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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