Monday, March 29, 2004

The House Op-Ed -- Madonna or Hoe?

Boxed up the quoted text.

I suspect that I have some terminology wrong (although readers are either too polite or too appalled to correct it) -
  • a "Newspaper Editorial" is the unsigned "institutional voice" that I'm calling a House Op-Ed in this post?
  • Is an Op-Ed one thing, or are Ops and Eds actually different?
  • Op-Eds are always signed?
  • Letters to the editor are neither Ops nor Eds?
  • Difference between a "column" and an Op-Ed?
  • Is there a dictionary out there that would clarify the terminological confusion, or is this more Alice in Wonderland material?

"Hoe" is typically spelled with an apostrophe in place of the "e".

Usually intended, though generally unstated, disclaimer - this is what I believe to be true, but I could be wrong, so if I'm missing something (logically or factually) please let me know.

And yes, reality is not likely to be this clear cut. Generalizations were made.

"As I tried to explain to you...(apparently unsuccessfully),...."
I think the reason I've had so much trouble with the idea that a [local] newspaper could put out an editorial* (the subject of posts below) whose reasoning no one was willing to justify, comes from confusion as the purpose, standards and expectations for the "House Op-Ed" (HOE).

And for something found so close to journalism - often they're printed on opposite sides of the same page - it's surprising how little attention it seems to get from the pundits of journalism, and what little consensus there is among the hoi polloi as to its meaning and function. Among the varied interpretations:
  1. My former, optimistic, "bringing light to truth" assumption was that the HOE is where those who are closest to the news tell you their best/strongest/clearest impression as to what the news reporting really boils down to. Particularly if reporters adhere to the unhelpful, stereotypical "balanced" "he said-she said" reporting, many/most readers will lack the background to "read between the lines", so the HOE can explain what is written between those lines.

    A tangent, from BDL comments:
    "I'll put it between the lines and trust my readers to make the final judgment" is every [not terribly brave] journalist's excuse for not wanting to anger the people in power about whom they write. A reporter's job is to inform readers of factual context as well as central facts. Saying "oh, they'll read between the lines" is presuming that readers are already well enough informed not to need the reporter in the first place.
  2. Another person believes that the HOE is where the newspaper tells you the filter that it's 'wearing' in its reporting - if the HOEs don't line up with your perception of reality, it's telling you that the news articles have the same (albeit less obvious) slant.

  3. Others are more cynical. Out of context quote from Crescat Sententia:
    a friend/co-blogger suggested last night that op-eds and similar journalism rarely serve any purpose other than to state the author's position, and that the reasoning included in an op-ed is mere windowdressing to the real business, where the author says, "I, who you trust, tell you to believe Z."
    (i.e. scantily-clad Lady Logic is instructed who to love, rather than being free to make her own choices)
    If this interpretation is correct, then - to the extent that the standards for HOEs are left unstated - the situation is much the same as the one exposed by last year's disclosure that web magazine Tech Central Station was (then secretly) owned by a right-wing lobbyist(s?), who "planted" stories favorable to their clients in amongst the more honest content - i.e., to extrapolate to the HOEs, the ethical and honest reporters who write the rest of the paper are delivering credibility to the HOE instigator, who spends that credibility for his own ends.

    TCS Dynamics and background explained in the confessions of this former Tech Central Station protein sheath (long, so I'll quote):
    ...there is good reason to suspect the whole kit and kaboodle is an engineered media virus with the honest convictions of all blogger-contributors composing a sort of protein sheath....The evidence is circumstantial but substantial. Corporate sponsors are getting, for their bucks, not hundreds of blogger-written columns but a few - perhaps very few, but valued - corporate advertisements not clearly identified as such.
    (BTW, interesting off-topic comment from Russell Arben Fox at the bottom)
So the HOE can be a Madonna, bringing light to truth; a DSM-IV, indicating what sort of delusions inform the rest of the paper; or a "Hoe", where the publisher makes use of the paper's authority (acquired via accurate news reporting) to push his causes. And nothing on the editorial page tells you which kind of HOE it is.

One indicator, though, is gross inconsistency between the news and editorial pages - this is evidence for the "Hoe" form of HOE. This split is found even in top newspapers, as others have noticed:
Maybe someone who reads the [Washington] Post more often than I do can explain: is it turning into the new Wall Street Journal, with editorial and news pages apparently from parallel universes?
HOEs motivated by other than factual concerns can come back to embarrass the paper, in the form of retrospective evaluations of their accuracy by reporters like Chris Mooney. Not surprisingly, their authors aren't eager to examine how they got so out of touch with reality:
attempts to prompt self-reflection from the six editorial page editors about [their] astonishing failure met with only moderate success...

Is there a widely accepted set of HOE ethics? disclaimers? clearly stated expectations that we the readers should or should not have? (this would be helpful, but not truly sufficient, since we humans inherently give more weight to the utterances of authority - if the HOE notes that the earth is flat, some readers will invariably take this as truth no matter how well it's marked with disclaimers)

Or is the HOE the one section of the paper that neither has nor wants clear ground rules?

Should newspapers have HOEs, given the inevitable temptation/pressure to play fast and loose with the facts and logic in an attempt to persuade?

Yes. It's like having a litter box for indoor cats, or a toilet in the house - if you don't provide a designated space for pontification/swaying/manipulating/persuading, they'll end up doing it everywhere. However, it would be good to encourage more oversight - for example by somehow making it incumbent on the writers to respond to [good] arguments against their conclusions.

(BTW if you know of anything's actually been _written_ on structure/function/design/pathology of Op-Eds, let me know, since I haven't found it and it's not likely that this is virgin territory.)

The writers of "Madonna" and "DSM-IV" HOEs are likely to be sincere, and to sincerely believe in the accuracy of their statements; but in the case of a "Hoe" HOE, logical justifications are not something the authors will be interested in engaging in. Likewise, someone writing a Hoe will be more inclined to "editorial inaccuracies" (e.g. making things up).

Not to be outdone by The Union, The NY Times is also catching it for problems (in this case, a made up anecdote which was the only evidence supporting the editorial's conclusion) in an Op-Ed, as recounted in This Modern World. A commenter suggests the following as an NYT Op-Ed disclaimer more in line with practice:
EDITOR'S NOTICE: Even though some of the things in the following column may sound to any reasonable reader like statements of objective "fact," everything that follows is actually nothing more than a statement of the author's "beliefs," which, while they may be illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, are nevertheless exempt in every respect from the Times' error correction policy.
and the errant columnist rationalizes...
"An opinion may be wrongheaded," Safire told [weblog proprietor Tom Tomorrow] by e-mail last week, "but it is never wrong. A belief or a conviction, no matter how illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, is an idea subject to vigorous dispute but is not an assertion subject to editorial or legal correction."
In other words, Safire just makes ['facts' up...]
The attempt to make a distinction between convictions and assertions is amusing. If you take an assertion and preface it with "We have no doubt that...", does that mean you no longer need supporting evidence?

Miscellaneous relevant Poynter articles:
  • Some clues as to how Hoes often(? always? usually?) work, from an interview with Doug Floyd, editorial page editor of The Spokesman-Review:
    It's the publisher's role to make the final calls on our editorial policy. It's my job to execute it.

    I'm capable, if called upon, to write in the institutional voice, making the case as strongly as I can...
  • on transparency:
    a number of descriptions of a transparent press had a one-way mirror feel to them: We editors will explain to you readers what we think you should know about us.

    "Leadership requires us to write down our ethical principles, our news and business values, our standards and practices. We promise to revisit these regularly and, with your advice, to revise them when necessary. More than that, we will publish them, every day on our website and at least once a year in the newspaper. Please read them, and hold us accountable."
  • Secrecy breeds skepticism:
    ... too many of our readers - on whom we are dependent for our own success - believe that we use our independence to justify being aloof, arrogant, and unaccountable.
  • Pull Back the Curtain: Let Readers See the Process
    Because the ethical process isn't simple, the least we can do is make it transparent.


* the offending editorial was a standout; the vast majority are much better reasoned, for example this one from last Saturday.

Flaws and likely inaccuracies:
I'm mixing up different kinds of editorials here (Friedman is not the embodiment of the NY Times, for example), and bringing up the Tech Central Station flap from memory, some of it may not be correct. And it's late...

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