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Keep opinions off the front page

Tuesday, March 18, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:49 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

Every morning upon opening the Missourian to the opinion page, I am struck by the character and wisdom of Walter Williams’, the founding Dean of the School of Journalism, timeless advice to reporters. To those unfamiliar with this newspaper, it begins with “I believe that the public journal is a public trust” and ends with “I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.”

This simple message is unique in that it details inherent responsibilities and obligations in its marching orders to journalists. That a free press is essential to keep the public informed while also serving as a sentry for the public interest, the importance of honesty, accuracy and fairness in reporting cannot be overstated. Alternately, cursed, maligned, and ridiculed far more often than praised journalists and a free press enjoy one of mankind’s highest callings as they constitute a barrier to tyranny.

I am from a family of journalists and enrolled in MU in 1953 fully intending to continue the line. Alas, my closest encounter, however, was a semester as an assistant custodian in Walter Williams Hall. Although I began writing this column some 50 years later, I cannot claim to be a journalist, in that I did not pay my dues by working the street and the beats. However, as a purveyor of opinions, I try to adhere to Williams’ creed with an honest, accurate and fair analysis of facts as I know them in arriving at a conclusion.

Locally, the reporters are remarkably astute in maintaining the standard, remaining the witnesses to the stories rather than their heroes, as outlined by Humphrey Bogart in his role as city editor in the movie “Deadline USA.” I am forced to admit also that, while I don’t often agree with their assessments, I find the other local opinion columnists to be fair and objective— true to their spheres of political, social and economic leanings — quite the opposite of that seen in the self-centered and pompous output of most syndicated columnists.

The most troubling facet of this profession, though, is the transformation from reporter to pundit, from witness to analyst, or from investigator to seer upon graduating to one of the major metropolitan dailies. For some reason the now self-anointed super journalist lays aside the “W’s” of his profession (who, what, where, when and why) and instead presents his or her opinion or prediction — an equation the reader is perfectly capable of solving when the reporter provides the facts.

Once the yardstick by which all newspapers were measured for accuracy, excellence and quality, The New York Times has become perhaps the most guilty of this editorializing on its front page as well as on its opinion page. This is one of the occupational hazards of permitting a reporter to be more important than the story or allowing personal bias to launch a vendetta over a particular incident. From May 1, 2004, through June 2, 2004, The Times featured Abu Ghraib stories on its front page for 32 consecutive days — a deliberate overkill by the most crass of standards.

Among the most unprofessional subterfuges of these effete intellectuals of inventive reporting is the casual and obviously unaccountable use of unnamed sources in selling a story aimed solely at embarrassing the object of an inquiry. How many times have you seen “according to informed Pentagon sources” or “high-ranking officers” in the information provided? Having served in the Pentagon, I have two very relevant questions: who determined that the sources were, in fact, informed, and what reliability can be assigned to the source?

In my experience, these unnamed sources fall into three categories: the underachieving official with a grudge, the mid-level official seeking attention, and the one who is the invention of the reporter. Not limited to the Pentagon, anonymous sources are also quoted in allegations of wrongdoing by businesses, governments or individuals. While there is often truth among the rumor and innuendo, equally often reputations are unfairly besmirched by one who communicates unconfirmed or invented material as factual or at least probable.

The currency of journalism is the factual reporting of events. Unfortunately, it has been counterfeited in the major metropolitan dailies and much of the mainstream media by the desire of the reporter to make a statement. My advice to the budding journalist is very simple: Your reader has no interest in your opinion; report the facts.


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