Toner Prize winner Dan Balz says fair reporting is critical for voters' decisions

Georgie Silvarole

October 2, 2015

Being a political reporter comes with a hefty responsibility, Dan Balz says — the free press plays a crucial role in the structure of a democratic society.

“It’s not our role to tell you how to think,” Balz told an audience at the Newhouse School on Tuesday evening. “My vote ultimately is not more important than anybody else’s vote.”

But many, many people care what the chief correspondent for The Washington Post has to say, or at least write.

“I think some people would say he is the dean of political reporting at The Washington Post now,” Newhouse Dean Lorraine Branham says.

Balz is the recipient of the Newhouse School’s Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting, which he won for a series of political profiles that illuminated the partisan divide in Washington. He spoke at Newhouse on Tuesday evening as a follow-up to the award presentation in the spring.

The Toner Prize honors the late Robin Toner, a 1976 graduate of Syracuse University, who spent 25 years as a reporter for The New York Times. She died in 2008.

Branham introduced and welcomed Balz to Newhouse and Joel Kaplan, associate dean for professional graduate studies and a professor of newspaper and online journalism, moderated the conversation. Kaplan talked with Balz about the already-hot 2016 presidential race.

Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Rick Perry made appearances in Balz’s and Kaplan’s dialogue, among other candidates in the running. Balz expressed his disdain toward what he called the “ESPNization” of political news — the overwhelming polls, statistics of who’s up/who’s down, and data about who’s winning/who’s losing that crowds out more important coverage.

“There is a point at which voters begin to look at candidates in a different way,” Balz says, adding that accurate and comprehensive reporting is what keeps voters informed. “I’m still enthusiastic about what I do as a journalist.”

Speaking to Hillary Clinton’s recent headlines about her private email server while secretary of state, Kaplan asked if voters care about a candidate’s honesty. “Does the voter care anymore if the candidate’s telling the truth?”

That none of the information was classified prior to the investigation and that it took five months for Clinton to admit a mistake is concerning, Balz says. The scandal will continue to follow her each time a new piece of information is made available, he says.

“The email story is also an example of the modern media. There are things happening that she has no control over now, and with each change in the story it recreates the discussion,” Balz says. “With the Clintons comes controversy — how much more of that does the country want to go through?”

When the two talked about Bernie Sanders’ campaign, Balz cited the financial collapse of 2008, and how families continue to struggle with the cost of college, healthcare and retirement. Bernie Sanders has tapped into that missing economic security, Balz says, but something else may be missing from his candidacy.

“Regarding Bernie Sanders — can he get elected? I think it’s a reach,” Balz says. “The thing that Sanders does not have at this time is minority support.”

This early in the race, Balz says the presidential campaign is just noise to a lot of voters.

“I think this kind of coverage evens out over time — candidates either survive it or they don’t,” Balz says. “That’s part of this brutal process we create to pick nominees.”

During his 37 years at The Washington Post, Balz has moved from reporter to analyst at one of the country’s most widely circulated newspapers. He is the co-author of “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election” and “Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival.” The registered Independent was asked Tuesday about his personal politics and how those affect his reporting.

“I think my politics are a little bit indefinable, and it’s also in part because of what I do,” Balz says. “At this stage in the election, I’m totally agnostic.”

Balz says his citizenship does grant him the right to vote, but not the right to alter his journalism in favor of a particular candidate. Balanced and clear reporting of modern politics is crucial to accurate coverage.

“We are not horse-pickers — it’s not your job to pick who’s going to win an election. Elections belong to voters,” Balz says. “When people see who won an election, they will know from the basis of your reporting why that happened.”

Georgie Silvarole is a junior newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.

Photos by Chase Guttman, a sophomore photography major at the Newhouse School.