You’re either for me or…

Dan Froomkin and Michael Powell (not that one) of the Washington Post (and the .com) continue the discussion about the kerfuffle over Froomkin’s column and its title over at Jay Rosen’s Pressthink. What they’re getting to now is a dissection of the most dangerous assumption being made — most surprisingly in the Washington Post newsroom — that if you criticize someone in power on one side, you must be on the other side, if the White House complains about you, then you must be liberal. Or to put it more simply: You’re either for them or against them.

When I was a columnist at the San Francisco Examiner, I covered supervisor-then-mayor Dianne Feinstein. I praised her work in the terrible aftermath of the Milk-Moscone murders and Jonestown, when the city needed calm leadership and she provided it. But when I later criticized her over various issues I can’t even remember, she lashed out and I heard from the paper’s publisher, often, how the mayor’s husband was complaining about me. Of course, the publisher should have told Mrs. Mayor’s Mr. to shove it up his rotunda. But instead, my life there got progressively more difficult. I quit, perhaps foolishly (though I then came to conquer Gotham and the rest is my story).

But the thing was, I was not Feinstein’s enemy. Like any of her constituents, I agreed with some of the things she did and disagreed with others and said so. But she thought I could be only a friend or an enemy, not an observer, not a citizen, not just a person with mixed opinions about her. I have learned to expect that from politicians — not to mention TV stars and business heads.

I do not expect that of news people, especially not the newsroom that most covers the most powerful. Surely they should be more sophisticated about this.

Yet we’re going to see this get worse because the journalists are actually less sophisticated about this whole notion of expression opinion. They have been trained to assume that if you have opinions, you are a partisan when perhaps you’re merely a questioner or even just a citizen.

  • A sad thing but yes it is human nature to categorize and pigeonhole, even people. It’s getting worse, but how many make an effort to remain in the center? The center seems to be a pinnicle with a slippery slope on either side.

  • I thought it was not the center Jeff’s talking about but the third thing, the neither nor.

  • paladin

    The press has brought this on themselves. They proclaim they are the counterbalance to power, the watchdogs, the accountability police, but because they mostly criticize and rarely praise, it is easy to dismiss them as partisan—-or just oppositional. The result of negative-only reporting is to reduce the press to cartoons.

  • John Davidson

    Transparency would be, well, revealing. Do we really expect, for example, the home team to root for the visitors? Do we expect a Bush-voting reporter to be even-handed in vetting a story on John Kerry? How would it color our assessment of the news if there was an icon on every byline of a political story that noted the vote of the reporter when that reporter is covering that candidate/former candidate? That’s not pigeonholing, that’s a logical expectation and suspicion in the information age.

  • Sikora

    I’m confused. You were a columnist recording your opinion as praise or criticism. You relate that to news people/journalists being trained that expressing an opinion is partisan. Did you intend to make a distinction between a columnist and a news person?

    Are the evening programs on cable news networks opinion, news, or an nearly undisectable mishmash? I trust that, as you say, journalism schools are teaching the difference. Will citizen journalists be less sophisticated? Will the conversation provide that lesson?

    Maybe the least sophisticated people are those in power who choose to hold grudges against reporters who criticise.

  • I.F. Stoner

    Jeff writes:
    If journalists are citizens, don’t they have the same responsibilities as other citizens?

    MY GOD, MAN, ARE YOU SUGGESTING THAT JOURNALISTS ARE NOT A HIGHER BREED OF SPECIES? That would mean that Branzburg was correctly decided and that reporters who are witnesses to crime or have information material, relvant and not available elsewhere about a crime would — like “ordinary” citizens — have to provide such information to law enforcement officers upon a duly-executed subpoena!

    So The Times and Time Inc were wrong to object to Fitzgerald’s subpoena???

    Is that what you’re saying, skippy? You’ll have Bill Keller and Floyd Abrams to answer to!

  • There is absolutely nothing new about so-called “newsmakers” — public officials, athletes, entertainers, etc. — having such attitudes. Some just conceal it better than others. The bigger the ego, the thinner the skin and the more intense the insecurity. It holds true for “celebrity” journalists, btw.