Monday, Aug 20, 2018
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Marilou Johanek


Some journalists blur the line between news, opinion


Marilou Johanek.


Journalists get a bad rap. The public puts them on a par with lawyers. That’s not good. But some of the disrepute that dogs members of the media is warranted.

I can’t speak for the legal profession. But as a 30-year-plus journalism veteran, I can comment on what passes for my discipline today even if I can’t vouch for it. The once-clear line between opinion and news, drawn to separate editorial viewpoints from daily coverage, is disappearing. Rapidly.

In too many cases, news consumers aren’t getting just the facts. Political sentiment is seeping where it doesn’t belong.

Anything that borders on individual or institutional belief belongs with pundits, political columnists, and editorial writers. The news gathered and delivered in print, electronic, or digital formats is governed by different rules.

The public expects and deserves its news to be free of commentary unless it’s specifically labeled as such. But in the past couple of decades, there’s been a rise in partisan voices in public forums. Some at extreme ends of the spectrum have become ideological stars with megaphones.

They’re slick at slanting current affairs to reflect their perspective. Cable television is fertile territory for talking heads that lean left or right, depending on the channel.

Performers preach to the choir on MSNBC and Fox News. Like-minded audiences love it.

Some fans of Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow assume they’re getting the straight scoop. Most viewers who tune in to their respective partisans do so to hear what they want to hear and receive affirmation for what they want to believe. Those who make a living stoking the excitable with over-the-top assertions or simplifications generate ratings and revenue.

I’m not suggesting censorship of free and profitable speech. The malleable “mainstream” media are the real problem. I miss the reliable independence of newshounds who tell it like it is. I mourn the death of impartial reporting.

Back in journalism school, I was taught that the public should never know where a news reporter stands on a story. The personal view of a journalist was irrelevant to the task of informing the public.

Hard-news reporters did not engage in conjecture. They did not breach the editorial firewall. Yet as the unfolding craziness in Washington has illustrated, objective news coverage has sold out to supposition.

Grizzled journalists grouse that news reporting about government has become soft, politically timid, and hamstrung by overriding partisan sensibilities. They’re spot on.

The public’s right to know has been compromised. News content or story construction is skewed to appease conservatives who blast the “lamestream media,” or liberals who don’t think enough attention is paid to their pain.

The journalistic slide into subjectivity is evident in seemingly innocuous news habits. Consider the widespread acceptance of the term “Obamacare” in reporting.

That expression was originally a derisive one, coined by opponents of President Obama’s signature health-care overhaul. What was passed by Congress, signed into law, and upheld by the Supreme Court should objectively be referred to as the Affordable Care Act.

The only journalists who can legitimately call it Obamacare in public venues are editorial writers, columnists, pundits, and others in pursuit of persuasion. They make no pretense of being neutral.

Using politically charged rhetoric should not apply to news reporting. That job is limited to relating accurate details of breaking events, issues, controversies, campaigns, scandals, dialogues, or disagreements.

Yet a name meant to lampoon the President’s health-reform legacy is used routinely by esteemed citadels of journalism such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and National Public Radio. The blurring of news and opinion handicaps public understanding of the world, the mess in Washington, who is dead set on de-funding “Obamacare,” and why political factions are content to fiddle while the country burns.

For that public disservice, journalism deserves a bad rap.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at:

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