August 2, 2010

The Power of Reporting

Reading much of what passes for opinion journalism today at the national level  is a dreary experience in partisan bickering. So much of what passes for opinion journalism today is actually punditry.

Earlier I highlighted the work of Jim Dwyer, a local columnist for The New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1995, because his work is anything but dreary. He offers us a model for what opinion journalism is supposed to be: opinion based on reporting.

Compare this recent column by Dwyer to this one by Maureen Dowd, also of the Times. What you have here is nothing less than the difference between serious journalism and fluff. Reporting is the reason for that difference. Dowd’s column shows no reporting effort at all. And the result is predicable dreck. Note that her only quoted source comes from Vanity Fair. Dowd offers us an example of lazy reporting — something we should expect not to see in The New York Times.

One might argue that Dowd is commenting on the culture as she sees it. Fine. And I would ask: Why should I care what Maureen Dowd thinks about anything? What expertise does she bring to bear that makes her a cultural (or political) commentator worth listening to?

R E P O R T I N G

Dwyer’s column, on the other hand, shows us what happens when a serious opinion journalist bothers to ask real questions of real people — and bothers to tell a story.

Consider Dwyer’s lead:

One afternoon, Duane P. Kerzic was arrested by the Amtrak police while taking pictures of a train pulling into Pennsylvania Station. At first, the police asked him to delete the images from his camera, but he refused. He ended up handcuffed to the wall of a holding cell while an officer wrote a ticket for trespassing.

The column examines Amtrak’s apparent aversion to the photographing of its trains despite the irony of running an annual “Picture Our Trains” photo context (that now appears to be cancelled).

As the story progresses, Dwyer comments on more than the fate of Kerzic and others who have been harassed or arrested taking pictures on government property. He questions government censorship:

But how could Amtrak — the national railroad, whose preferred stock is owned by the American public and whose chief executive and board of directors are appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress — require that a Web site criticizing the railroad be shut down as a condition of settling a lawsuit for wrongful arrest?

What qualifications does Amtrak have to function as a censor?

Followed shortly by this:

Since 9/11, a number of government bodies have sought to limit photography in railroad stations and other public buildings. One rationale is that pictures would help people planning acts of mayhem. It has been a largely futile effort. On a practical level, decent cameras now come in every size and shape, and controlling how people use them would require legions of police officers. Moreover, taking photographs and displaying them is speech protected by the First Amendment, no less than taking notes and writing them up.

Dwyer finishes the column with more examples and then this excoriating conclusion:

Since Mr. Kerzic’s run-in with the police at Penn Station, Amtrak has dropped its Web page on the “Picture Our Trains” contest.

Mr. Colbert wasn’t standing for it.

“This photography contest,” he said, “is Amtrak’s cleverest ruse since their so-called timetable.”

One does not have to agree with Dwyer’s opinion to understand that this is a far better example of opinion journalism than a partisan rant or cultural musing based on little demonstrated reporting.

I’ll grant you than some readers may find partisan rants and cultural musings entertaining. But entertainment is not journalism’s primary concern or purpose — that purpose, stated by Kovach & Rosenstiel: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

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