Don't Publish, or Perish

Should the Washington Post’s value as a newspaper be measured solely by the content on it’s op-ed pages? This seems to be the yardstick that Tim Lambert, a widely read climate blogger, uses in a current post, titled,

The Washington Post can’t go out of business fast enough

Now why would he wish that? Well, he’s pissed off that the Post published Sarah Palin’s ridiculous commentary on “climategate” and continues to publish George Will’s whacky opining on global warming.

Let me be clear: it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize Palin and Will, but I have to confess, I don’t understood all the anger and scorn heaped on the Post for providing them with a forum. These are opinion columns we’re talking about here, not news stories or even offical newspaper editorials.

And opinion columns, by their nature, are highly subjective, highly biased, and yes, can be hugely misleading. If you were a liberal during William Safire’s decades as a NYT columnist, you were probably often infuriated by what you read. But I don’t recall anyone wishing the Times went belly up because Safire had wrote yet another whopper of a column on the Democrats.

To put it another way, as one commenter to Lambert points out:

Opinion pieces are allowed to be lacking in factual accuracy; most readers are probably aware of this.

And most readers are also “probably aware” of the political and/or ideological orientation of op-ed columnists. That frame of reference is how most of us come to any column by well known pundits or politicians. So we process opinion columns differently than we do news stories. We tend to think that a news story is presenting information in a more evenhanded manner than an op-ed column. Yet I think the critics who yell foul over Will and Palin are are not making this distinction. They would have a better case with someone like Lou Dobbs, who combined news and opinion at CNN in a way that gave biased commentary the veneer of being supported by factual reporting.  There’s no such veneer with Will and Palin.

Anyway, why on earth would Lambert be willing to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, when the WaPo provides valuable climate reporting from the likes of Juliet Eilperin and perspective from the Capital Weather Gang’s Andrew Freedman? Tim, I just don’t get the wholescale dismissal of an entire newspaper because you think the Post shouldn’t publish certain viewpoints, no matter how skewed they may be.

4 Responses to “Don't Publish, or Perish”

  1. Tim Lambert says:

    So in your world there are no such things as facts, just opinions?

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    No, not at all. But your logic is as warped as a George Will column on global warming. In your post, you argue:

    “So what use is the Washington Post? If they are not going to do even the most perfunctory fact checking on the stuff they publish, what value do they add?”

    That “stuff” you refer to are opinion columns and indeed, there’s a good case to be made that they should apply a much higher standard of accuracy to statements made in such columns. But to imply that the WaPo adds no value beyond their op-ed pages is ridiculous and insulting to the rest of the journalists at that paper.

  3. Tim Lambert says:

    Sorry Keith, you’re all over the map.  Do you think opinion pieces should be accurate or not?

  4. teofilo says:

    Tim’s critique of the Post is pretty common in the liberal blogosphere, and there are a variety of different ways to look at the issue.  One is the ratio of good done by a given newspaper’s news reporting to harm done by its opinion pieces, and by that measure I think it’s pretty clear that the NYT does much better than the Post, both in a higher volume of good reporting and a lower volume of opinion nonsense.  Another way to look at it is to ask why newspapers in this day and age have opinion pages at all.  Especially with the advent of the internet, the overhead associated with publishing opinions is so small as to make the marginal cost essentially zero, which is not true of reported news.  In that context it could be argued that there’s no reason for newspapers to devote precious column inches to opinion pieces by the likes of Palin and Will, who could just as easily put their stuff out on blogs or whatever and save space in the newspapers for actual news.  The only advantage the Post’s opinion page offers over a blog for this sort of thing is prestige, but as online media gain more respect (and newspapers lose it) that becomes less of an advantage for the opinionators, the paper doesn’t benefit a whole lot from it either, and the readers benefit even less.

    Another thing to consider is that many people, myself included, consider journalism a worthwhile pursuit only to the extent that it contributes positively and productively to public discourse.   Newspapers don’t have inherent worth and if they want good reputations as new sources they need to earn them through quality reporting.  Publishing inaccurate and misleading opinion pieces may not necessarily counteract the good done by news reporting, but it doesn’t help newspapers maintain their reputations, and it suggests misguided editorial priorities that can cast doubt on everything the paper publishes, deservedly or not.

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