Well okay, but that’s a blog!

two directions at onceTraditional journalism has backed itself into a corner that it now finds it must defend. The problem is that journalism itself is moving elsewhere, and the traditional bunch can’t follow. Witness the Public Editor commentary this morning in the New York Times, where Earl Wilson writes of the problems of mixing the old with the new:

“How could anyone possibly think this piece belonged in a news section?” asked one reader, Donald Johnson, about a “Political Times” column by Matt Bai.

Another reader, Vicky Bollenbacher of Boulder, Colo., had the same concern about a news-page column in Business Day. “You should move such pieces clearly to your opinion section, or exercise a great deal more editorial muscle to clean pieces like his up from being advocacy pieces,” she said.

And David Hooper, a San Francisco reader responding to a column in the A section by Jonathan Weber, said, “In my opinion, your article was, in fact, an Op-Ed piece.”

How to fix this, how to quiet the complaining voices is the issue. In mixing opinion with so-called objective journalism, Wilson finds an internal tension for readers:

How to resolve this tension?

One path is to do a much better job of labeling the work — and please don’t bother with the fine distinctions. Call it commentary or call it opinion, but call it something that people can understand.

That, or abandon the sacred cloak of impartiality.

I vote for the former but concede that the latter may offer better traction in the opinion-gorged landscape of the future.

There exists in the news reading public the idea of impartiality, because we’ve told them over the last hundred years that it’s supposed to be there. It’s a fraud, because there is no such thing. Moreover, as Chris Lasch wrote 20 years ago, what the public both wants and needs is “argument” in order to be involved in life around them.“Just the facts” produces an uninvolved mush of a culture.

So who’s bringing argument to the table these days? The blogosphere, where it’s fully expected. People who read blogs have no expectation of impartiality, and that, I strongly believe, gives many new entities an advantage as the values of journalism shift to speed, transparency and authenticity.

Trying to mix “opinion” with impartiality is wanting to have your cake and eat it too. It’s clinging to the past, while trying to pull freshness into the blend. The Good Book calls that trying to put new wine into old wineskins. It doesn’t work.

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