Monday, June 21, 2010

Just my opinion, ma'am

When I wrote for my high school newspaper, I entered several journalism contests in the editorial category. Most of the time the best I did was to get a honorable mention, but my last contest my senior year I actually won for my editorial on busing. Remember that issue? Serendipity played a role in my victory, because a couple of weeks before that contest I had been listening to a talk show on KPFK, the National Public Radio affiliate in Los Angeles. The topic: busing.

The contest organizers never told me that I won because my editorial exhaustively covered the issue, just as KPFK had that day. Of course I had an opinion--it wouldn't have been an editorial otherwise. As if I were debating, I discussed the pros and cons and explained why the position I took was the correct course of action. I was shooting for a well-reasoned, earned opinion that was based on my interpretation of the facts.

As a high school senior, my mother was fond of telling me that I thought I knew everything. (The fact that I didn't was going to become abundantly clear to me over the next few years.) But the one thing I knew even as a seventeen-year-old was that editorials are distinct from news, a fact that escapes news producers and consumers alike.

Nowadays it's fashionable for editorialists to write copy that tears down their opponents' point of view without ever explicitly stating their own solutions. Charles Krauthammer's article in the local paper entitled "Obama still dreamer in chief" is a great example of this kind of writing. While he doesn't hesitate to describe President Obama as "fatuous" and otherwise unmoored from reality, never once does Mr. Krauthammer come right out and say, "Oil producers ought to drill wherever and whenever they can, and nothing, not even the worst oil spill in U.S. history, ought to disrupt the flow of oil to consumers. And there's no need to think of 50 years from now, after that supply of oil is depleted and other spills of this magnitude have occurred. Drill, baby, drill!"

If this is what he had written, the best I could say is that at least he was intellectually honest.

There are no news sources that are unbiased, primarily because there is no one alive who is unbiased. The closest thing to an unbiased news source is the Christian Science Monitor. I haven't followed its coverage of the health care debate, but I would expect a bias against medical technology. FOX News' "Fair and Balanced" moniker: baloney paid for with Rupert Murdoch's gazillions. Fair and Balanced, compared with what?

Rush and O'Reilly aren't the only ones who are confusing opinion for fact and entertainment for news. I'm as big a fan of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" as the next guy. For the record, I think Stewart and Colbert know where the lines are. They wouldn't be performing on Comedy Central if they didn't. The trouble is, some of their viewers don't get it. It scares me when I hear people say they get their news from "The Daily Show." I take Jon Stewart at his word--this is fake news, and he's a fake news anchor. The fun is in the comic perspective he takes, completely purposefully, unlike Glenn Beck's deadly serious yet unintentionally ridiculous diatribes. Stewart and Colbert's zingers routinely hit the mark. Sometimes they do it better than the "real" news anchors. Still, both shows are comedy first, and opinion second, with commentary on current events mixed in.

If you want reassurance that there are still some people in the news biz who know how to do their jobs, I recommend "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer." on PBS. I am always reassured, about both the state of the journalism business and the world, when I watch Lehrer's show. The guests, who are experts on the issues, are often sitting beside each other, and frequently, in the studio with the interviewer. That lends itself to more reasoned, civil discourse. It's really difficult, unless you're congenitally ill-mannered, to personally attack someone when they're breathing the same air.

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