This Week’s Column: The Old Rules Don’t Apply Anymore

NPR's Nina Totenberg and columnist Charles KrauthammerIf anything, the Juan Williams/NPR debacle proves that the old rules don’t apply anymore. Since the earliest days of journalism, reporters held at least the pretense that there exists a thin grey line between reporting and editorial.

What separated reporters from columnists was the very notion that one reported the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, while the other chattered about whatever crossed his mind that day (or, in my own vernacular about this column, whatever got stuck in my craw that day). Editorialists in recent years spawned the more common species known as “pundits,” those talking heads often filling the better part of the 24-hour news cycle. And in recent years, as in the case of Juan Williams, one became the other and vice-versa.

Following the hasty firing of Williams from the staff of the venerable National Public Radio (NPR), the media focused mostly on the veracity of FoxNews’ assertion that Williams’ firing was politically motivated. Because Williams associated with FoxNews, the theory goes, NPR pounced on the first whiff of a reason to fire him and remove the stain of conservatism from an otherwise stalwart batch of media elites. Such partisan hyperventilating, while an interesting and perhaps central factor worth discussing, missed almost entirely an even larger point: the rules themselves have changed.

Williams’ former NPR colleague Nina Totenberg made the point directly on PBS’ “Inside Washington.” Challenged by columnist Charles Krauthammer as to the hypocrisy of Totenberg’s own status as both reporter and opinion-maker, Totenberg offered this truth: “In the modern journalistic world, where people are asked to give opinions all the time … I think it’s a very very difficult line to draw. And NPR tries to draw it, in my view, using rules that don’t exist anymore.”

And the obvious truth is, she’s exactly right.
Setting aside the entire discussion of NPR’s nonsensical decision to fire Williams, Totenberg’s point is the most important discovery of the entire story. Regarding NPR’s role in the controversy, we can simply quote Ronan Keating that “foolish ways will make fools of the wise,” and move on.

Totenberg’s revelation, on the other hand, cannot be ignored. One could argue that I stand as Exhibit A … I spend my days reporting the factuality of what’s happening in Ohio’s most important industry. At the same time, my blog, Facebook, Twitter, and even this column are almost purely dispatches of my own paradigm and opinion. Have I violated some immutable law of the universe by sharing my own thoughts and predilections with my audience?

Ten, twenty years ago, yes. In modern discourse, however, the discussion of opinion and analysis is almost as important to the consuming audience as the mere presentation of facts, dates, and data. How else can one explain the exponential growth of outlets like FoxNews and continued success of talk radio, while traditional media outlets face serious decline?

The very issues raised by Totenberg in response to the Williams scenario are the most important issues facing journalists and media professionals in the modern era. Far more important than discussions about the use of multiple mediums and if a writer can also handle the burdens of doing his own photos, videos, and web posts, the discussion of the “new rules” governing the Fourth Estate will grip media scholars and the actual professionals in the trenches for years.

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About Andy Vance

Grains and Biofuels Editor at Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper for agribusiness, and resident blogger at BeefProducer.com. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, I may be the most dangerous man I know...

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