When I studied journalism a decade ago I was taught that a journalist's job is to report the facts without opinion, without prejudice. I remember a class exercise in which my instructor had us read sentences and pick out words that could indicate the writer's position on the subject. Is there a difference between someone 'fleeing' and someone 'leaving?' Is the word 'bizarre' objective? I learned that the subtlest word usage, or twist of phrase could take a news reporter beyond his scope of telling just the truth. I used to do that exercise while watching television news with my husband, pointing out the opinion-filled adjectives, and unnecessary tacked on bits.
That exercise is harder to do these days. Not that journalists are being more careful about insinuating their bent into their stories, but more that the craft of news reporting has moved significantly away from truth telling towards position taking. Now, viewers and readers are being asked to make the distinction between journalists and commentators - often the same people playing dual roles, and on the same screens or pages.
The recent high-profile firings of Rick Sanchez from CNN and Juan Williams from National Public Radio for expressing their political views - off their main job and in other media - brings to fore the discussion about if and when journalists are allowed opinions. A larger question: Were these reporters fired for having opinions that stand in contrast to their employers'.
I think viewers/readers who are filling the comment pages on various media websites with arguments about free speech are missing the point. Rick Sanchez and Juan Williams may exercise their free speech rights to their hearts content in their living rooms, among friends. Unfortunately, because of their chosen profession, and also because of their success, they now must consider first that they are viewed as newsmen - on and off the job. As unfair as it seems, they should not be free to express their opinions in any broadcast.
We cannot overlook the fact that the reporters were fired for comments contrary to the perceived left lean of the employers. That they were fired for being contrary is certainly an argument that can be made. The power houses of media have almost stated political leans, in effect killing journalism. These days viewers and listeners don't so much go to their favorite news source for unbiased reports, but to solidify their already-held points of view. The market place of ideas has contracted into a fight circle where participants pick a side and stand their ground. Token opposing points are thrown in by guests sporadically in vain attempts to feign impartiality. Gross misstatements and omission or twisting of facts are commonplace.
There is no growing or learning in this environment. We are not fostering an educated electorate. As consumers, it has to be our responsibility to sift through the opinions for the facts, formulate our own opinions and then challenge those opinions regularly. We can no longer look to the news media to guide our opinions, but rather be vigilant about seeing through opinions. Another option: We could watch Fox News and CNN and find the truth somewhere in the middle.