Monday, January 29, 2007

Reporters Should Express Opinions, With Limits

The politically correct journalists hold that reporters should never express their opinions about something they are covering.

But, as a reporter, this is not the policy I followed. I never made endorsements of candidates, but I did frequently, both inside and outside the L.A. Times, express opinions on issues. And I never sought to conceal my political affiliation, which for the most part when I was at the Times was Republican.

My reasoning was that, if someone asked me my opinion, which frequently came up when I gave speeches, and I said I didn't have one, no one would believe it anyway. Under those circumstances, I would only lose credibility, and the L.A. Times would too. Journalists, I thought, lose the public's confidence with all this talk that they are above all opinions, and it is quite possible to cover a subject fairly, even if you have an opinion about it.

And I felt, in any case, that consciously or subconsciously, everyone has an opinion, and that readers were entitled to know mine, so they could better judge what I wrote. I always told audiences to assume with everything they read an opinion, a point of view, was there somewhere, and they had to read everything with a skeptical eye and decide for themselves whether they agreed with the premise. After all, just deciding what parts of a public speech to report represents a point of view about it.

I raise this today, because the 'public editor" of the New York Times, Byron Calame, loves to chastise New York Times reporters for expressing their opinion, and he did so Sunday with the newspaper's military correspondent, Michael Gordon.

When Gordon was asked on the Jan. 8 "Charlie Rose" show if he believed "victory" was still possible in Iraq, he gave this response:

"So I think, you know, as a purely personal view, I think it's worth it, one last effort for sure to try to get this right, because my personal view is we've never really tried to win. We've simply been managing our way to defeat. And I think that if it's done right, I think that there is the chance to accomplish something."

Calame said that Philip Taubman, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, agreed with him that this expression of opinion "stepped over the line" and had talked to Gordon about it.

I don't agree. I think audiences listening to Gordon and readers of his articles have a right to hear or read what he thinks on a subject of so great a moment, and that this is within the bounds of interpretive reporting, which is part of his job. And Gordon is certainly qualified, with his experience in military affairs, to have an opinion.

The fact is that Gordon's opinion on fighting on in Iraq is not the editorial opinion of the New York Times. And I think the paper, both Calame and Taubman, are trying to rein him in not so much for expressing an opinion as for expressing an opinion contrary to the cut-and-run bias of the newspaper.

Also, I note that the New York Times' great Iraq reporter, John Burns, frequently appears on CNN's Anderson Cooper nightly news, and gives many opinions on how the war is going. So far, Calame has not dared to criticize Burns.

There are some issues where the New York Times would not hire a reporter of a distinctly different set of views as theirs, and properly so, such as on the civil rights issue. The Times properly would not want a segregationist covering civil rights. And the L.A. Times would probably not want Henry Weinstein covering the death penalty, if he thought the death penalty was right. Anybody who reads Weinstein's death penalty articles, must surely realize he thinks it's wrong.

But, it's assumed a military correspondent such as Mr. Gordon, might well be somewhat more hawkish than the run-of-the-mill reporter. After all, covering military affairs, consorting with military men, you might expect the correspondent to be alert to military concerns.

As for politics, I think, as a Republican, I was still able to cover Democrats fairly, and in some cases too favorably, as with Jimmy Carter.

This is a difficult issue. But, realistically, I don't share the view that experienced reporters should never express their opinions, or pretend to be neutral on everything. As I say, such a lordly attitude only leads to a loss of credibility for the reporter, and the profession.



Blogger geechuck said...

Very interesting to have met you last night and talked about Henry Weinstein when, unbeknownst to me, you mentioned him in the blog posted a few hours before.
I'm a little uncomfortable with opinions appearing in "news" stories, but I have no objection to reporters letting their opinions, or positions, on issues be known in the community. After all, so many people think that the press is biased anyway.
Charles Goldwasser

1/30/2007 6:29 PM  

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