Good luck separating ‘journalism’ and ‘opinion’ in the age of Trump

The always-worth-reading El Pariser has a piece out today at NiemanLab headlined “Trump’s USA Today op-ed demonstrates why it’s time to unbundle news and opinion content“.

He suggests:

If we believe there’s something special about the processes and norms that create journalism (and I do), publishers should draw a brighter line around it — a line that both people and algorithms can understand.

But I disagree. You simply can’t draw a clear line between “journalism” and “opinion”. Especially in this day and age, you need a heavy does of context and analysis to make sense of what’s being said and done. “Straight” stenography, in contrast, is the opposite of journalism.

So do you put anything that smacks of editorializing over on the opinion side? (And yes, I speak from personal experience).

That would be too extreme.

At the same time, with reporters and editors feeling constrained (still!) by both-siderism – which is triangulation, not truth-telling – much of the best analysis is being done on the virtual-space-formerly-known-as-the-opinion-pages. (Also some of the worst.)

The problem yesterday was that USA Today’s editorial editors ran a Trump op-ed full of lies – and then had the gall to say they fact-checked it!

Ha! As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote just hours after it was published, almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.

USA Today’s opinion editors shouldn’t have run the Trump op-ed – certainly without annotation or explanation. But I’m not surprised they did.

Would others have? The Washington Post published this baseless drivel last year, in which Trump wrote that in his first 100 days he had successfully “transferred power from Washington, D.C., and give[n] it back to the people.” He even lashed out at press, writing: “The same establishment media that concealed these problems — and profited from them — is obviously not going to tell this story.”

In fact, the Post not long ago rolled out a series of “categories” to label articles and tweets, evidently intending to make the kind of distinctions Pariser is talking about. For Post-obsessives like myself, they have been hilariously applied.

For instance: Philip Bump’s reporting is called “analysis”. Joe Davidson’s reporting is called “perspective“. Josh Rogin’s reporting is called “opinion” – and so is torture-apologist Marc Thiessen’s compulsive lunatic trolling. His first paragraph today: “Donald Trump may be remembered as the most honest president in modern American history.” The Post should add a category for “trolling”.

So I don’t think segregating content can work. The best thing I can come up with is, as usual, a variation on radical transparency.

Opinion pages should just be more honest about how their “fact-checking” is more like “spell-checking”. They should just put some sort of boilerplate caveat on stuff they realize contains unverifiable bullshit. (And maybe explain why they ran it anyway.)

It would be nice if opinion pages did genuinely fact-check. But at this point, that would be effectively muting a major political party and its partisans.

1 thought on “Good luck separating ‘journalism’ and ‘opinion’ in the age of Trump”

  1. You are correct when you state “Straight” stenography, in contrast, is the opposite of journalism.”

    We need to remember that Stenography is also known in most news circles as “reporting”.

    And readers seem to pine for, more and more, “reporting” (or stenography).


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