Hard times for the opinionated
The pursuit of objectivity in journalism has always been a messy chase. There are good reasons to chase it, for sure — the past year, with its catapulting of fringe opinion sites with questionable reporting practices into the mainstream, has made the hazards of partisan media perfectly clear — but the American press has always had an opinionated itch. Early American newspapers were almost entirely a vehicle for partisan editorials, rallying calls for party members written by editors who were, often, party officials. Even when the industry became “professionalized” in the later 1800s and early 1900s, the Opinion Page(s) stayed. And it became an institution for every newspaper in the country.
A week and a half ago, I retweeted a Twitter dust-up between Jane Deuker, the local attorney and KMOX personality, and Tony Messenger, the Post-Dispatch metro columnist. Messenger has been on a run of sunshine request-fueled columns wherein his reporting becomes a central part of the story he’s writing about: in July, he wrote the county police’s napping-while-on-duty-at-Metro-stations scandal into existence, and he’s recently suggested that the ice rink project at Creve Couer Lake, which would also serve as a practice facility for the Blues, is not entirely on the up-and-up. In one column, he suggests that construction near the proposed site is rink-related, even though the project hasn’t cleared all its hurdles needed to start construction. (The county says the existing construction is for a stormwater management project; Messenger pointed out there’s no documentation supporting that.)
Deuker’s original complaint — that Messenger is taking talking points from (in)famous St. Louis PR sorcerer Richard Callow — is pretty boring, in my view. It’s safe to say that Messenger, Callow, and Deuker have large enough independent platforms and functioning enough brains that their opinions matter and have a considerable amount of intellectual heft. If any of them happen to align, well, all the more reason to lend some attention. But the back-and-forth tweets between Messenger and Deuker turned into something more interesting: a debate about the degree to which Messenger’s columns were beholden to “objectivity” — or, put another way, how much opinion they were allowed to convey.
Allow me to opine.
Columnists fall firmly in the realm of opinion journalism. That means, simply and IMO, that it’s journalism — nonfiction media created for the public interest —driven by opinion. Objective journalism is driven by reporting. Those two motivating factors, however, are not mutually exclusive.
Opinion journalism often features what we might call “light” reporting: background reading, maybe a quote or two, but only what’s needed to reinforce the opinion you’re expressing. It doesn’t generally involve open records requests and document diving, but those are what Messenger’s column is built on. Deuker’s question is basically this: Because you’re using the techniques of objective journalism, should you have an obligation to be objective yourself?
The short answer is n0. Opinion journalists always have the right — even the responsibility — to be opinionated. But the obligation that unites columnists and reporters and op-ed writers and editorial boards and, especially, the people who edit and curate all of these writers is to not be stupid.
Opinion writers and editors need to effectively make two arguments simultaneously: the inside argument, which is built on having consistent logic and sound reasoning within the context of the article itself, and the outside argument, which is built on being consistent with the context of reality outside the article. (I’m cribbing this idea from this excellent talk by Maciej Ceglowski.)A piece must make sense on both fronts to be useful to its audience. A crude example: I could write a piece about why a Tony Messenger column advocating for immediate overthrow of county government would be bad, and that piece could make perfect internal sense. A newspaper columnist calling for political upheaval would be reprehensible and set a dangerous precedent that could lead to political violence around the country. Of course, I’d be ignoring the fact that there are no such Messenger columns, and there aren’t going to be any such columns in the future. That would make my piece a stupid opinion article.
The two most important newspapers in the country, the New York Times and the Washington Post, both took heat last week for posting stupid opinion articles. The NYT printed an Erik Prince article arguing that war contractors like Erik Prince should take over the conflict in Afghanistan; WaPo published an even more stunningly stupid article called “Yes, antifa is the moral equivalent of neo-Nazis.” Erik Prince’s inside argument is that military contractors are cheaper than U.S. troops and that the U.S. military hasn’t had much success in Afghanistan in the last 15 years. But his outside argument is that privately contracted soldiers would yield a better outcome, and there’s no evidence to suggest that and there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that private paramilitary forces are not a great idea ever. The WaPo article, written by Marc Thiessen, has this inside argument: A lot of Antifa activists are communist; more people have died under communist regimes than under Nazis; therefore, Antifa activists are as bad as neo-Nazis. But the outside argument is that neo-Nazis are advocating for racial supremacy while adopting the language and symbology of genocide and that Antifa is trying to stop them from advocating for that — which makes the “moral equivalency” opinion fall apart. Both papers’ opinion sections, I think, made the mistake of favoring “balance” rather than honesty.
I wasn’t crazy about Messenger’s original ice rink article. (I’m also not crazy that the P-D runs his columns on A2, next to the objective journalism, instead of in the Opinion section, but that only really matters to print devotees.) It starts with insinuations that the project was boosted thanks to campaign donations to County Executive Steve Stenger on behalf of the Blues ownership, and I don’t like insinuations. It leans a little too heavily into one source with an obvious agenda to push, the Audubon Society’s Mitch Leachman. I would have liked to see a little more wariness there. But it really is nice to be able to criticize Messenger’s reporting at all — a lot of opinion journalists either mask the reporting they actually do or don’t do any reporting whatsoever. Messenger’s method is an explicit way of making his outside argument while also making his inside argument, and while a number of people will inevitably find issue with both, the methodology behind his columns is sound opinion journalism.
As readers, we have to change our understanding of what constitutes a good opinion. A good opinion is not necessarily one that you agree with; it’s one that makes sense. And you can disagree with an opinion that makes sense while also making sense yourself. The world is a nuanced place, and the reason that American journalism has preserved its weird fidelity to opinion journalism is because opinions can help us understand some of that nuance in a deeper way; forming our own opinions and learning about the opinions of others helps us understand objective journalism on a deeper level.
At least that’s my opinion.