A Vast Wasteland of Opinion

Maureen Dowd’s Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times “Dinosaur at the Gate” complains that Google bully Ed Schmidt, surrounded by toys and trappings of excess, has no sympathy (or revenues) for the dinosaur (news) because he has created a product that renders it obsolete. Instead, he offers the following solution: “The best way to get out of this is to invent a new product. That’s the way Google thinks. Incumbents very seldom invent the future.”

I used to like Maureen Dowd. Then I disliked her (I would definitely trace my change of heart to her withering contempt for another Clinton in the White House during the Democratic primary). But I have never considered her a reporter. To me, Dowd is a very talented writer and opinion columnist – but a different animal altogether from the reporters or correspondents or stringers who bring us the news. She is an elite member of the Op-Ed page of an exceptionally worthwhile publication and a syndicated columnist to boot. She is to be avoided or enjoyed with that second cup of coffee after the actual news has been digested. But she is not symbolic of the news. And it is not the absence of opinion writers like Dowd that will be missed in the crumbling of the fourth estate. In fact, one could argue that her style of journalism has already been widely replicated by worthy bloggers of every shape, size and color on the internet or by snarky commentary on television shows ranging from The Colbert Report to Glenn Beck.

No, Dowd exists in a different place and I think it’s time that the old media think long and hard about the relevancy of opinion versus news and how the public perceives the two. Although there is a clear line in most reputable news organizations between them (as there is at the NYT) – in the public eye that line is quite blurry.

Case in point: several years ago I wrote a complaint to CNBC when I heard Joe Kernen cite “an article in the Wall Street Journal” to bolster a criticism he was leveling at some politician or another. I had just finished reading the same piece he was referring to and it was an editorial, not a news report, he was quoting. The effect was to render an opinion as news – without labeling it as an opinion – and to lend it authenticity by naming the source as the esteemed Wall Street Journal. The line – which has always been carefully preserved at the Journal – is blurred in one careless (or purposeful?) moment.

You can blame it on politicians who blame “the media” for not reporting the “good news” and getting the public all incensed about bias – or you can blame it on fuzzy television “news programs” which all too easily blend opinion and fact – or you can the blame the respected news organizations and the way they meekly sat on the sidelines while reporters were embedded or spoon fed story lines. Perhaps news gatherers, correspondents and investigative journalists should reexamine the whole package they are offering. Perhaps we need to reconsider the challenge offered up by Schmidt and invent a new product that focuses on the reporting people need – and not on the vast wasteland that is opinion. The internet, and Google, has already got that covered.

2 thoughts on “A Vast Wasteland of Opinion

  1. One place journalists could begin that reexamination is by benchmarking best practices in objective, balanced reporting. There are some really strong reporters doing important work — like Dexter Filkins of the Times and Tom Ricks at the Wash Post. These writers consistently reach for and achieve quality in their reporting. Someone needs to analyze what makes for high quality journalism, and then figure out a way to cause people to want to subscribe (pay) to get that product.

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  2. The growing chasm has led me in search of unbiased news sources – away from obviously biased news sources, op-ed pages, and blogs. Everytime I think I’ve found an unbiased source, I have only to read an editorial to know that it isn’t. At the moment my solution is to shut out the yak and stick to the news – from both sides of the chasm.

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