a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Yup, the Daily Me

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.

3 Responses to “Yup, the Daily Me”

  1. Keith Berner Says:

    I am honored that my post caught your attention and agreement.

    But I don’t see my piece and Nicholas Kristof’s as dichotomous. For one thing, Kristof is talking about me when he cites the natural human tendency to seek information that confirms what one already thinks. I do this all the time. And he’s right that the death of fora (the printed media) where different views *may be* represented (my critique of the Post notwithstanding) makes it less likely that we will be seeking out divergent views when we act as our own gatekeepers. I agree with Kristof that the negative ramifications are disturbing.

    I agree in principle with your critique of Kristof for seeming to claim the need for professionals to supervise our news and opinion gathering. Alas, that is analogous to the age-old tension between direct and representative democracy. My view is that — as with so many things in life — the best course is one of balance, as opposed to one choice or the other.

    You are right, of course, that the main mission of newspapers ought to be reporting, rather than “opinionating.” And that was the heart of my critique of the Post: they were passing off as reporting what was really just their unsupported and/or unsupportable points of view. Sure, their 3/18 front page story included a lot of quotes, which made it reporting, after a fashion. But by choosing only to include quotes that supported one point of view, objectivity — a crucial (if unattainable) goal of reporting — was lost completely.

    In any case, I do value the editorials and op-ed pages of the print media. I love finding the voices (Kristof, often included) that bolster my views, but also the opportunity to read thoughtful folks on the other side (e.g., David Brooks and Kathleen Parker).

    Anyway, thanks for your input. You can count me a new fan of your blog.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks, Keith — vice versa as well. I hope you’re back to writing again, looks like there was a hiatus for a while.

    I’ve written about this general issue a few times, including once recently (“Late to the funeral“), which is why I picked up on it again when I saw your comments.

    I see what you’re saying about valuing diverse opinions, and in an ideal world, I suppose I’d try harder to both seek out conservative ones and genuinely value them. (I do read them.) As it is, I suppose I see the deck stacked in their favor, with the balance you seek badly tilted to the supposedly ‘authoritative’, actually self-serving, generally conservative major media. I think we should all primarily go ahead and form and own our own opinions, not weigh off dueling pundits against eachother. It’s all too easy to disguise a stable of pundits ranging from “A to B” as the sum total of respectable opinion.

    Meanwhile, to have someone from the NYTimes tell me I’m somehow endangering the public discourse because I ‘graze’ for opinions I share is just a little rich. It’s like having some basketball coach with a lifetime .250 win percentage doing color for the NCAAs — if he starts talking about “the fundamentals,” at some point I have to wonder why I’m listening. Kristof et al at the Times and Hiatt et al at the Post should get back to us when they actually cover, publish, and get right major news stories (e.g., Iraq’s lack of WMD, warrantless electronic wiretapping, mortage crisis/credit default swap mess) — and do so when the story is timely, not when it’s too late to matter.

    Until then, I think they haven’t earned the right for their well chosen, well bred opinions to matter much to me — on the whole, it seems likelier their companies are just serving a different master than either “the public” or “journalism” and not telling me. I think you identified a couple of data points supporting that contention with your observations about the two “news” items in the Post.

  3. mickarran Says:

    Just noticed this and while you both make interesting points (Keith’s in the comment above are particularly well taken) the fact, it seems to me, is that there’s nothing really different here. Maybe the newspapers had a sort pre-internet monopoly when they managed to squeeze themselves down to one paper per city but even then we read what we wanted to in the one paper we had. I remember complaining because many people seemed to read nothing but the local news and the comics.

    Nick maybe doesn’t know that but if we didn’t like what was in the paper we didn’t read it. But that whole discussion is a red herring. What this is really about isn’t gate-keeping but content management and – to be blunt – spin management. In order to do the latter you have to be the former. And the WaPo’s ownership wants to do the latter.

    They are a straight-out propaganda rag at this point. If they were anything else Fred Hiatt wouldn’t work there any more. The owners want to control the content of what we see and tell us what it means so they can protect the Establishment of which they are a part. The NYT is the same way. Murdoch obviously doesn’t even care if he loses money as long as his papers print his POV. Which they do.

    Kristof, whether deliberately or not, is defending his owners. Personally, I think Katie’s spinning in her grave.

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