Confusion at The Washington Post

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"Confusion at The Washington Post"

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Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander gives us another case study in how difficult it is for established institutions to transition into a new world:

Ezra Klein, one of The Post’s most talented and stimulating young journalists, writes online from a liberal perspective. His Web site bio promotes his “opinionated blog” on economic and domestic policy issues. He is featured on the site’s Opinions page, alongside other columnists with well-defined ideologies. But in the Business section of Sunday’s newspaper, Klein writes a column that is more analysis than dogma and contains no descriptive identification beyond his name and area of expertise. Should print-only readers, unaware of the slant of his blog, be told that he’s a well-established liberal? […]

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli acknowledged that readers may be confused by Post journalists who “wear more than one hat” when they “opine in one forum and appear to report in another forum.”

The solution, he said, is to be “completely transparent about what people do . . . and completely transparent about where people stand.”

And those in “traditional reporting positions,” he said, should remain “nonpartisan, unbiased and free from slant in their presentation in the paper and in any other public forum. There should be no appearance of conflict.”

Someone’s sure confused here! But are readers really going to be “confused” if someone “appears to report” some new factual information one day and then “opines” about it the next? Is it really true that opinion is identical to “dogma” and therefore entirely distinct from “analysis”? Why is there a “conflict” or “appearance of conflict” if people gathering factual information about the conduct of politicians and government officials also have opinions about that conduct? For that matter, why is there so much emphasis on appearance and how things seem rather than on what’s actually happening?

The issue is that objectivity is a business strategy not an epistemology. And it’s a business strategy that serves big city monopoly newspapers well, but serves news outlets in highly competitive marketplaces (online political news in the US today, but also national daily newspapers in the UK forever) quite poorly. But it’s very difficult for a big city daily newspaper that’s good at being a big city daily newspaper to suddenly adopt the different strategy appropriate to a different marketplace.

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