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Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

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Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

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Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

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Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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November 5, 2003

Opinion Bad, Reporting Good and Nothing Else Do You Need to Know

How dumb should an ombudsman assume Americans to be? NPR's Jeffrey Dvorkin forces us to ask that. His answer: very dumb indeed.

“Whenever an NPR journalist opines in public about issues in the news, the consequences are fraught, in my opinion.” So says NPR ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin in his current column (Oct. 29), which argues that NPR journalists “have a choice between outside punditry or inside reporting.”

Dvorkin’s key division is between giving information (good) and expressing an opinion (fine for others, bad for NPR). No light can penetrate that distinction. It is sealed shut. To Dvorkin, it is truth itself, calling about a problem— actually three problems:

First, [giving opinions] diminishes the ability of that journalist to be perceived by the public as fair and neutral. For some news organizations, the expression of an opinion on a news story would be an automatic disqualification for any future reporting on that subject.

This “ability to be perceived by the public as fair and neutral”— I thought about it. I don’t know what an “ability to be perceived” is. And I defy you to make clear sense of it. Certainly it is not an ability in the sense that investigative reporting skills or shorthand are. Those things are the property of the journalist, so to speak. But who owns the ability to be perceived by others in a certain way desirable to NPR? Where does such a thing reside? How does Dvorkin even make statements about it? Others, it would seem, have something to do with whether one is able to be perceived as fair by others.

Diminished capacity to be perceived as fair by outsiders depends on outsiders and their capacity to be fair towards journalists. Take the case of those who think NPR is saturated with liberals letting their biases run wild in the news, a group very much on Dvorkin’s mind. Do they affect a reporter’s ability to be perceived as fair? Dvorkin thinks he is drawing a clear, bright line between expressing an opinion and reporting the news, but he draws it on a confusing tableau: the domain of “public perception” (not fairness but the perception of it), which is extremely hard to define, locate, or even know anything about.

Second, it implies that the NPR journalist is speaking for the entire organization. Any personal opinion can make listeners question whether any NPR reporter could do a fair job. Expressing a personal opinion inadvertently hamstrings colleagues at NPR who are perceived—rightly or not—as sharing those opinions.

Well, how dumb should an ombudsman assume Americans to be? It’s a serious question. “If you’ve heard one NPR journalist speak her mind, you’ve heard them all.” Dvorkin says this is the way people think, rightly or wrongly. But in what other area of life would NPR accept such an ignorant attitude? Heard one Senator, heard them all. Is NPR accepting of that? Heard one Mexican immigrant, heard them all. Some believe this. And sensitive, nuanced, carefully reported journalism belies that belief, which it treats as wrongly reasoned. Generalizing from a single case to all cases is kind of dumb, whether it’s white swans, public schools in New York City or radio journalists. And yet Dvorkin uses this behavior—unfair generalization—as a basis for what’s fair in journalism. Weird.

Third, “opinion” is not what NPR is about. NPR is—and should be seen to be—about providing fact-based reporting. Opinions and commentaries on NPR newsmagazines are always provided by non-NPR journalists or other outsiders. This is as it should be. Other media may make their reputations on providing strong opinions. But this has not been part of NPR’s mission.

I guess Daniel Schorr was never part of NPR’s mission. (“Veteran reporter-commentator Daniel Schorr, the last of Edward R. Murrow’s legendary CBS team still fully active in journalism, currently interprets national and international events as senior news analyst for NPR.” That’s from their website.)

The next time Dvorkin sits down to write about this subject, he should try—just for intellectual kicks—replacing his key distinction with another. It’s more useful, and more true-to-life than reporting as the holy good and punditry as the life-sapping bad. Ready? Here it is: people who know what they’re talking about (good) vs. people who don’t (bad).

For this is what I care about when journalists approach, seeking to enlighten me about worlds I do not know. Have they been there, on the ground? Did they talk to a lot of people? Have they done their homework, puzzled through problems of interpretation, seen the situation from different angles? Have they absorbed what anthropology calls local knowledge? (What the natives learn by being natives.)

When confronted with a journalist who really knows what she is talking about, I am hungry for information and, when the time comes, opinion, analysis, interpretation, a gut feeling, a lasting impression. Whatever they tell pollsters or say in angry letters to the editor, many people believe as I do. Any campaign reporter who has been out in the field with the candidates can tell you how often “ordinary” citizens ask for opinions… “Who impresses you?” “What do you think of Clark?” Why ask a reporter something odd like that? Because they know stuff!

Dvorkin writes as if “fact-based reporting” and “opinion and commentary” are natural opposites. Common sense says no. Can there be fact-based commentary, Mister Ombudsman? Sure, and it’s the only kind that’s worth having because it comes from people who know what they are talking about. If reporting and opinion were mutually hostile or logically opposite, European journalism would not exist, but of course it does exist.

In the U.S. we have, as Dvorkin says, too much punditry. But bad punditry is bad not because it’s got those evil opinion thingies in it. It’s bad because it comes from people who don’t know very much about the dangerously wide range of topics on which they are expected to vent. Or it’s bad because it is confined to a ridiculously narrow field in which journalists are allowed to have opinions: did Arnold Schwarzenegger do better than expected in the big debate? Since an opinion on that is meaningless, journalists are permitted to have one— even on NPR.

PressThink: Bill O’Reilly, Terry Gross and the Paranoid Style in News

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 5, 2003 3:26 AM   Print


This sounds like an indictment of the blogosphere:

"In the U.S. we have, as Dvorkin says, too much punditry. But bad punditry is bad not because it's got those evil opinion thingies in it. It's bad because it comes from people who don't know very much about the dangerously wide range of topics on which they are expected to vent."

Posted by: rivlax at November 5, 2003 11:49 AM | Permalink

Right on, Jay! The childishness of such squeamishness!

Posted by: Todd Gitlin at November 5, 2003 12:17 PM | Permalink

Ambivalence vs. impartiality. Punditry vs. informed opinion. Seem to sit next to each other. Maybe there is a relationship between them that has to do with time and interest. Is there a way to get impartial fact based reporting (as impartial as possible, taking into account the reality of being human) without ambivalence toward several sides of a subject that passes for objectivity, and informed opinion that comes from knowing about things, verses responding willy nilly with punditry to every little blip on the 24 hour news cycle? Aside from setting yourself a high standard for reporting and opinion, and continuing to aim for it, I think you have to see the relationship between the 24-hour-rush to keep up with everything and report on it (breathlessly?) and the punditry that follows in trying to comment on everything without knowing much.

Instead, informed opinions can't happen that fast, because humans are limited (which is good), requiring us to step back from the 24hr news, and think, put more context and history together with what is happening in one short period of flashing news (mostly the same info from many outlets). Maybe the question is, can the people you want informed opinion from, pull back, stop and ponder, think, in order to provide something useful, and can the news outlets distinguish between informed opinion and punditry? My belief is that the public recognizes and perceives thoughtful opinion as useful, because it is thoughtful and well argued, even if we disagree or come from wildly different positions. I think the public relies on those few moments where we get that, to further public discourse. And that should be encouraged by media (big, or NPR), not shut out as diminishing “..the ability of that journalist to be perceived by the public as fair and neutral,” as if we (the public) are too dumb to see an opinion, or distinguish a thoughtful opinion from a fact impartially delivered. But it takes time to think well, and is expensive to pay reporters and commentators to be thoughtful, which is worrisome, because at least regarding the areas I’m familiar with, a lot of reporting is incorrect, I think because reporters are in a rush, have too much to do reasonably, and are not supported in getting deeper understanding for breadth and depth in their articles by their companies.

Posted by: mary hodder at November 5, 2003 12:22 PM | Permalink

Lets face it folks - the US broadcast media are generally a bunch of clowns. If you want any real info you go to print or the internet. Its almost a total waste of time worrying about what O'Reilly, Cokie Roberts, Chris Matthews, and other talking heads are blathering about.

Posted by: noam chimpsky at November 5, 2003 1:12 PM | Permalink

I've read Dvorkin's column and this response. I agree with Dvorkin; my experience as a metro columnist in Cleveland taught me that he is right on point.

The average media consumer doesn't know the difference between commentary and reporting. This ignorance is exacerbated by the prominence and influence of folks like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Al Franken.

The line is further blurred when someone like Nina Tottenberg reports a story on NPR, then stands in as a commentator on a television news show.

Yes, reporters have opinions, but the issue is expressing them without compromising the ability to cover a story objectively. I know it's fashionable to debunk the notion of journalistic objectivity, but I think the standard is still one to strive for. It really doesn't hurt a reporter to consider whether his/her right to express an opinion will damage the credibility o fhis/her reporting.

Afi Scruggs, visiting assistant professor

Posted by: Afi Scruggs at November 5, 2003 1:43 PM | Permalink

Mary: I think televised punditry's logic is primarily economic. Pundits are cheap, and the shows they create easy to do. Low cost content minimally acceptable to "enough" viewers sometimes trumps better content that would be way more acceptable to more viewers. I would not call the pundits a "draw." Their attraction is to cost-conscious producers with time to fill.

From the point of view of the individual reporter who is a pundit, the great thing about being asked to supply opinions is that you can produce one with zero marginal cost (in reporting time.) Punditry is not that lucrative. But it advertises you for the speaking circuit and that is lucrative.

What creates mistrust, the fact that pundit X has opinions, or the fact that X seems able to have opinions on most anything without much depth of field or even conviction behind them? In equating "giving an opinion" with "being a pundit," Dvorkin errs, I think. Opinion ungrounded is the problem.

Todd Gitlin: Thanks for the cheer.

Afi: "The average media consumer doesn't know the difference between commentary and reporting." I have learned to be suspicious of statements like this. Even if true, they don't prove that the truth should be accepted as a given. Maybe the difference can be made clearer. Maybe more people get it than you think. When someone whose job is to communicate with the public tells me how little the public knows or "gets," I am inclined to study that attitude very carefully.

"This ignorance is exacerbated by the prominence and influence of folks like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Al Franken." Here I agree with Afi. But I think the existence of these high volume, highly politicized, hype-ridden claims is falsely taken as evidence for what "most people" think.

It is also clear to me (though many will disagree) that, in what Dvorkin displays as NPR ombudsman, the network has been intimidated by attacks from the right. Maybe that is understandable with debates to come in Congress about taxpayers supporting public radio. I also think Dvorkin should have discussed how NPR's fundraising drives factor into policy about what and what not to risk in the elusive "public perception" category.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 5, 2003 2:31 PM | Permalink

First, the URL for the Dvorkin column you're referring to is no longer the 'current' one. You might want to change it to:

Second, I noticed another interesting thing about NPR this morning. The NPR Hourly News described Halley Barbour as a 'Republican Lobbyist' in their intro to a story that reported his opponent as using 'Washington Lobbyist' as a description to protray Mr. Barbour in a unflaterring way. I thought is was interesting that NPR would almost the same supposedly negative terminology when attempting to just describe Mr. Barbour.

Love your insights....VO

Posted by: Vince Outlaw at November 5, 2003 4:23 PM | Permalink

Read a bit more charitably, or cynically, as the case may be, I think Dvorkin is saying:

"If a journalist says that a Republican or a Conservative is an idiot, even if they indicate why, and have an argument for it, that provides a basis for critics to scream "LIBERAL BIAS!!!" - so don't do it."

This is another go-around about the issue that politics is full of fools, power-mongers, and liars - but there's a deep problem between taking a partisan stance on one hand, and giving up entirely on the other.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 5, 2003 4:41 PM | Permalink

When Mara Liason calls the democratic candidates "wannabes" I'd say she is putting out opinion. Or, when Wait Wait calls Clinton a "snake". The only opinions they're careful to avoid are ones critical of Republicans.

Posted by: Joseppi at November 6, 2003 4:34 PM | Permalink

The point is well made in the article: who knows best the aspects of a given issue than the reporter who has focused coverage on it? So long as it is clearly labelled "opinion," "editorial" or "analysis," reporters have an obligation to limn the facts and provide perspective on them. After all, objectivity is in the actual reporting; if it is presented in an accurate, balanced way, then it's objectivity is evident. That a follow-up commentary, clearned delineated, would tilt to one side or the other based on an interpretation of the facts does not necessarily smack of bias; it is, instead, applying one's intelligence. Further, it should also be recalled that some of America's finest reporting is and has been done by columnists: Lippman, Reston, Breslin and Royko come immediately to mind.

Posted by: Chris Bowling at November 7, 2003 8:14 AM | Permalink

Interesting debate. As an editor who also reports for a publication I produce for a client (business news for a local chamber of commerce), I can tell you that there's no such thing as totally objective journalism. Oh, obviously, facts, balance, and fairness are critical attributes for undergirding a story. But the fact remains that the writer and the editor put personal spin in the form of the subtle technical issues. A lead is interpretive by its very nature.

The best journalism gets to the truth through fairly reasoned, rational, balanced, linear presentation. But to think you can get a reporter's opinions and personal experience out of any story is shallow and simplistic. When that happens, you have a pile of raw facts. Journalists put those facts together and add order and clarity. That's at least mildly subjective.

Interestingly, I think that the more journalism tries to be more "objective," the more it increases unrealistic expectations in the public arena.

Posted by: Jeff Potter at November 7, 2003 9:06 AM | Permalink

I'm no journalist myself (though my girlfriend is) and being from Germany I find the debate ...ridiculous. Sorry, but that's the way I feel. I could never get this obsession with objectivity in the US media for three reasons.
For one, the selection of where to place what, is in itself a deviation from the goal of objectivity in that "importance" is a pretty subjective category and doesn't really lend itself to being tied to outside criteria especially given the gate-keeping and agenda setting aspects of the media.
Second, I doubt objectivity is obtainable once a story goes beyond numbers. I'm not arguing for an extreme po-mo "everything is relative" here, but rather for a continuation of point one on the lower level of individual stories, in that a reporter has to make various judgement calls as to who to interview, what to ask, what statements/facts to include in the story and so on.
Third, I believe the "he said, she said"-beast is more prevalent in the US, and that this is due to excessive zeal in avoiding bias. However, the causal link may be a product of my imagination. Nonetheless, IMO the upshot is that in Germany I've got to read two papers to get all stories in full, whereas in the US one paper is as useful as another and none will give me a truthful account which would include saying "X is full of shit here".

I see the value of striving for an unattainable goal of objectivity, but I'd say the costs of this strategy ultimately are too dear. For one the public is ill served by a media pretending to be objective when it isn't (last but not least it erodes trust), second the self delusion inherent in thinking one is objective is a major roadblock on the way to truth, and third the dishonest gain the most. Hence, I'd suggest to "wear your bias with pride".

Posted by: markus at November 16, 2003 9:13 PM | Permalink

I should maybe have added I'm a first-time visitor, coming here through some intermediate page I forgot from Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered making the arguments so well laid out here:
and here:

I apologise for the redundancy.

Posted by: markus at November 16, 2003 9:59 PM | Permalink

From the Intro