by Abby Ohlheiser
WorldNetDaily, a right-wing news site, is probably best known for flaming the fires of the birther conspiracy, and for coverage of Sha’riah law bans in America. The tone ranges from threatening to hysterical. That’s with an emphasis on the Victorian female sort of hysterical, not the comedy gold kind. Last Monday, the site’s publisher and CEO, Joseph Farah, admitted in an email to Salon reporter Justin Elliott that his site publishes “some misinformation by columnists.”
This was in the course of defending the site’s journalistic integrity to Elliott, who had published a post earlier that day mentioning WorldNetDaily as the source of Donald Trump’s false claim that President Obama has spent $2 million on legal fees to fight lawsuits questioning his native birth. Read Elliott’s account of the exchange here.
Farah made an argument for a distinction between opinion and news journalism that should be familiar by now: essentially the argument says that opinion writing is exempt from the rigorous fact checking and therefore beyond the sort of criticism levied at poor (or, perhaps, politically inconvenient) reporting that might otherwise discredit a story, publication, or network. Never you mind who quotes the not-necessarily-true opinion pieces as factual, or how that slippery, treacherous, holy separation between opinion and news changes the standards of journalism itself.
Some sort of division between opinion and news is familiar to newspaper readers, at least in theory. Opinion pieces are usually laid out on a separate page, clearly labeled, so no one can mistake one for the other. That’s because opinion pieces are written to be persuasive in a way that is considered to be inadmissible for news writing. But that’s not the kind of distinction Farah is referencing. His distinction removes opinion and commentary from the ethics and expectations of news journalism (and lets publishers, editors and writers off the responsibility hook), while allowing it to wear the same clothes. Without the burden of accountability, these non-factual arguments can be effective political and ethical weapons.
Take the work of James O’Keefe and Lila Rose. Both in their 20’s, the two look, talk, and act like whiz-kid investigative journalists. O’Keefe’s undercover video reports on ACORN and NPR shuttered the first organization and rallied conservative support for the defunding of the second. Rose and O’Keefe’s collaboration, the now infamous Planned Parenthood videos from January, will have a lasting but yet undetermined effect on the organization’s reputation and federal funding.
These videos, carefully edited, make largely unconfirmed claims about systematic corruption and immorality in each of the organizations. And their intended audience, conservatives (including those in Congress), is listening. Although Planned Parenthood’s funding has not yet been cut by Congress, the press releases through the Christian Newswire encouraging a no-compromise approach to dismantling the organization are still coming strong, facts be damned.
Maybe that’s why John Kyl could confidently state on the House floor that over 90% of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortions. But don’t listen to me debunk that: Colbert – and a whole lot of the internet – is on it.
I spent April 8-10 in Boston at the National Conference for Media Reform. About 2,500 people attended, according to one staffer. And it featured some colleagues of Rep. Kyl. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Ed Markey, and two FCC Commissioners were among the featured speakers. Between discussions of net neutrality and low power radio, I sensed a murmur of disbelief in the attendees: how do lies get called truth, anyway? Who really believes this stuff? As Markey, referring to upcoming hearings, said to the crowd on Saturday: “There is one thing that separates you from your opponents: you are right, and they are wrong.” Simple, right? I’m certain it isn’t.
Varying sets of facts are difficult to navigate, but they seem part and parcel of reporting on religion (which is everywhere in these stories). Believers and non-believers aren’t two monolithic groups, but crossing that boundary (either way) to examine and report requires an understanding of the language being spoken by partisan groups and the bias that facts can have. Listening to what’s being said, looking at its source, and considering its consequences takes skill and work.
From where I’m sitting, it seems that the protective power surrounding opinion journalism’s political shifting doesn’t stem from a legacy separation intended to preserve a notion of “objective” news reporting. Instead, increasingly, it gets used by editors and publishers to get good ratings, attack an opponent, or sneakily present a set of assertions as facts. And, it comes from a growing sense that some people and ideas are beyond question. Every human has opinions, and last I checked, journalists and editors were members of the species. The difference is between expressing that opinion transparently, and resisting the urge to become a slave to it.
To read the WND kerfuffle at Salon, click here.
Abby Ohlheiser is a journalist and graduate student at NYU’s Religion and Journalism program.