about the voter's choice, but campaigns themselves.
The "political process" isn't a playing field or a game. It's a strenuous process that spits out the vulnerable and leaves the real martyrs—those who gave up their lives so their ancestors could vote—to want to continue their work.
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But if politics was a game, it would be Monopoly. So many already know they are going to lose, but keep playing anyway, so as not to appear a "sore loser." Many decide to give up. I come from a lineage of suppressed voters, and I do not intend on giving up.
My uncle was a politician and my father lacked basic democratic rights so I could be a journalist—I believe this because their citizenship journeys were a condition of our voting histories. Because of their journeys to citizenship, I know how precious the right to vote is—it takes a lifetime to earn and a moment to undo.
I have never been told by an employer that I should not vote, but I have witnessed newspaper cultures that promoted this kind of thinking. I would never unravel the years of hard work my family has committed to. I plan on participating in democracy by defending it in my journalism and by continuing a lineage of suppressed voters into invigorated ones, and to vote for the weakest in society.