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September 30, 2003

It's Opinion. No, it's News. No, Mr. Jones, it's a Weblog

A passing sentence in a New York Times article, slowed way down, shows how weblogs are currently confounding press think.

Here’s the most intriguing sentence from Michael Falcone’s generally fine summary of the Sacramento Bee case in the New York Times. He’s writing about the big buzz generated when the Bee decided to edit previously unedited blogger Dan Weintraub. He mentions and its list of journalists who maintain weblogs:

While many of the blogs on Mr. Dube’s list are written by opinion journalists, who are accustomed to writing commentary without concern about objectivity, others are produced by reporters, who are professionally bound to avoid taking sides.

Press think comes in concentrated and more diluted forms. Both interest me. Falcone’s sentence is in the compacted category: lots going on. Unpacked, we find first there are a lot of weblogs written by opinion journalists. Then we learn these dealers in opinion aren’t so concerned about objectivity because…their thing is opinion. Heading into the contrast section, we learn that other, different weblogs are authored by reporters, people who definitionally speaking are not opinion journalists.

Coming out of CONTRAST into POINT, we find things elegantly phrased. Reporters are “professionally bound” (strong image) by conduct codes, and one of these is that they must not take sides. POINT connects nicely back to ISSUE: will reporters’ weblogs violate the paper’s objectivity and the journalist’s code of neutrality? Not bad for 37 words. And if you read it quickly, it flows well and makes sense, fitting with a faint click into our fixed sense of how things line up in journalism. Opinion. News. Objectivity. Credibility. Not taking sides.

Slowed down, there are some problems:

Daniel Weintraub’s California Insider, the case at hand for Falcone, is a weblog written by an experienced political reporter. And the man who writes it sometimes presents his opinions. He has an opinion on Bustamante one day. Another day it’s an opinion on Arnold’s ways and means. Opinion on McClintock. Opinion about Arianna Huffington (who just quit the race.)

Most of his blog, however, is information of high currency. When Weintraub deals in opinion it is a certain kind, which I would call learned and others might say is well informed. He’s worth bookmarking because he knows about California politics, and like any good reporter in a state capital, he’s plugged in. Michael Falcone, of the Times San Francisco bureau, is a smart journalist too (I have talked to him by phone)— smart enough to figure out that the only reason anyone cares about Weintraub’s “take” on things is that he really knows politics, issues and the players in the Golden State, and passes along good stuff.

But right there our sentence, slowed, strikes a rock, because the news/opinion distinction, on which all logic depends, is just a special case of the knowledge/opinion distinction, (the problems in which go back to Plato) and we have just seen how the cool thing about Weintraub’s weblog is that it overrides and overcomes this distinction, bypassing it to generate authority another way. So what are we doing in a language that doesn’t apply to the case at hand, in an article about that case in the New York Times?

Fast answer: doesn’t fit case, does fit press think. So it goes by. Click.

Yet there’s more. Opinion weblogs don’t have to be objective and typically aren’t, Falcone tells us. Well, is the Insider an opinion weblog? Let’s say it is, even though that makes scant sense. After all, there’s gobs of objective information in there: poll results with nuanced analysis, explanations of how state government works, policy debate details for those just catching up… plus latest news.

And even though he shares opinions and draws conclusions about all the major players, thus disqualifying himself for “objective” status, Weintraub also avoids taking sides in his journalism about the recall contest, because he wants the freedom to spread opinion—good or bad—over all who deserve it or provoke him. This not taking sides re-qualifies him for the objective status he just lost for having opinions a moment ago.

So what’s going on here? Confusion is settling over the terms of authority in journalism, (I wrote about this in the current CJR) because the weblog’s more personal and immediate style is, in successful cases like the Insider, generating authority from a wholly different set of instructions. Information intimacy seems to be at work. This does not make sense at all in the moral universe of information vs. opinion. And I haven’t even gotten to argument by link yet.

Maybe things are changing faster than the words and phrases can manage with. It’s hard in standard press think even to talk about any dynamic interplay betwen news and opinion (plus recency and relevance)—all of which Insider has going for it—without seeing opinion as the potential contaminant of the weblog’s news. But is that really so?

It’s one of those switches in press circuitry that can’t easily be turned off. But sometimes you hear that little… click.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 30, 2003 3:39 PM