A recent sub-headline on the front page of Washington Jewish Week read: “J Street policy conference rallies youth, falls short on moving the conversation forward.”
I sighed, not because I work for J Street but because it was yet another example of a newspaper violating what used to be a key rule of good journalism, namely not mixing news and opinion.
The first half of the headline was strictly factual, the second half strictly the reporter’s opinion. And of course, WJW is scarcely alone in committing this journalistic sin. It’s become all too common.
Naturally there is a lot of room for opinion in a newspaper. It belongs in the opinion pages, which is where I am writing this article today. The views I am expressing are purely personal. Every reader is perfectly free to agree or disagree — and to respond.
But when news and opinion are mixed, the newspaper loses credibility as a source of information. If readers don’t know whether they are reading news or opinion, they are free — and indeed tempted — to dismiss every word as biased.
In this same article, the author writes: “The loud cheering was just that, however — cheering. Rah-rah messages brought little diversity or depth to the J Street sessions.”
Again this was just her opinion and she certainly has a right to express it — but not in the body of a news article. Those observations belong right here on this page in the opinion section of the newspaper.
A recently published book by David M. Ryfe entitled Can Journalism Survive? examines the dilemma of old-style newspapers in the digital age. He argues that what is condemning so many newspapers across the country to a slow and lingering death is precisely what he calls traditional journalism’s “cult of objectivity.” In the Internet age, he asserts, what readers want are not facts but viewpoints that validate their own opinions. In short, they want to read things they already agree with — the facts be damned.
Not only that but the Internet actually rewards those who shout the loudest and make the most outrageous assertions, rather than those who keep their tone civil and their arguments reasoned and reasonable. Look at the screaming headlines on Huffington Post or the Drudge Report.
In this kind of a world where there is a cacophony of opinion and a shortage of facts, how do we separate truth from fiction? The answer is that we can’t and we don’t. What we do is take refuge in groups of like-minded people. We huddle in online communities with those who agree with us and separate ourselves from those who do not. We adopt a siege mentality — a shared sense of defensiveness and victimization.
We exaggerate the misdeeds of our political opponents and are prepared to believe the worst about them. We lack a common discourse and lose the habit of listening to the other side. We become gradually coarsened, intolerant and uncivil. We define anything bad that happens to them as a benefit to us. We celebrate their failures as our successes. We become an us and them society.
This is an atmosphere in which conspiracy theories gain a foothold and thrive. That’s why there’s still a hardline core of people out there who do not believe that President Barack Obama was born in the United States and why others still believe that water fluoridation is a totalitarian plot to take over the world, or that global warming is a myth.
The problem with the death of journalism is that it’s also leading to a death of democracy as a living, functioning means of government. That’s why we see the gap between the political parties widening in America, and it’s also the reason why nobody from either party can get anything done. Just look at how the recent government shutdown happened.
I acknowledge that newspapers have an obligation to remain profitable and to give their readers what they want. But they also play a key role in our democracy and that creates another, equally important obligation — the absolute need to provide accurate, and to the greatest possible extent, balanced information.
I have been a paying subscriber to Washington Jewish Week for 25 years, and I value its information about what’s happening in my community and the wider Jewish world. I also value the healthy and spirited debate that takes place in its opinion pages and editorials.
I want both to continue — separately.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications for J Street