The conversation

The conversation

: There are some wonderful comments continuing the discussion from the post below on the transformation of news, all sparked by a Tim Rutten column in the LA Times.

In the comments, Othello says:

Let the high priests of the old media sniff at the blogosphere. I, for one, love our modern-day cyberspace townhall, and prefer “talking with” rather than “being talked (down) to” any day…. In spite of the dreck and noise (of which there is a lot), with not too much searching you can still find sites and people with whom you can have reasonable exhanges of ideas and discover common values … even when they are halfway around the world, and are living in a country where your nation’s armed forces have just fought a war.

Reliable communication between common people in which ideas are freely exchanged and debated is a terrific weapon against tyranny….

After all … once people stop being told what to think, they’re liable to think just about anything!

That’s less about the press than about the Web as an alternative but it’s an interesting perspective.

Bill Herbert sides with Rutten on the value of an objective press:

Despite Rutten’s snootiness, I have to basically agree with him: while unabashedly opinionated news sources are fine as supplements, I think journalism should still strive toward objectivity, however unattainable it may be. I simply don’t think that human failings are a reason to throw the whole idea out….

Yes, Jeff, most Americans realize that people like Franken and Coulter are vaudeville acts. But in Britain, they’d actually be taken seriously as reporters. You really think that’s a good thing?…

Despite all its flaws, the American flavor of journalism is still something to be proud of. It’s no accident that our papers have guys like John Burns, while the Brits have ass clowns like Andrew Gilligan. It’s because our journalists do make an effort to separate opinions from facts….

And in a wonderful comment, Matt Welch seconds Bill.

…I think it’s a good idea to once in a while remember the *good* that has come out of the elitist (and originally, objectively pro-capitalist) notion of high-handed newspaper objectivity. If a magic wand were to be waved, and the media were to all be like Murdoch/Guardian/blogs, and no more of this condescening above-it-all professionalism, I’d wager that we’d feel the loss pretty sharply.

Remember when CNN was the sort of AP of television news? One of the reason why CNN sucks now, in my opinion, is that it tried too hard to be like Fox, and Headline News especially tried too much to be like, I dunno, Entertainment Tonight or some crap. There is a valuable role to be played by our just-the-facts-ma’am news organizations, and I’m bummed now that we don’t have a national TV network that just barfs up the straight news for 24 hours a day, without goofy anchor-jokes and interviews with minor celebrities. Bring back Lynn Vaughn!

And I’d even suggest that those of us who welcome 90% of the Britishization process are engaging in a bit of a double standard — we love to talk about how great the New York Post is, while trashing the bias of the New York Times. Well, that makes for interesting contrarianism (and it’s true that I subscribe to Murdoch, Sulzberger), but the Post is both more biased and more sloppy, and the Times (to me, at least), is a far superior newspaper. I just want markets to have (at minimum) both.

News is a conversation and this is a great conversation about news.

What I love about this is not only that it’s a captivating discussion but also that Matt and Bill did call me out. I reacted so strongly to Rutten’s elitist, head-in-the-sand attitude that I skipped over some important caveats and thus I gave you an incomplete view of my opinion on opinionated news. Because I’m in the business, I assume you start knowing how much I value the news business, but I shouldn’t assume that.

Yes, objective, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting is not only desirable, it is the essence of good journalism and of its value to its consumers. Most reporters and editors working on most stories on most newspapers or on TV are trying to report objectively and are succeeding. As I said below, there isn’t a lot of bias in a fire. When I was a reporter, I covered too many stories and subjects to even attempt to have opinions on them. I know how hard my colleagues work to bring the people the news. I respect them tremendously. I love this business, or I wouldn’t be in it.

However, Rutten is right that we are facing choices on the future of news and so we have to deal frankly and bluntly with both sides of bias — that is, from the journalists’ perspective and from the consumers’ perspective — when it does enter the news.

From the journalists’ perspective, I’d say it’s damned hard to look at, say, Iraq coverage without having to parse the perspective of the source. When The Times doesn’t cover anti-terrorism demonstrations but does cover anti-American demonstrations, they and we need to ask what that means. And perhaps the time has come for even mainstream news organizations to be more open about their perspectives, so we can better judge what they report. If it is a sin to fail at objectivity it is a worse sin to conceal it or lie about it.

But there’s a new factor in this equation: the consumers’ desires. The audience for news is showing a preference for perspective and the evidence is clear: They’re watching FoxNews more than CNN; they’re reading the Guardian; they’re reading weblogs; they’re demanding more dialogue and transparency.

So we need to look at new ways to report news and deal with questions of objectivity, bias, and perspective.

I suggest that the way to look at it is as a conversation.

That conversation was started in a still-small voice at The Times when public editor Dan Okrent responded to complaints about the lack of coverage of the anti-terrorism demonstrations. He listened to the complaints and gave them to the Baghdad bureau and came back with, unfortunately, their excuse rather than their real reply. They said they didn’t know the date (and I said I don’t buy that because we all knew the date). Perhaps they just didn’t have the staff to cover it. Or perhaps they thought something else was more important. Or perhaps they thought this was not important. Or perhaps they didn’t think anyone would show up because they believed that most Iraqis are anti-American. They obviously thought something; the reporters, bureau bosses, and editors back in New York all made a judgment about this story. And we want to be let in on that judgment, on the process behind that decision, on the perspective that decision reveals — because then we can better judge both The Times reporting and the event itself.

In the past, such an exchange would have been impractical; Times reporters can’t end up in mail or phone dialogues with every reader. Okrent makes that slightly more practical, but that still leaves a middleman in the process: gatekeeper to the gatekeepers. (And, by the way, I said before that I wasn’t sure the anti-terrorism demonstrations rose to Okrent’s purview; I’ve now been convinced I was wrong.)

But now there is a far more practical way to have this conversation: The Internet and weblogs enable it. Those Timesmen could talk about what they covered and didn’t and why and how they view this on a weblog; readers could enter into a conversation there and via links from other weblogs; the Timesmen could reply.

But that would be a very frightening thing for anyone from the classic school of American journalism to do — utterly terrifying, for it would decentralize the control of the institution and what it properly stands for and it would reveal bias of individuals. That’s why you’re not seeing it happen readily.

I’ll admit that it scared me at first. It still does now, as I write something like this, close to home. But in for a dime, in for a dollar, I long ago decided to let it all hang out here and because I did, I’ve learned a great deal about new ways to look at news and the relationship to news’ consumers.

I’ve learned that news is a conversation.

So Rutten is right to say that we are facing “a referendum not only on America’s political future but also on the direction of its news media” (he’s just wrong about most of the rest). Herbert and Welch are right that we need to remind ourselves — me first — of the value of objective reporting. But Othello is also right that the consumers of news demand to join in on the conversation. We need to figure out how to do that. And if we do figure it out, we’ll end up with a stronger news business with enhanced credibility and a richer relationship with the people it serves.

I don’t pretend to know how to do that; I don’t! But we do need to start trying to figure out how we could do it. We need to talk about it.

: UPDATES: Terry Heaton has more in this conversation on his blog. Ditto Henry Copeland.