BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON
“This was Romney’s moment to make the case, that he is the substantive one, the electable one…But he didn’t. Instead he queued up his talking points…”
Who would you think made a comment like that? A cable news show talking head or a political consultant from the camp of the opposition? A newspaper columnist or a blogger? Not this time.
The opinion, not factual reporting or even analysis– was that of Philip Rucker, reporter for the Washington Post and it appeared in a Page 1 story under the opinion-rich headline: “Up close and way out of his comfort zone; On campaign trail Romney boggles chance to make connection with voters.”
The headline and the story violated what I, and I assume other consumers of American journalism, consider one of the sacred standards of reporting: objectivity.
Rucker’s opinions weren’t confined to the first couple of paragraphs. Most of the piece was opinion or at best subjective analysis. But it wasn’t labeled commentary or analysis or opinion. It was presented as a straight-up news story, on the front page, no less.
Rucker isn’t the only journalist taking liberties. There’s this: “The battle lines of the 2012 election will be the most sharply ideological in at least a generation. President Obama and his Republican opponent will present vastly different visions of the role of government, how an economy best prospers and, still more fundamentally, what kind of nation the United States should be.”
Not an editorial opinion piece, either, but a front-page news story in The Hill Oct. 31, by Neil Stanage.
And this: “House Speaker John Beohner’s mantra is that the House should “work its will.” It’s telling that his will and that of the House are so often at odds.” Really?
More commentary on the front page of Politico by Mike Allen.
These ‘news’ stories are symptomatic of a disease that has consumed journalism, what I call “comment creep”. It has taken over the profession and become standard fare.
The personal opinions of reporters are seldom so insightful they are newsworthy and if they were, not Page 1 newsworthy. In fact, Rucker’s comments are easily arguable, and maybe even a little naïve and uninformed. What he wanted from Romney—some new and profound insight into him and his candidacy— is usually not what makes an effective campaign and ultimately wins elections. Rucker doesn’t get that. But I digress.
I grew up in an era of journalism when opinions were confined to editorial pages or clearly distinct broadcast segments, and they were restricted to professionals who were commentators and not reporters (remember the pudgy local TV station manager would hit the screen after the newscast in his plaid sport coat and striped tie and opined about the previous night’s city council meeting?).
I’ve often thought that David Broder, one of the great icons of journalistic excellence and integrity, screwed it all up, at least in the modern era. It was because of Broder that the lines between reporter and opinionator began to blur. He did both. He was given expansive license to report and comment on current events, particularly campaign finance. But even with Broder, the opinions appeared on the editorial page and the reporting appeared on the news pages. Walter Cronkite, the master of the raised eyebrow and eventually the critic of the Vietnam War, was another of the pioneers. That was the beginning of comment creep and it has been unrelenting ever since.
It wasn’t long before news stories with a ‘commentary’ or ‘opinion’ or ‘analysis’ slug began showing up in the news hole and broadcast journalists began sneaking into their pieces a personal observation here and a snide comment there. Then commentaries and columns started creeping into the news pages, broadcast journalists got downright blatant at injecting personal opinion into their reporting, the terms ‘advocacy’ and ‘adversarial’ journalism became part of the lexicon, as news magazine formats flourished, bringing along new aggressive tactics such as the ambush, hidden cameras and stings, and the lamest iteration, reporters interviewing reporters. And now we are inundated with Internet news and the blogosphere, where everybody is a journalist and nobody has to identify themselves.
So here we are with more intellectualizing than we need or want and too little basic, objective, factual, informed information on which we can make our own best judgments and decisions.
The same day the Rucker piece appeared, Howard Kurtz, one of the few media critics on television, had a panel about an MSNBC correspondent moonlighting as an advisor to the Occupy Wall Street protestors, another serious and inexcusable violation of journalist ethics. Terrance Smith of PBS condemned it. But Dana Milbank said it was the inevitable result of what I referred to as comment creep. It shouldn’t be inevitable. The profession should have tighter standards, more oversight and greater disciplines imposed internally and externally.
Had it not been for Kurtz, this discussion would have never made the airwaves. The industry needs more Kurtz-type introspection, not less. But without some serious self-examination, improvement is unlikely. Egos are too large, consumers are either ambivalent or lacking the leverage to bring about change, and journalism, as a profession, has lost its compass and its identity.
Anything goes today because somewhere in the murky, fluid world of journalistic standards, there is an excuse for every form of behavior.
Where there was once a great expanse of space between objective journalism and talk radio/cable infotainment, there is today little room for a toothpick to pass between. It is no longer a matter of difference, only a matter of degrees.
It’s too bad.
Less pontificating and less talk would be welcome relief and in its place we could hope for more factual information, better listeners, and more contemplative thought, all of which contribute much to the one value so essential to our own governance–knowledge.