The Blurring of News and Opinion

Those of us who have been in the news business for more than a few years (for me it’s more than 30 years) have learned a hard truth in the past decade or so: There has been an obvious blurring of the lines between what we learned journalism should be and what it has become.

Coming as I did as a neophyte into the cavernous news room of the Chicago Tribune back in 1969 right out of college, I had editors who made sure that I didn’t stray from accurate, evenhanded and unbiased reporting into opinion and rumor. When I did, I got my wrist slapped.

That’s what happened last week to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann when it was determined that he donated money to various liberal political campaigns. Olbermann was suspended from his Countdown show on MSNBC for (gasp) two whole days and reinstated this week.

Not surprising. Olbermann gets paid to blather–primarily attacking anybody who is right of the middle and doing it in a particularly vicious, often vile and hateful way.

He is broadcasting’s version of recently defeated Democrat Rep. Alan Grayson, who you will recall said in a House floor speech that the Republican’s healthcare plan was for senior citizens to “die quickly.”

When I was learning how to be a reporter (something I don’t believe Olbermann ever did) we were exhorted to strive for objectivity in our reporting. We knew there was no such thing as a purely objective reporter. All of us have biases and are more than likely predisposed to have prejudices one way or the other in dealing with events, sources, issues, etc.

What saddens me today is that with the enormous influence of cable and cable news shows that purport to report stories as objectively as possible, the viewing public has trouble discerning between news and opinion. The strict separation between news and opinion is simply vanishing.

The Olbermann case is an example of that. Old time newsmen such as Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, Harry Reasoner, etc. would never have committed such a faux pas. Why? Because doing so would have undermined their credibility as professional journalists. And once journalists lose their credibility, they have lost everything.

When he returned to air Tuesday, Olbermann said there needed to be a debate about journalists and political donations and that it needs to be adapted to the “realities of 21st Century journalism.”

I beg to differ. The realities of 21st Century journalism should mirror those of 20th Century journalism–good journalism needs to be a watchdog on government and elected officials; it needs to be as objective and impartial as possible and there should be no doubt where news ends and opinion begins.

One of the first rules I learned after joining the Chicago Tribune was that I was not allowed to engage in any kind of local politics–including joining the local school board. While reporters were allowed to belong to political parties, we were not allowed to work for any candidates or to express any open support for them. We were supposed to be independent observers, otherwise how could our reporting be trusted?

The question that has to be asked is this: Is Keith Olbermann a journalist? I think not. He is paid to be a provocative pundit/commentator yet here he was anchoring MSNBC ‘s election night coverage November 2.

Were he a real journalist he would have known that in order to maintain any kind of journalistic credibility at all he could not give money to any political candidate.

But Olbermann could care less about journalistic credibility because he is simply NOT a journalist. He doesn’t pretend to be impartial. He is a committed left winger who makes no apologies about it.

So should he have been suspended? Probably not. What needed to happen is for somebody at MSNBC to step up and tell it like it is: Olbermann is not an impartial reporter. He is paid to share his left-wing biases with his like-minded audience, in much the same way that Sean Hannity is paid by the Fox Network to share his conservative bent with his audience.

I have never heard Hannity claim to be an impartial journalist. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck are paid commentators, not reporters. One watches those shows knowing that the emphasis is not on impartiality, but on opinion.

Yet, Fox News gets slammed again and again for being “unfair.” I think Fox’s news coverage is as fair as any of the other cable networks (certainly MSNBC’s).

What the viewing public has to learn to do is discern between the line-up of opinion shows and the time given to reporting news. That goes for all cable and broadcast networks.

Unfortunately, with the blurring of the lines between news and opinion in the reporting process, that continues to be a challenge for most viewers and readers.

On the other hand, it may be that the viewing and reading public really doesn’t care if stories are slanted and biased as long as they are slanted and biased in the direction they themselves lean, left or right.

I hope that is not the case. If professional journalists and news organizations cannot or will not provide unbiased news that will allow a citizenry to make informed choices and decisions then I fear our democracy is in terrible danger.

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