A Matter Of Trust

What do you get when you put newspaper editors, television executives, bloggers and critics in a room for four hours to talk about the "blending of news and views?" You get a whole lot of opinion about opinion, for one thing. I took part today in a "dialogue" sponsored by The Museum of Television and Radio which sought to discuss the increasing amount of "opinion" in media coverage, whether it's healthy, necessary or unavoidable and what it means for the media of the future. Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis and CNN/US President Jon Klein served as "conveners" and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward moderated the discussion.

Joining in the mix were the likes of Washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady, blogger/radio host Hugh Hewitt, semi-retired anchor Aaron Brown, "Colbert Report" producer Emily Lazar, New York Times Deputy Managing Editor Jonathan Landman, PressThink's Jay Rosen and many more. Jarvis, as usual, live-blogged the event and I'll let his accounts serve as the rough fist draft.

But allow me a couple general thoughts: What was billed as a discussion about the intersection of opinion and news really boiled down to a discussion of "trust" and "transparency." I felt there was universal agreement that the idea of transparency is one that has become accepted as essential, in one form or another, to journalism. Largely (though not totally) gone from the discussion was the all-too familiar blogger v. MSM tension. Perhaps it's because there was familiarity among the participants but the level of the discussion was a pleasant surprise. Not so surprising were the partisan arguments of media as either spineless apologists for the right or complicit dupes of the left.

Mainly missing were any tangible answers to the sticky problem of trust, but I felt the discussion transcended the usual defensive posture so often taken in this big discussion of what everyone now recognizes as a new media landscape. That's progress. Enough of me, here's Jeff's take of the first part of the discussion, check his blog out for the full treatment:
I am at the Museum of Television & Radio Media Center event about opinion and news with Andrew Heyward moderating. Random not-quite-live blogging ensues…. I'll boldface a few of the good bits (opinionated judgments, all).

Lou Dobbs comes up immediately as a poster child for opinion and news. A few of the people here are, unfortunately, off the record, but suffice it to say that Dobbs, controversial as he may be among journalists, is proving to be a credible success with the audience.

Peter Hart of FAIR says he has no problem with him having an opinion but he has problems with the quality of his journalism and cites specifics. I say that this shows the benefit of being transparent about perspective: We got past Dobbs' opinions because we know them and talk about the quality of his reporting. David Carr of the Times says the commercial imperative gets in the way — a controversial Dobbs is a ratings hit — and that, in turn, gets in the way of the journalism.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman of NPR, says his problem is that we're not doing enough reporting: In his words, this is about "fact-based reporting vs. faith-based reporting."

Vaughn Ververs of CBS' Public Eye says people are seeing as opinion what is indeed reporting: If you go to Iraq and see a mess and say it's a mess is that opinion or reporting?

Vaughn makes a very important point: There is no algorithm that tells you the difference between opinion and news. Perspective is opinion. News judgment is opinion.

Merrill Brown says he knows of no data linking declining trust in news with an increase in opinion.


David Carr says this is nothing new in this and raises the Cronkite Vietnam example. Heyward says that what stood out about that was that it was atypical and uncharacteristic.

Jon Landman of the Times says the idea that "the idea that the blend of opinion and news is new is not serious." He says they have blended long since in many media. He says having news and commentary don't have anything to do with the credibility issues now. So what is it about, Heyward asks. Landman says we have an increasingly divided society that "has the means to hear what it wants to hear."

Jay Rosen says that a lot of this discussion is about "how to be virtuous in the news business… and it is taken as given that it is virtuous to separate news and opinon." He says the same is the case about complaints about the audience — 'they only listen to what they want to hear.' He says the arguments about opinion bring a jaundiced way to judge the audience. He says it is about trust and if you want to persuade to trust your account, there are many ways to do that: 'I got it from God' … 'I'm a PhD' … or trying to argue that you have no religion in the story and so you should be trusted in your account.

Landman says that's a strawman. He says that people don't see opinion journalism as inferior to fact-based journalism.

I'd say that this is precisely the arrow shot at bloggers: you're just opinion.

Dvorkin says the 800-pound gorillas in the room are Fox (invited but not present) and economics. He quotes CBS news boss Dick Salant in a fabled story that the good news and bad news of his time was that CBS News started making money.

Peter Hart says that journalism is supposed to be aggressive and that's going to piss people off. Tony Burman of the CBC says the commercial motivation is behind this.

I think the marketplace is too often portrayed as the boogeyman, the blame vessel. The marketplace is the public you want to serve.

Hugh Hewitt says "a lot of people trust journalists a lot" but they trust different journalists. He says that the biggest sustained audience in broadcast is Rush Limbaugh at 20 million a week and because those people trust him. He says Rush is rebranding himself as "America's anchor in contrast to drive-by media."

After a discussion of the Colbert Report, Rocketboom's Amanda Congdon says that her show candid and that is its appeal. Heyward says there is an issue of "the real voice" that came out, for example, in Katrina. He says that one could judge the voice of the anchors there positively or cynically. There was a question of injecting humanity into news. I said it's sad we have to inject humanity. It shows that we hit our humanity.

Now we get to the 900-pound gorilla: does expressing your opinion grant you trust or diminish your trust. I argue the former. Dvorkin and Landman argue the latter. Landman says that people on the other side of the immigration debate don't trust Dobbs because his opinion is stated. Dan Gillmor says it's a matter of knowing where he stands and being able to refract through the lense of his knowledge about Dobbs' stand to make a better judgment about what he says.

Carr says that the next gorilla is that "this thing that we're all annotating" and commenting on is going away. Carr quotes another person saying that once you can make a parody about news then the audience is in on the joke.

Jim Brady of WashingtonPost.com says the audience has changed because there are more roads leading to news. One-third of the traffic WashPost gets comes through blogs, Brady says. Blog that.

Tom Easton of the Economist says the used to conflate "information" and "news" and "now you don't have to" because now you can go to more original sources of information. He says his future as a reader of news is "a reader of links." Well said. "We might just be going into the information businesses. We might be bypassing all of us." We can go to the original sources. Dan Gillmor says, "you have the time to do that…. The people in this room are actually different from most people out there, who have lives." Easton says that in the '70s you'd have to go to a law library to read the abortion opinion; now you can get it directly.

Easton says he doesn't like the cynicism of The Daily Show because, if I paraphrase him correctly, it doesn't deliver information. Someone else says that is why The Smoking Gun is popular.

  • Vaughn Ververs

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