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March 31, 2006

When News Becomes Bloviation

Brace yourselves. I never thought I would say this, but I am rapidly becoming a huge fan of Michael Kinsley.

This is encouraging, because I am always looking for intelligent writers who can challenge me to look at things in a different light. The problem I run into is that rarely do I find op-eds I can't pick apart six ways to Sunday before I've gotten to the main premise. Moreover, the thousand points of illogic leading up to the central idea make it difficult to take the argument seriously. Mr. Kinsley, on the other hand, can string together a coherent case, even for a thesis I ultimately find unpersuasive. Today's effort is a case in point:

CNN's Lou Dobbs -- formerly a mild-mannered news anchor noted for his palsy-walsy interviews with corporate CEOs -- has turned into a raving populist xenophobe. Ratings are up. It's like watching one of those "makeover" shows that turn nerds into fops or bathrooms into ballrooms. According to the New York Times, this demonstrates "that what works in cable television news is not an objective analysis of the day's events" but "a specific point of view on a sizzling-hot topic." Nicholas Lemann made the same point in a recent New Yorker profile of Bill O'Reilly. Cable, he wrote "is increasingly a medium of outsize, super-opinionated franchise personalities."

The head of CNN/US, Jonathan Klein, said that Lou Dobbs's license to emote is "sui generis" among CNN anchors, but that is obviously not true. Consider Anderson Cooper, CNN's rising star. His career was made when he exploded in self-righteous anger and gave Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu an emotional tongue-lashing about the inadequate relief effort after Hurricane Katrina. Klein has said that Cooper has "a refreshing way of being the anti-anchor . . . getting involved the way you might." In short, he's acting like a human being, albeit a somewhat overwrought one.

And now on CNN and elsewhere, you can see other anchors struggling to act like human beings, with varying degrees of success. Only five months before anointing Cooper as CNN's new messiah (nothing human is alien to Anderson Cooper; nothing alien is human to Lou Dobbs), Klein killed CNN's long-running debate show "Crossfire," on the grounds that viewers wanted information and not opinions. Klein said he agreed "wholeheartedly" with Jon Stewart's widely discussed and uncharacteristically stuffy remark that "Crossfire" and similar shows were "hurting America" with their occasionally raucous displays of emotional commitment to a political point of view.

I hope Mr. Kinsley will forgive me if I take a moment to wallow in an entirely understandable moment of schadenfreude. In their panic over the inroads made by those horrid, pajama-clad pundits, the mainstream media have taken to acting like a bunch of... dare I say it?....bloggers. But is this a good thing? I don't think so.

Kinsley's argument seems to be that since, being human, it is impossible for reporters of the news to be completely objective, they should simply abandon the attempt altogether. This strikes me as somewhat akin to a marriage counselor saying that since sexual temptation is something we all experience sooner or later, why bother with that whole monogamy thing? We'll just redefine marriage so that it encompasses a more inclusive range of possibilities. Problem solved.

There's just one problem with Mr. Kinsley's little scenario: that wouldn't be marriage anymore; just as opinion-mongering isn't even close to news reporting. The problem with journalism isn't that journalists often fail to live up to the standards. People have always failed to live up to whatever rules societies, organizations, and employers lay out for them; human fallibility is something we are stuck with. Indeed, it is the reason we make rules in the first place, and is therefore hardly an indictment of "the system" but precisely the problem the system is designed to address. The solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

People achieve by aiming for lofty goals; often ones which may be unattainable, but which serve as a spur to greater industry and help us to perform better, even when we fall short, than we would have in their absence. What the news industry needs is not less, but more rigor. And like any business, an appellation that would no doubt appall many journalists but is nonetheless accurate as their readers are consumers of news and newspapers are profit-seeking ventures, the news industry could benefit from some truth in advertising.

How about labeling news as news and opinion as opinion? How about establishing some clear ethical and journalistic standards for each, and what's more, enforcing them? Consumers of news and opinion are, I believe, entitled to know what they're reading. One can slant even true stories considerably by simply leaving out inconvenient facts, as the media's blatently dishonest reporting of the Joe Wilson story or the recurring "imminent threat" meme so clearly show.

"Recharacterization" (telling readers what a public figure really said) of material quotes without including the original text for comparison in a news story should be grounds for disciplinary action in any reputable newspaper, yet mainstream papers like the Washington Post and NY Times do this routinely as though it were actual news they were reporting and not the most transparent of opinion-mongering.

I do agree with Mr. Kinsley on this, however:

Without the pretense of objectivity, the fundamental journalist's obligation of factual accuracy would remain. Opinion journalism brings new ethical obligations as well. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counterarguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or an argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

Much of today's opinion journalism, especially on TV, is not a great advertisement for the notion that American journalism could be improved by more opinion and less effort at objectivity. But that's because the conditions under which much opinion journalism is practiced today make honesty harder, and doubt practically impossible.

His writing often lives up to many of the conditions he sets out for responsible opinion writing. Sometimes it falls short, as I imagine, my own does from time to time. This is why I continue to read his work, even when, as today, I disagree with his conclusion.

Posted by Cassandra at March 31, 2006 08:19 AM


I think there is one good show that lives up to this type of standard. Tucker Carlson, on MSNBC, 11pm, has become my favorite cable news show. He has opinion and news. It is always a discussion, not a yelling match, and he acknowledges the arguments on all sides.

Posted by: KJ at March 31, 2006 01:28 PM

I find Tucker Carlson hard to watch because I dislike him personally for some reason (it may be the bow tie), but I agree with you - he runs a good show. I should probably watch it.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 2, 2006 03:40 AM

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