TOPICS > Nation

Some Media Shifting to Add Point of View

June 18, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: For more than a century, objectivity — the dispassionate presentation of events and facts — has been considered an ideal in American journalism. That ideal or goal has always coexisted with another long and healthy American tradition: opinion journalism and editorializing.

But now in print, over the airwaves, and through the Internet, the line that separates the two may be blurring. Taking its cue from the success of talk radio, cable television has more and more offered programs melding news with opinion.

BILL O’REILLY, Fox News Host: … more dishonesty in the media…

JEFFREY BROWN: The FOX News Channel, the cable news ratings leader, has built much of its success through an opinionated evening lineup. News of the day is discussed and debated by hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, who leave little doubt about where they stand.

LOU DOBBS, CNN Anchor: After almost two weeks of intense, sometimes bitter debate…

JEFFREY BROWN: CNN’s evening news host, Lou Dobbs, has over time put more and more of his own views into his newscast, notably in his continuing coverage of immigration policy.

LOU DOBBS: Coming up next, a stunning defeat for pro-amnesty senators, pro-amnesty lobbyists in Washington, and their efforts to ram amnesty through the U.S. Senate and impose their will on the American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: On MSNBC’s “Countdown,” host Keith Olbermann regularly makes clear his disdain for the Bush administration, particularly its handling of the Iraq war.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC Anchor: Our fourth story on the “Countdown,” an upset stomach forcing Mr. Bush to skip out on some meetings at the G-8 summit in Germany today. Faced with an administration in perpetual crisis, you might be nauseous, too. In fact, chances are the Bush administration already has you sick to your stomach.

JEFFREY BROWN: Both Dobbs and Olbermann have seen significant ratings increases over the last year. Olbermann has even adopted the famous signoff of legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow.

KEITH OLBERMANN: Good night, and good luck.

EDWARD MURROW, Former News Anchor: Good evening. We’re standing on a rooftop just near Melbourne Road and Harley Street.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, it was Murrow, from his pedestal on CBS News and before an audience of millions, who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

WALTER CRONKITE, Former News Anchor: For reasons of U.S. pride as much as U.S. tactics, Kasan has been built up into a major bastion.

JEFFREY BROWN: More than a decade later, Walter Cronkite, also on CBS, returned from Vietnam and pronounced the war a stalemate.

WALTER CRONKITE: It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could. This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Johnson would say later, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

In recent years, it’s mainstream television and newspapers that have been losing Middle America, as viewers and readers flock to the Internet, and its teeming mix of Web blogs opining on the news of the day and so much else.

Now, two views of the news and views. Callie Crossley is a contributor to the media criticism program “Beat the Press” on Boston’s WGBH and program manager at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. She spent 13 years as an award-winning television producer at ABC News and was also a producer of the critically acclaimed PBS documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.”

Jeff Jarvis is author of the Web blog and an associate professor and director of the Interactive Journalism Program at the City University of New York. A former critic for TV Guide, he now writes a new media column for the Guardian newspaper in London.

Well, Callie Crossley, starting with you, is there a blurring occurring out there? And is it a problem?

Opinion journalism

CALLIE CROSSLEY, "Beat the Press," WGBH: Yes, there is a blurring, and primarily because I think that most people don't understand that there is a blurring. Yes, people can discern the difference between news and opinion, but I think when you have a context like so many of the cable shows offer, when people are switching back and forth, it's difficult for people to make an intelligent assessment about, all right now, that's the factual information and this is the opinion?

I have no problem with opinion journalism. There are some people out there writing some very good things based on the facts. But it seems to me that it ought to be very clearly defined so that people understand: These are the facts, and this is my opinion. And that's what I'm concerned about as I watch this blurring become -- really, the line is almost erased in some cases.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jeff Jarvis, what do you see, a problem with more opinion and a loss of objectivity?

JEFF JARVIS, I don't think objectivity was ever attainable. It was a false high standard that we could not help but fail. And I think the blurring has always been there. The problem is, we in journalism have not admitted it.

We were never in the job, Jeff, of delivering the truth. We've always been in the job of helping the public decide what is true. And I think that we lost sight of that.

I actually welcome more voices and more opinions in a democracy. That's what journalism used to be, media used to be, until we got to a monopolistic state in the '50s through the end of the last century. When we have many voices and many viewpoints expressed, that has to be better for democracy, and discussion, and a more informed society.

The fact they I can go back and forth now among channels and see different viewpoints is better than only getting one effort to give me "one size fits all" news, as if it could give me the truth, and it never could. And the public never believed that it could. The public, I think, always knew that there was a perspective behind this, and they rather probably resented it not being shared.

Reporting the facts

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Callie Crossley, let me try to parse this a little bit. If you've reported and produced a story, let's say, do you want the audience to know where you yourself stand on the issue?

CALLIE CROSSLEY: No, I don't, unless I'm in the business of being an opinion journalist, in which case it's clearly stated that's what I'm doing. I've take the facts of the day, and then I'm now going to tell you what my impression about that is or what my taught are about that.

I think what the issue is -- I want to be clear. Many voices is great. You know, I'm happy to see more voices out there. I think there's a role for advocacy. But when advocacy is defined as "journalism," then I think we get into a problem, as far as I am concerned.

Of course, all journalists have always had opinions about what they may be producing or writing about. But the point was that, in their dissemination of the story to the public, I did not know what your opinion was. That, to me, is what brought about the fairness, so that all of the voices are represented in a piece, but you didn't walk away finding the viewer or the reader saying, "Oh, well, the reason she said that was because she believes x, y or z."

There has got to be at some point some dissemination of the facts. Then, after people define what their opinion is, beyond that, fine. But give me the facts at least first, so that I can be an informed citizen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, jump in there, Jeff Jarvis. You're suggesting that the reporter comes with background, biases, and why not put it out there?

JEFF JARVIS: Yes. I have part of my blog where I say probably way too much about myself. I was raised in journalism school with that god of objectivity, that ethic of objectivity, and I come to see now that I've learned from the blog world more than one ethic here.

I see three ethics that I've learned in blogs. One is the ethic of the correction. Blogs are, frankly, much quicker and better about correcting themselves than I saw in mainstream media in my time.

Two is the ethic of the link, which says, "Don't take my word for it. Here's my source material. Here's what I'm talking about. Here's what I'm disagreeing with."

And the third is the ethic of transparency. Now, of course, that can be taken to a cartoonish extent and one need not be able to make assumptions just because there's a one-word label. Oh, I'm liberal; ergo, this is what I think. I'm not suggesting that.

But I think that there is a need for people to know our perspectives, our background, our vantage points, and our views. And then we go then beyond that and take that out of the discussion.

Now I think the public spends too much time trying to figure out our hidden agendas, and we try well to hide them. Instead, I think we need to put our own views out there and then say, "All right, now let's discuss the facts." I absolutely agree we want the facts, but we want them in context.

Trusting the public

JEFFREY BROWN: So, staying with you -- oh, I'm sorry, go ahead.

CALLIE CROSSLEY: I think that presumes that reporters, that journalists, rather, have a hidden agenda. And, see, I'm not starting from that vantage point. I don't believe that reporters who are doing the job of trying to present information they believe is in the public trust are beginning with an agenda. Sure, there are some folks with an agenda.

JEFF JARVIS: What is the public trust, though? What is the public trust?

CALLIE CROSSLEY: I'm sorry. Well, I think you define the public trust as information that will help me as a citizen make a decision about my life and about all of the things that impact my life.

You know, when I think about stories like the investigation by the Washington Post into the Walter Reed hospital, when I think about Brian Ross's investigations about breach of security, I mean, lots of folks talked about it. Lots of the people on the cable news and on the blogs talked about it, but they never did the original reporting. If we don't have something to begin with, how are you going to have a discussion about it?

JEFFREY BROWN: Jeff Jarvis, let me ask you something that Callie Crossley raised early in this discussion is to what extent do viewers or readers know what they're getting? And to what extent do you think they care about this distinction between opinion and fact?

JEFF JARVIS: I think it's terribly insulting to the public, whom we trust our democracy, not to think that they cannot tell the difference between fact and opinion. I believe that people do. I think they are smart. And if you don't believe that, then you kind of don't believe in democracy, free markets, reformed religion, lots of things. The reasons we are journalists is to help inform the public so the public can be wiser and make better decisions.

I have a lot of respect -- I've gained and learned a lot of respect by hearing more voices from the public. The public is smarter than we probably ever gave them credit for. And I think that the basic news judgment of what we decide to cover is itself advocacy, is itself a decision that we made that that's worthwhile covering and that's not.

And we have to explain those decisions. We should open up our news meetings. We should open up our process more. There are some who say that we should be judged only by our product, not our process; I think we must also be judged by our process.

And then let's do a great job of it. If you go to the British newspaper model, or the Guardian, for whom I work, it declares its mission to be the leading liberal voice in the world. Well, once they've said that, then it's still incumbent upon them to report fairly, completely, accurately, honestly, with an intellectual honesty, as well. And I think that we can all do that, but we also are human beings. And when we act like we're not, it's a bit of a lie of omission to that public, and the public can and should judge us as a result.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about that, Callie Crossley, going to that kind of model?

CALLIE CROSSLEY: Let me first say that I'm reminded of a study that was reported a couple years ago, when people were asked whether or not they thought Rush Limbaugh was a journalist, and a lot of them said they did. And that's because Rush Limbaugh discusses news and current events.

And so it's not that I don't think people can discern between opinion and fact. But I think, in this culture, it's given that if people are talking about news and current events, somehow they're a journalist. And what a journalist does is not easily understood.

So I would agree with Jeff that we could do a better job of describing that. I have no problem opening up the process of how it's done, and, in fact, I think if people understood what the gathering of information and the sourcing of that information is all about, they'd have a better respect for it, and then perhaps they could even discern better what then is opinion and not based on fact. That's my issue.

Do all reporters have an agenda?

JEFFREY BROWN: Callie, let me ask you...

CALLIE CROSSLEY: With regard to the way that the British press announces, you know, its viewpoint, I mean, I think that's something that's been a part of the way they've handled it there. And I would hate to see it here in this country, because I think that people right now, with so many opinion-makers out there, folks come to the table with what Jeff has already articulated: believing that any reporter, any journalist, has an agenda. And I just don't believe that that's true.

The agenda, if there is one, is about trying to gather information and present it in a way that will allow you, the viewer or the reader, to come to a conclusion about events in their lives about which you can make an informed decision. It's not all about everybody trying to, you know, put forth something, as in the case of Lou Dobbs.

And as a matter of act, there's nothing wrong with Lou Dobbs having an opinion. I just resent his doing it in the midst of a news show, when it's described as a news show. Say what you have to say about the facts of the story, Mr. Dobbs, and then say, "OK, now here's my opinion about it." But what you just played in that piece, with his calling something "pro-amnesty, I think is really -- it should be labeled commentary.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jeff Jarvis, Callie just sort of put forward the stakes as she sees it. Let me just let you respond. Why does this matter? I mean, what are the stakes here in this discussion and this debate that's going on in journalism now?

JEFF JARVIS: The stakes are, indeed, journalism and reporting and an informed society. I believe we need a lot more journalism. I'm sure neither of you would journalism. I'm sure neither of you would disagree with that. The more reporting we have, the more facts we get out, the more viewpoints we hear, the better off we're going to be.

So I think we need to have a very broad definition of journalism and not define it by who does it, the job of a journalist. Journalism can be done by anyone. It can be done by people at Virginia Tech in the news or 7/7 bombings in London.

Those bits of reporting can come from anywhere now, and they may come from someone with an opinion. That's OK. And I think that's part of what you're saying about Dobbs and others. You can be intellectually honest or intellectually dishonest; it really has nothing to do with whether or not you have an opinion and state it. It's whether or not you tell the truth.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We'll have to leave it there. Jeff Jarvis and Callie Crossley, thank you both very much.