I don’t say this often, but Keith Olbermann got me thinking about a few things.


I don’t say this often, but Keith Olbermann got me thinking about a few things.
Usually, I avoid watching Olbermann, or Rachel Maddow, or Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck like I avoid things like Ebola. It’s just bad for me, and little good can come from messing with it. If I really want to watch hyperbolic rants delivered by a talking head on the verge of spontaneous human combustion, I’ll tune in to pro wrestling. At least it’s entertaining, and maybe a tad more honest.
However, when Olbermann got indefinitely (two days) suspended from MSNBC for making political contributions, I started to wonder about a few things.
As a reporter, I’m really not supposed to have an opinion on things I cover. Would any of you take me seriously, for example, if I started to talk about how dumb a city or county policy might be in a story? I’d like to think that my opinion is, at the very least, qualified at this point. I’m at all the meetings. Sometimes (most of the time, actually) I’m the only one there, aside from the elected officials. I see most of what they see in the way of documentation.
So, let’s suppose, one day in my story I let loose and fire both barrels at something. Not only do I let you know what happened, but just how awesomely dumb it was. I back my opinion with quotes, documentation, etc. You know what happened and you know what I think about it.
Do you want that? Do you trust me, or any other reporter, enough to not only tell you what happened, but what we think it really means and who is to blame for it in something that isn’t labeled as opinion or analysis? Would you accept that?
Let’s go one step further, into what got Olbermann a two-day vacation. Let’s say I start making political contributions to people that I interview and cover. Am I independent in that case? Can my personal preferences be separated from my professional obligations, and even if I claimed they were, would anyone believe me?
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t. I shouldn’t. At that point, I’m compromised. I’m all but bought and sold. How can I ever be seen as an honest broker of information?
I’m not a big believer in objectivity in this line of work. Some things I cover are impossible to be objective about. How can one be objective about rape, or child molestation, for example? These are things that are almost universally accepted as being bad and indefensible. But while covering a trial of people accused of these acts, I can be fair. In order to be fair, I need to swallow whatever opinions I have about the people involved and just present the facts. I think the same goes for most other reporting. I give you the facts and I let you make up your own mind. The less you know about how I feel, the more valid the story is.
Yet, with Olbermann, and all the rest, they cross that line frequently. The slant becomes an integral part of the story, and the coverage caters to the fans of that slant. That’s great if you want to start up a fan club newsletter, but it’s a lousy way to run a news operation.
Former ABC anchor Ted Koppel opined on this recently in Time Magazine.
“Perhaps it doesn't matter that we are being flattered into believing what any full-length mirror can tell us is untrue. But when our accountants, bankers and lawyers, our doctors and our politicians tell us only what we want to hear, despite hard evidence to the contrary, we are headed for disaster,” Koppel said. “We celebrate truth as a virtue, but only in the abstract. What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts - along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.”
Maybe this business is changing, and maybe it’s unrealistic to hold to each and every one of the standards set by giants like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. After all, they let the public know how they really felt about the things they covered too. Murrow dealt with Sen. Joe McCarthy quite effectively, and Cronkite let folks know how he though the Vietnam War was really going. However, Murrow and Cronkite picked their battles carefully, and the stakes were very, very real. There does come a point, when faced with overwhelming facts, when opinion simply confirms what is actually happening. At that point, when a previously neutral and respected voice crosses the line into opinion, it means something. It’s an event.
However, when it happens every day, masquerading as news, it means absolutely nothing. It’s noise piled on noise, hyperbole piled on hyperbole, until, one day when something horrible or noteworthy happens - something we really need to pay attention to - it just gets lost in the noise.