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Sunday, March 27, 2005

opinion versus fact

In the beginning I was a huge fan of The Public Editor's Column in The New York Times. Of late, though, I find myself dissatisfied as well as frequently confused by it. In theory, I believe, the column is supposed to serve an ombudsman role, answering questions, criticisms and concerns from readers about the paper (although the two questions I've sent Daniel Okrent were ignored but whatever, that's not actually the reason I've become critical). Rather, the column has delved into journalistic issues several times—anonymous sources, the use of statistics and, today, news versus opinion. These journalistic queries made me, at first, like the column even more. As a journalist, I found the topics interesting although Okrent's reasoning and writing I often find confusing and at odds with my own understanding of things. Now, granted, my own understanding may be limited but it still strikes me as problematic if a working journalist can't understand the journalistic reasoning, how is someone without that background (12 plus years of working as a reporter/editor) going to make heads or tales of it.
Today's column sort of epitomizes the issue. Ostensibly, the column is about the need for delineation between fact and opinion in The NYT and points out, rightlly I suppose, that style demarkations are insufficient in some cases. OK. We all do this. SFR, as you may or may not have noticed, has little tags throughout the paper to tell the reader, should the reader not understand, that they are reading a column versus a news story, a news story versus a culture story, a culture story versus an editorial, etc., etc. I find these delineations slightly redundant and have never had to point them out to a confused person ("see, this is a column"), but perhaps our readers are smarter than The Times. Anyway, this is all well and good. But Okrent also goes on to say that those readers convinced the editorial pages at The Times have influence over the news section are mistaken because the editorial page editor and the executive editor NEVER DISCUSS the news or political issues. This, Okrent seems to imply, is standard operating procedure, and vitally important. I have to admit this information stopped me a bit in my tracks. Now, granted, SFR is neither a daily paper, nor The Times. And, it goes without saying, if the editorial editor and the executive editor here at SFR were not allowed to speak to one another about news items, it would be excessively problematic as it would basically mean I was not allowed to talk to myself—and God knows that would be a sacrifice. Beyond this, I wonder if this is the practice at The New Mex and if it explains, perhaps, why their editorials often seem to have no relationship to the news they've reported... Anyway, my point, really, is that I think Okrent should explain why such divisions are necessary. Are the editorial pages supposed to be informed not by the news that's reported but by some other operating principle guiding the op-ed pages. Or is it really that the reporters need to not be influenced by the opinions held by the paper when they report? If I can extrapolate from Okrent's column (and this is my main criticism of the column, that I find myself often having to extrapolate what Okrent's point is based on my own daily, semi-religious reading of The Times), his point seems to be that opinion and reporting need to be completely separate at all times. Now, of course, here at SFR, we don't consider ourselves the paper of record and we don't go around pretending we are people without opinions. That "objectivity" thing is practised in the technique of reporting. Everyone gets to say their piece and we don't put an opinion in the story itself. But everyone has an opinion. Reporters aren't robots, after all. And simply by making choices about what to report on (environmental issues, politics, etc,.) one is making a choice dictated by an inner compass, by interests, by obsessions, by knowledge.
But the real kicker of Okrent's column comes at the end where he offers, as far as I can tell, the first explanation yet put out by The Times for the move of Frank Rich (who, for the record, I think is the best newspaper columnist in America) and Okrent to the op-ed page. Okrent says that's where they more rightly belong and that is how the column ends. I find this flabergasting. Has Rich's culture column been moved because it's so often focused on the bridge between today's political realm and culture realm. Is the simple fact that Rich is clearly critical of the present administration the reason that his culture column no longer belongs in The Times' culture section. And, if so, what precipitated this decision? Obviously something must have happened to prompt these changes at The Times yet Okrent's column, which is focused on this exact issue, offers no insider view on the events that must have caused these changes. It's subterfuge posing as ombudsmanship and that, in my view, is worse than no insight at all.