(This post is for BD, who thinks I’m being cryptic lately.)
I see from the NY Times that Shelby W. Bonnie, c|net’s fearless leader, is a significant donor to the Kerry campaign. This is the sort of revelation that causes some folk in publishing to clutch their pearls and start wheezing — the appearance of bias and so forth. But I have to say I’m impressed that Bonnie’s name is out there, because friends, only a fool believes that just because a journalist doesn’t express an opinion she hasn’t got one — or just because she has got an opinion she can’t or won’t truthfully lay out the full array of facts as available to her.
Be honest, now: Does anyone within the sound of my keyboard honestly think that it’s better not to know what worldviews journalists bring to the fray? (And does anyone believe that because you don’t know a particular reporter’s stance on various issues, that means they don’t have one?) For that matter, is there anyone left who consumes news without seeking the brand that’s most consonant with their own beliefs and opinions? The idea of a disinterested press died young — fell off that “balance” teeter-totter — and in its place we’ve got everything from blogs to Fox News to InstaPundit to Talking Points Memo to Air America, which separately and together illustrate that telling “both sides” of a story is nonsense when there are so many more sides than two. To any story.
Don’t cry over the death of “balance,” by the way. The free market of news is endangered by consolidation (particularly among those mainstream venue howling loudest about “balance”), but it’s renewed by blogs, cheap video-recording equipment, and so much more. Never in the history of the world has source material been so available. It’s beyond any single human’s ability to see and digest it all, but with so much access available we’re seeing the rise of a cadre of folk who take it upon themselves to interpret and relay their thoughts on what’s available — but with the understanding that they are but one person or voice, and that if you don’t like their interpretation there are a thousand thousand others to which one can listen. Or with which one can argue. Or, better, both. The lesson of the information deluge: Come on in and wallow. (PS. — You have no choice.)
Meanwhile, the idea that journalists are somehow tainted by having their point of view daylighted is an insult to the reader. For instance (to take a non-political example), I get a kick out of reading certain of that class of magazines known as “lad mags” — FHM and the like. I don’t happen to agree with the worldview of most of their writers, but I always learn a bit from seeing how they frame ideas, what they think is important to mention, and so forth. More broadly, I get a lot from the Wall Street Journal (not my socioeconomic background), a number of Muslim-oriented blogs (not my religion), and occasionally my friend’s Exeter alumni magazine (please). I’m not at all insulted by the idea that these publications are based on outlooks very different from mine. That’s what makes it interesting — and helps me clarify my own thinking on the issues of the day.
Or, as a wise lyricist once said, “I don’t care about different thoughts / Different thoughts are good for me.” Perhaps in a world of news scarcity, where one bought either Publication A or Publication B, the old mindset worked as a way of keeping the broadest possible market share for a given title. That was then. Now’s now.
And so here’s to Shelby Bonnie, whose contribution and sensibility are out there in plain air, as they say, to make of what you will. You may not agree with his choice of candidate, but now that you know where he stands you can apply that information to what’s published on his site and, if you find that information to be untrustworthy, you can take your readership elsewhere. Bonnie is being honest with you, and honesty in media in the Information Age demands not that practitioners of journalism pretend not to have opinions, but that they admit to them as facts that may or may not play a part what they choose to write, whom they choose to interview, and which aspects of a story are given play.
Journalists: Inform your readers. Do your job by presenting the facts available as scrupulously as you possibly can. Trust them to draw their own conclusions. If you’re good, and if you’re fair in attempting to tell even stories that make you personally uncomfortable, the work will be the better for it, and even those who disagree with you will have no choice but to respect the work.