With feedback from my colleagues at Berkman, I have some major upgrades to my rather testy post yesterday. I think I’ve distilled my critique of the NY Times’ (and other MSM newspapers’) foray into blogging, or perhaps better to say into the Internet, into the following points:
- Journalists’ professional integrity depends in part on public perception. Letting them blog their opinions about the news or readers poses the same risks as letting your CEO blog about her customers: it’s a high-risk sport. Some training would be advisable.
- Parallel to this individual credibility is institutional credibility. In its online incarnation, the NY Times fails (perhaps on purpose) to adequately distinguish opinion from straight reporting or analysis (the inclusion of the opinionator’s name in the title doesn’t cut it, IMHO). The site design exacerbates this problem by blending in articles of both types within the graphics-heavy featured section (“Inside NYTimes.com“) and the “Most emailed” list. These design issues have only arisen recently as a problem because of the abolition of Times Select, which had hidden most opinion pieces behind the membership wall.
- Thus, while opinion-writing has traditionally been an important function of newspapers, I would argue that it’s a vestigal one that is doing more harm than good, at least in its current form. Short-term gains from driving eyeballs through personalities with a following will eventually (a) erode away as these individuals realize they can do better as freelance bloggers, and (b) undermine the newspaper’s own long-term of credibility. Witness the consternation (whether unfounded or not) over Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Wall Street Journal.
- However, if it’s not feasible — my Berkman colleagues suggest opinion article are a major driver of revenues — to sever opinion-writing from other MSM functions, it’s important to erect and maintain a strong and visible firewall between the opinion editors and the reporters. Although it aims at a different purpose, Wikipedia demonstrates that transparent rules of “objectivity” can increase objectivity. I take articles there more seriously when I can see that some of them are flagged as “disputed” or “inaccurate.” Something similar but appropriate should be possible for journalists to adopt as well.
In any event, here’s my much more moderate final note to the New York Times:
Stanley Fish’s attempt to take seriously the comments responding to his piece “All You Need is Hate” (“A Calumny a Day To Keep Hillary Away”) illustrates why opinion blogging is not an amateur sport. Apparently ignorant of Web culture, Fish naively engages in what bloggers call “flamebaiting” (posting a piece that invites vitriol) and “feeding the trolls” (rewarding bad behavior by acknowledging it).
Likewise, if Paul Krugman spent enough time exploring the blogosphere — a curse I wish upon no one — he would discover that opponent-bashing is endemic not to Obama supporters (“Hate Springs Eternal”), but opinion blogging in general.
The blogosphere does a fine job of partisan name-calling. The Times should stick to higher-minded professionalism, whether in articles or blogs, because there are still some readers like myself who believe in such things as journalistic objectivity.