Saturday, January 14, 2012

James Taranto again

What should newspapers be about? Well, how many hours do we have for a discussion of that kind? Let me concentrate on just one issue and that is the distinction between reporting and opinion pieces. It has always been understood, if not always adhered to, that while editorials, columns and other opinion pieces are free to say what the author thinks, news reports, whether of a war in the Middle East or a planning decision that affects a few hundred people, should be more or less objective. At the very least, the various sides and opinions should be quoted or referred to without any epithets.

As we know that rule has, for some time now, more honoured in the breach than the observance. (I call my readers' attention to such interesting episodes as the Man with the Green Helmet or the second flare, all much covered on EUReferendum. And there are many more.)

As far as most readers are concerned, however, that distinction remains valid and its erosion has contributed to the downfall of newspapers. The BBC is an even bigger problem, as it is a tax-funded operation and has a Charter that specifically forbids it to display political bias. But that discussion, too, would involve many hours.

Not all people agree with this or understand this and on this issue I have found a serious divergence between people who are roughly speaking on the right of the political spectrum and those on the left. People who read the Daily Telegraph, by and large, know that its opinions are biased and often complain that they are not biased enough. They want to read a newspaper with whose opinions they agree though they would prefer the news coverage to be more or less accurate.

Readers of other right-wing newspapers, such as the Daily Mail or, most of the time, the Sun, take the same attitude, though when it comes to the Daily Wail, one wonders how their reporting can be taken seriously. When it comes to the readers of the Grauniad, for instance, or the Independent, not to mention those whose opinions are formed entirely by the BBC, the picture is very different.  It is not that they want a newspaper they agree with - nothing wrong with that - it is that they do not understand that what their newspaper says is an opinion, necessarily slanted by its political stance. That, they insist, is the objective truth, not just in the reporting but in the editorials. Indeed, any reporting that does not agree with the editorial stance, must be wrong, biased, unobjective, and downright dishonest.

Over on the other side of the Pond they have the same problem and this, at last, brings me to James Taranto's piece in the Wall Street Journal about yet another row in the New York Times. (Yes, of course, he is gleeful about it.) It seems that
Hilarity ensued yesterday after Arthur Brisbane, "public editor" of the New York Times, posted a blog entry titled "Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" He was compelled to publish a follow-up post hours later to reply to his "large majority of respondents" who answered his question "with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth."
The rest of the piece details the extraordinary convolutions the Old Grey Lady and its "public editor" have been going through to try to explain that when they talk about being "truth vigilante" they do not mean checking facts or actually being objective and factual in their reports (nobody expects them to be objective in opinion pieces). Then again, what do they mean?

No comments:

Post a Comment