Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 19th, 2009
Fellow Takoma Park blogger Keith Berner took the Washington Post to task (to wit, “WaPo is a rag“) for a couple of stories today — An Imperiled Agenda: Anger Over Firm Depletes Obama’s Political Capital and President’s Budget Strategy Under Fire: Tactic May Break Obama’s Pledge, GOP Says. Berner:
…the Post has taken it upon itself to declare on two successive days that AIG bonuses have caused the Obama Presidency to fail and that Obama is a dangerous heretic because the GOP says so.
In response, a reader on the listserv he shared this with (teaser:“The Washington Post declares the Obama administration dead. And then declares war on it”) replied that the Post’s articles were true and objective; the same reader subsequently recommended an opinion piece by Nick Kristof of the New York Times entitled “The Daily Me.”
So I had a look — and concluded that I agree a lot more with Keith than with Nick.
In my opinion, the headlines and stories Mr. Berner talks about — particularly the first one — inject a great deal of opinion into the alleged news story they cover, to the point where the opinion seems more the point than the coverage:
…threatening to derail … public [...] support … compounded the political problems that the huge expenditures pose … quickly undermined whatever political capital Obama has earned with his past efforts…
Given that the article lacks any polling data to back this up — let alone data carefully analyzed to distinguish true reaction to the AIG business from inevitable “end of honeymoon” numbers — these are nearly fact-free, untestable hypotheses. The article is clearly designed more to establish the Post as the arbiter of “political capital,” based on its ineffable understanding of the notion, than as the reporter of anything based on fact. The “Under Fire” article is more straight-up news reporting, I think, though it commits an important bit of “framing” by saying that “moderate” Democrats disagree with the possibility of making filibusters of key bills impossible. Since “moderate” is perceived as synonymous with “reasonable,” that colors the article quite a bit.
For his part, Mr. Kristof begins his article by mourning the passing of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a sentiment I concur with. But Kristof continues:
…the public is increasingly seeking its news not from mainstream television networks or ink-on-dead-trees but from grazing online.
When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.
Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.
That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.
For my part, I think the reason to mourn the passing of the Seattle P-I (in print format) and other papers is the loss of actual news reporting, not the loss of op-ed pages, let alone op-eds masquerading as news stories.
No, Mr. Kristof: we can, we will, and we even should supply our own opinions, and while it may be worthwhile to challenge them if they’re wrong, there’s no important reason to “challenge” them under your professional supervision or anyone else’s. It’s also great and fine to read Mr. Kristof’s opinions, but I think he’s tellingly mistaken: the opinion leadership role newspapers play is their least important, deeply inessential function from the public’s point of view. And the opinion vetting role they all too often play has been a downright pernicious one.
Those roles, of course, are and have been more than half the point from many newspaper publishers’ points of view, but that’s a very different matter. When they allow it to creep off the op-ed pages and onto page A-1, people like Keith are quite right to call them on it.
UPDATE, EDIT, 3/20: “(in print format)” added. For an excellent analysis of the Seattle P-I story, see Mick Arran’s “Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the New Age” post at his “Witness for the Prosecution” blog.