Should journalists 'fess up?
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 1:58 PM
It is a clash of ideas about the nature of journalism itself.
The new thinking, among many bloggers and media critics, is that journalists need to stop hiding the fact that they have opinions. It is a farce that no one is buying. Far better, they say, to put your cards on the table, admit your biases and offer your analysis. Readers will appreciate the candor, factor in your ideology and reach their own conclusions.
No way, the traditionalists say. Journalists, except for op-ed types, must preserve their credibility as fair arbiters. They can't be popping off about which politicians and policies they like. In a world awash in opinions, they need to be impartial referees.
The debate has heated up since a string of recent incidents. Helen Thomas resigned after telling the Israelis to get the hell out of Palestine. Dave Weigel gave up his Washington Post blog after leaked e-mails showed him trashing conservatives. CNN fired Octavia Nasr, senior editor for the Middle East, for tweeting about her respect for a just-deceased Hezbollah leader.
Mainstream news organizations can't have their staffers seeming to openly side with a terrorist organization (or unconditionally taking Israel's side, for that matter), or telling Jews to go back to Germany, or telling Matt Drudge to set himself on fire. That's the way they operate. But what about in less tendentious cases?
As anyone who reads this column or my Twitter feed knows, I believe that journalists have to show more of themselves, engage their readers and viewers, and not pretend to be automatons. We are all analysts now, and we need to let our customers in on more of our thinking, without blatantly taking sides on the issues we cover (I feel free to tell you in the wake of the World Cup final, for instance, that it's hard for me to get into a sport with no scoring in regulation). As a media critic, I can tell you that I found ESPN's breathless LeBron special to be pretty crass, but can still be fair in asking the network or Mike Wilbon or Jim Gray to defend it. And if a congressman yells "You lie!" at the president during the State of the Union, that, to me, is not a one-side-said-it's-fine/one-side-said-it's-awful matter.
But I'm old-fashioned enough to think that I shouldn't be sounding off on the guts of political issues, not as long as I'm a reporter. I can pick apart arguments and point out inconsistencies as long as I've done the legwork to back it up. But there are boundaries.
By the way, while I have no doubt that most journalists lean to the left on social issues, newsrooms are generally not hotbeds of seething ideology. People with very strong views about politics and policy tend to become activists, not journalists; most reporters I know are more interested in a good story than in who is helped or hurt by that story.
I'm all for MSM outlets hiring bloggers and other opinionators, as long as we make clear that they're writing with a point of view and are not in the same category as beat reporters. People who consume news are smart. They can figure it out, as long as we're straight with them.
Here are two other takes on the matter. Michael Arrington, the editor of TechCrunch, begins with a prominent journalist who refused to privately describe his views (though Arrington believed he was anti-Bush):
"My point to him was that it was necessary for people to know his political biases in order to understand his content in context. I believe it is quite impossible to not bake your bias into your content. He disagreed and said that the core of his training was to do just that. Of course, his political bias was fairly evident to me, he clearly hated Bush with a passion. But I couldn't make him say it.
"But he's wrong. An added adjective here, an added paragraph there, just the right quote from a source and voil?, you've got yourself an opinion piece masked as a straight up unbiased piece of reporting. . . .