By Arthur Alpert
In the 17th century, says Eric Burns in “Infamous Scribblers”, almost all American newspapers were loud, scandalous and partisan, even in the news, which they often fabricated.
Happily, the business evolved. By the time I signed up in the mid-20th century, most papers craved respectability. So they erected a wall (not impermeable, but a wall, nevertheless) between editorials and news coverage.
The Wall Street Journal of that era was a brilliant example thereof; reading it, you sometimes wondered if the editorialists and reporters existed in the same universe.
The point of this (severely truncated) history is to establish that my views rest on what I learned then – the virtue of separating opinion and news.
It was easier to buy that bifurcation, though, when we Americans shared fundamental assumptions. In the 1960s, however, the consensus melted in the blazes of youth culture and the historic civil rights and women’s movements. (Later, the Reagan backfire turned what remained of the old social contract to ashes.)
As the melting pot and other cherished fables succumbed, most saw journalistic “objectivity,” too, as fiction.
This new strife and skepticism fathered new approaches and forms. Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and other “New Journalists” used fictional techniques and in-your-face subjectivity. Editors invented various rubrics to signal readers.
“News Analysis,” for example, meant (approximately) this:
“ This isn’t straight news, we’ve given the reporter freedom to posit and interpret, but it’s not just his opinion, either.’
Today, newspapers fill the gap between unvarnished opinion and “just the facts” content several ways including the blog, wherein reporters let down their hair and acquaint readers with the process.
“Hooray,” says the serious newsman in me, “progress.” But the fogey – remember, I got into the news biz in the 1950s – is nostalgic for the old, simple division between news and opinion. No matter that “just the facts” was never true.
So, in the second decade of the 21st century, we need to decode what we read.
Me, I just hang in there, reading carefully, hoping to identify intellectually honest newsmen and women (and organizations) to learn from.
Editorials are a different kettle of fish. Whereas reporters are supposed to make only tentative judgments, editorial writers arrive at major conclusions, opinionate and persuade us to a course of action.
At the Albuquerque Journal, the publisher uses editorials for partisan purposes. That saddens me; I would leave partisanship to parties, while newspapers retain the high ground of impartial reporting, analysis and opinion. Still, it’s a defensible choice – under our system, freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.
For the same reason, I rarely argue with them, citing editorials only to trace how those views skew the Op Ed pages and migrate into the “news” columns.
So, yes, the publisher may advance his party in editorials and he has carte blanche to opinionate freely. But that doesn’t make intellectual dishonesty kosher. Or hallal.
Which leads – yes, sorry, the above was preface – to an editorial in the Albuquerque Journal last Friday, Feb. 18.
It was a typical national editorial with an unmistakable partisan slant.
But, partisanship aside, consider one mind-blowing sentence.
After noting that President Obama would “freeze or reduce some safety-net programs for the poor,” the editorialist writes:
“But the freeze follows a massive run-up in spending since 2008.”
Whoa! What was that date? 2008?
This, I thought admiringly, may be genius. Dating that “massive spending” to 2008, I mean.
That way, you see, there’s no need to count billions of dollars spent on the war in Afghanistan begun in October 2001. Nor billions spent on the war on Iraq initiated in March 2003. It also omits many millions spent on the Part D Medicare “reform.”
And if you ignore that big spending, readers probably won’t remember that Washington borrowed every cent of it, hundreds of billions of dollars.
All pre-2008 and pretty “massive.”
The Bush White House promoted this spending. Most Republicans in the Congress backed it. So did more than a few Democrats.
Further, they coupled all that pre-2008 spending of borrowed money with cutting government revenue big time. The ultra-rich got a huge tax cut and the rest of us nothing.
This “massive” spending and reducing income succeeded in wiping out anticipated surpluses, creating a deficit and ballooning it – all before 2008.
That’s public record. Some economists allege the pre-2008 gifts to the rich and corporate also inflated one or more bubbles that burst, leading to the crash that sparked the Great Recession that necessitated some $787 billion more in government spending to keep us from a Second Great Depression.
Now you see why the Journal used the year 2008 – it counts only that last burst of spending, the bailouts and stimulus, which almost all economists (liberal, moderate, conservative, but not voodoo-ist) agree precluded total meltdown.
And while a few may remember George W. Bush initiated the TARP program, I venture the 2008 date will prompt most to pin the tail on the fellow who won the presidency late that year.
This example of – shall we call it, strategic dating? – probably was borrowed from the folks who credit the Bush Administration with protecting us from terrorism by counting – so deliberately – from Sept.12, 2001.
Whatever its source, it strikes me as unnecessary. There are grounds for clobbering the Obama budget without deception.
Intellectually honest partisanship, anyone?