My Opinion ... of Opinion Journalism

Today's cuppa: Newman's Own Royal Tea chased with office coffee

(Below: printing press and other memorabilia at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times)

0507091426a.jpgWith Lou Dobbs' departure from CNN, there's a great deal of chatter about opinion journalism -- or advocacy journalism or commentary or the Op-Ed page of your local paper, whatever you want to call it -- and whether it's a hazard to the republic.

As a Founding Father might say, poppycock.

All our Founders wanted was a free press, and that means a press free to talk about whatever it deems fit, and believe you me, the press needled our early presidents just as much as it needles our recent ones.

Of course, that doesn't mean even the Founders liked it.

We got all the way to our second president before the battle began ...

John Adams on press regulation

 

"If  there is ever to be an amelioration of the condition of  mankind, philosophers, theologians, legislators, politicians and moralists will find that the regulation of the press is the most difficult, dangerous and important they have to resolve ".

 

So wrote John Adams, who had been the second President of the USA, to his friend John Lloyd on 11 February 1815. The quote was used as an epigraph to their 1947 report by the Commission on Freedom of the Press, aka the Hutchins Commission.


Click here for the original.

So the fact that that an elected leader doesn't like the press is neither here nor there. Our right to a free press is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which means it is a fundamental right, not given to us or able to be removed from us by a politician. The press doesn't exist by the leave of any politician, and it is not answerable to them.

Oh, it's answerable to a whole bunch of other people -- from publishers to advertisers to, most importantly, readers and viewers -- but not to the government (at least not yet, despite the specter of a newspaper bailout hovering around).

And if you think today's commentators or news organizations are slanted, you should look at what Adams had to deal with. The tradition of an impartial press is a recent invention -- but a noble goal.

I don't know if humans (and journalists are still humans) can ever be truly impartial. Probably the best we can hope for -- and the least we should demand from journalists who cover hard news -- is fairness and a willingness to follow the facts wherever they lead, whether or not the truth uncovered agrees with the the journalist's or the news organization's worldview.

But as for opinion commentary, as long as it's labeled as such, I have no issue with it. Nobody has any trouble understanding the distinction between Page One and the Op-Ed Page. TV is no different. There needs to be a bright line between news anchors and commentators, and as long as there is -- and unfortunately, that's not always the case -- I believe people are bright enough to figure it out.

Oh, but critics claim, people will get all their news from commentators! They won't listen to us! Well, that's the power of free will and choice. If you want people to listen to your news, make it interesting and compelling, produce it well, and give it the ring of truth and honesty. Just because someone watches opinion shows doesn't automatically mean they won't watch news shows.

But nobody wants to watch boring news shows, no matter how solid their reporting is. People have choices now in media. It's not just the daily newspaper and the nightly network news. If you want to be read or listened to, you just might have to work harder. One reason opinion shows are so popular is they're not boring.

And anyone who wants to squelch popular opinion commentators -- whether in print, online, on TV or on the radio -- to protect their own piece of the pie needs to reread that First Amendment.

There's a reason it's called the free marketplace of ideas, not the protected reserve of ideas.

But can opinion commentators report news? News is news, no matter whether it comes over the back fence, in a pennysaver paper or on television. Opinion commentators can break news, but if they are, that might mean that the actual news reporters are a little slow on the uptake.

When's the last time that the Op-Ed page scooped a print investigative journalist?

The media environment isn't going to get any less competitive or cutthroat. If anything, the choices will keep proliferating exponentially. For those news organizations who've spent a few decades with comfortable near-monopolies and now cry foul -- tough.

As one of my favorite quotes says:

"If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."
General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army.

BTW, here's a test. If all opinion commentators agreed with your opinion, would you have an issue with the existence of opinion commentary?

Sauce for the goose ...