Clinging on the way down

There are two headlines back-to-back in Romenesko’s RSS feed today that speak volumes:

Plain Dealer didn’t bow to political pressure in blog dust-up
Denver Post skewers governor in rare front-page editorial

In the former, the ombud for the Cleveland Plain Dealer speaks about his paper’s decision to shutter its political group blog and fire a liberal blogger. His crime was supporting a candidate and writing about the same candidate on the blog. The paper’s policy is carved from the canons of journalistic ethics:

“You can’t contribute to a political candidate and then write about his or her campaign, either as an employee or as a paid free-lancer for The Plain Dealer, on paper or online.”

But Jeff Jarvis asks why they hired the bloggers and created the blog in the first place, if it was not to hear the opinions of involved citizens.

The logic of all this is baffling. The paper knew it was hiring opinionated people. But it didn’t want involved people. That is a “difficulty.”

What we’re really seeing is the view of journalism from inside the cloister of the newspaper: Once you take a dollar from the paper, once you take its communion, you are transformed: You take a vow of political celibacy. You have no opinions and if you do, you hold them to yourself, like impure thoughts. You don’t participate in your community but stand apart from it. And you don’t mingle with those outside the walls who speak the vulgate, blog. So the priests of the paper said that the bloggers were sinners. And they were excommunicated.

The second headline from the Romenesko feed tells the story of a Denver Post editorial that refers to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter as “Jimmy Hoffa,” “a toady for labor bosses” and “a bag man for unions.”

These two stories are different sides of the same coin, and they both make a case for the return of argument to journalism. They point out the silliness of the line between personal, paid support and corporate editorial support. Purists will argue that the person who wrote the Post editorial didn’t or hasn’t supported an opponent of the governor, but I would argue that this is semantics because support is support, whether its in the form of cash contributions or otherwise. Others will argue that the Post editorial was well thought out and agreed upon by the editorial board of the paper — that elite group of educated and informed people who guide the decisions of the paper. No name-calling; just thoughtful prose. Not.

But what’s really sad about these two instances is how they are viewed by people watching from the outside — the people formerly known as the audience. Those people are arming themselves with personal media technology and speaking for themselves in ways that are not part of the canons. The Cleveland paper was right to try and display some of that in its group blog, but it was wrong to put it under its banner (and its canons). You can’t have it both ways, and the worst thing we can do is try and drag that which is new into the model that’s being disrupted. When will we learn that?

Just like everything else, the canons of journalistic ethics — and how we apply them to our work — need to be reviewed. Otherwise, we’ll be clinging to them — with looks of deep pride — all the way to the ocean floor.

Comments

  1. I submitted a post – but read the numerals wrong and so produced the wrong answer in your anti-bot box.
    When I hit the ‘back’ arrow to correct it, a natural response, my words are gone… I hope to recreate them here, but if your site could retain them in such a human-error situation it would be nice.

    I’m a member of “the audience” although a little more informed than some since I often read your writing here.

    What I want, and I think many would agree with me, is a clear delineation of what is opinion and what is not – and that is sufficient. This delineation can often be determined empirically, although for some it’s helpful if the journalism organization provides that information.

    The Plain Dealer erred by judging its online readers as not intelligent enough to realize that a blog could be opinionated. They overreacted in shutting it down – all they really needed to do was treat it like any other op-ed opinion column. Instead, they now appear to be willing to censor political discourse in the name of some ‘pure’ journalistic ethic which really doesn’t exist for opinion pieces, and “the audience” knows it. They lose a piece of the local conversation. as well, which is something they can ill afford to lose these days.

  2. Thanks, Tim. I’ll check the WordPress forums and see if there’s a plug-in (or perhaps I need to upgrade my software). I’ve experienced this problem many times, so much so that I’ve gotten into the habit of automatically copying the text before pressing “Post.”

  3. Terry – thanks – I’m “the other blogger” who left. You do a really nice compare and contrast, concisely.

    Just one note – ironically, I just posted something about how the banner for Wide Open doesn’t even have Plain Dealer in it, the way its traditional blog, Open, does. I actually noticed the absence of the words “Plain Dealer” from the Wide Open site when we started it in September.

    http://www.writeslikeshetalks.com/2007/11/09/picture-1000-words-the-plain-dealer-politics-blog-v-wide-open/

    Again – thanks for writing about what’s going on. Clearly it highlights very serious differences in perspective to say the least, between those who embrace innovation and change and flexibility, and those who are scared to death – in the case of print, very likely to death.

  4. Terry- You mean like hiring Rush Limbaugh to offer up opinions on ESPN then panicking the first time he said something not politically correct?

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