July 20, 2010

Punditry As News

Peter Baker’s column in The New York Times on Sunday provides a textbook example of journalistic blindness. He discusses how politicians and pundits attack opposition quotes to score political points.

In this case, pundits and politicians attacked this quote from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “There’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control.” He was speaking about Congress.

Baker writes:

With that, the noise machine cranked into high gear. The White House had admitted it might lose the House. Never mind that it was a simple statement of fact and that Mr. Gibbs was not saying he wanted the other side to win or thought that they would. No one has found the political professional who genuinely disagrees that the House could go either way. But the mere fact that Mr. Gibbs said it launched a thousand ships of speculation, analysis, attacks and counter-attacks.

And my question is this: What role did journalism play in amplifying the noise machine? (I’m using the term “journalism” instead of news media because the latter encompasses organizations whose link to journalism is now merely nominal.)

That some bloggers, pundits, and politicians twist quotes and communicative intentions for political gain is not at all surprising. Are these tactics news?

Baker is writing a column — a bit of opinion journalism. But he fails to tell us what he thinks of the role of journalism in enabling the noise machine:

This is what passes for political discourse in Washington these days. Someone in a position of authority, or at least celebrity, says something modestly interesting and someone on the other side — or sometimes even the same side — blows it up into something resembling a full-fledged contretemps. It’s politics by slip of the tongue.

This at a time when the issues confronting Washington could hardly be more consequential. Yet explaining the new financial regulation bill that passed last week or the new health care program slowly coming into effect is complicated compared to the media catnip of a good partisan spat.

What could have followed these paragraphs: A withering examination of the role of journalism in allowing these silly little spats to become “news.” Instead, Baker indicts “political discourse” as if journalism plays no role in it.

July 14, 2010

Who Really Matters

Jim Dwyer won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1995 for his work as a local columnist for Newsday. Today he is a local columnist for The New York Times.

It is inaccurate to say that Dwyer writes about New York City. He writes about the people who live there and their interactions with the city. He tells their stories. He is able to do this because he’s an old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporter who bothers to get out of the office and into the streets.

How do I know this? Read his work. It’s right there in the words — words you can’t get poking around on the internet or resting on your laurels (or supposed expertise). Recall what I wrote earlier:

…opinion journalism well done is all about caring about the community. It is all about being connected to the community. It is all about well-worn shoe leather and familiar faces. It’s all about visibility and transparency. The good opinion journalist is the person you meet for coffee to discuss her latest column. The opinion journalist is the one who listens (when reporters and editors too often do not). In other words, opinion journalism well done is all about the very things that are apparently important in the new media environment.

Dwyer’s work represents excellent opinion journalism based on reporting and personal experience with the people whose stories he tells.

Dwyer has a point of view and an agenda that is plain to see: He challenges what he believes to be injustice, waste, and corruption.

Check out his columns. Coming next: A close analysis of a Dwyer column.

July 5, 2010

Who Wins Pulitzer Prizes?

Among the categories of Pulitzer prizes is “commentary.” The Pulitzer website doesn’t offer much of a description of what this category means: “For distinguished commentary, in print or online or both.” It is clear from the list of winners that this is the category for opinion journalism as I am defining it.

Two things come to mind as I look over the list of winners:

1. Nearly all of the winners worked for large news organizations.

2. Some of them — at least in their recent work — are properly defined as pundits rather than opinion journalists.

The Pulitzer Prize Board’s lack of a comprehensive definition of “commentary”  has the effect of allowing a wide range of entrants and winners — perhaps intended. There’s nothing I can find on the website that suggests punditry is forbidden. In fact, I see plenty of evidence that punditry is prize-worthy.

My purpose is not to argue with the Pulitzer Prize Board or to suggest they are wrong in either judging punditry alongside opinion journalism (under the catch-all “commentary”) or awarding prizes to punditry over opinion journalism. I’m simply highlighting this curious state of affairs because I intend to begin my search for best practices by examining some of the winners.

Who wins Pulitzer Prizes in commentary? Why do they win?