November 22, 2009

Dealing Opinions

Clark Hoyt’s public editor column today in The New York Times quotes Andrew Rosenthal at length about “a columnist’s license.” I like what he has to say. For example:

First, the similarities. A columnist is subject to the same standards of factual accuracy as any writer in The Times, on any page. If a columnist writes that something happened on a certain date, or that the government spent a certain amount of money on something, or that a specific number of people have died in the war in Iraq, to pick a few examples, it is his or her responsibility to make certain that information is correct. Columnists must make sure that when they describe an event they are being accurate in their description. When they quote someone, they are required to do so accurately. Errors that are made must be corrected openly and quickly.

I would go a bit farther. I think proper opinion journalism should be based on proper reporting. While I agree with Rosenthal, I don’t think his statement goes far enough in differentiating a pundit who gets his facts right (and gets them second- or third-hand) from an opinion journalist who gets his facts right because he reported them himself by talking to, or checking, primary sources.

The online world is full of information — some of it even factual. This makes it easy to be a fact-based pundit — something almost anyone can do.

I’m interested in the opinion of the opinion journalist who has actually been there, or actually looked at the records, or actually talked to those who know. Good example of this rapidly vanishing breed of journalist: Thomas Friedman.

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