Sunday, March 11, 2007

Are Columnists Supposed to be Biased?

My email exchange with Globe political columnist Joan Vennochi has had the desired effect: a lot of people in the MA blogosphere are thinking about the media in a different light than before. Of course, that doesn't mean bloggers haven't been critical - and that's a good thing too. The point of the piece was to get people to think about the issue - and I think it was a resounding success.

Interestingly, some of those thoughts have lead in a direction I didn't expect. A lot of people took umbrage to my comment that good columnists should be unbiased. Peter Porcupine took me to task in the comments at my cross posting on BMG - while Hub Politics also disagreed on that point.

I'll admit, perhaps I was being ambiguous or perhaps didn't make my point well. So, I just want to touch on this subject briefly; it's important to think about what we expect out of a good political columnist. Here's my take:

While any columnist may self identify as liberal, conservative or some other ideology, they'll treat each issue objectively. For example, Eileen McNamara of the Boston Globe would probably identify as "liberal," yet she's written some tough - yet fair - articles critiquing Deval Patrick. Furthermore, a good columnist uses key facts and news to create opinion - such as when Joan Vennochi unmasked the real story behind Killer Coke this past summer.

While ideology may influence what issues a particular columnist cares about - and therefore writes about - that same columnist is going to analyze that issue while keeping his or her objectivity intact, at least as much as possible. When I wrote my blog about the MSM/blogger divide (in a very short amount of time for such a long piece), that's what I meant when I said columnists shouldn't be biased. Columnists, of course, should be opinionated - but they need to justify it with sound reasoning. I hope that clears everything up.


carpathian said...

Well, let's face it, if BMG and PP think you're wrong, you have about a 100% chance of being right. :)

The problem isn't that political columnists have opinions, it's that too many have the same opinions. You've got hacks and shills who distort and dissemble (Jeff Jacoby), and you've got the lazy, the ones who can't be bothered to find out what's going on before forming an opinion. Why bother with intellectual curiosity when you can repeat the same talking points as everybody else? There's no penalty for being lazy and wrong. There's a reason why the word "media" is always used as a singular suject even though it's technically plural. So many voices, so little diversity of opinion and information.

steverino said...

I am surprised no one mentioned Eileen McNamara's phoned-in column about the New Bedfor fiasco today. (Perhaps Globe readership is declining even more rapidly than we knew.)

The entire column is a series of questions about whether Deval did "enough." That's right. Just questions--not a single fact to suggest he did not.

Best of all, most of those questions were already explicitly answered last week in her own paper.

I want one of those jobs. I write better. And I can learn to be lazy, too.

Oh, an unrelated P.S.: Is BMG really the best Massachusetts progressives have to offer? All the Republican robotrolls are getting really boring, and the milquetoast management really lets them dominate the conversation.

Ryan Adams said...

I write almost every day on my site, Steve, so there are some other voices out there =)

Furthermore, a few other bloggers and I have been talking about creating a talk show/podcast. It should be coming up soon. There will be a website that goes with it and we've been talking different kinds of platforms.

If I were to get invovled in the website aspect of it, it would be with the intention that it would explicitly be progressive (that means we'd promote good, progressive dairies, etc.) and not so process oriented. Alternative voices would be welcomed, but it would still be different than BMG.

I really do love BMG, but lately it's become more of an every man's blog than progressive. That's not a knock on the site, it's actually a mark of its success (and also incredibly useful). It's the place everyone goes, including the trolls who I'd hope wouldn't be interested in this new project I'm involved in. But, I think Massachusetts would have a lot of room for a second editorial-type blog that would specifically be to develop more progressive voices and ideas.

carpathian said...

Ugh, BMG. :) I think the state of the "progressive" blogosphere is very sad if we're talking about the large, dull, careerist/centrist/I wanna be a power player blogs like BMG or kos. It's the smaller blogs that focus on issues and causes the big boys think are stupid (civil rights, feminism, GLBT, health care, etc.) that are still informative and present information-with-a-POV you won't find anywhere else.

Ryan Adams said...

I don't know if I necessarily agree with you. If I were to start a podcast, it wouldn't change me as a writer. I've never been about becoming a Kos... I wrote about as often as I do now when I had 2 readers a day instead of almost 100x that. Some aspects of my blog have changed - originally, this blog looked at more national issues - but over time I started focusing on state stuff, but other than that, nothing has really changed.

carpathian said...

No, to clarify the problems aren't that teh blogs are big, they're that some of the head bloggers really decide they want to be power players, and well, that ends up creating a culture that's very status quo, don't make waves and the trolls are our best friends and all of a sudden progressives don't get much of a hearing (hey dude, you're making us look bad in Montana/North Reading, you can't say that, you can't think that, that's out there are super unappealing in Missouri, trolls's right, watch what you say). It's not so much about having blogs dedicated to one issue, it's more of the general attitude. I've seen horrible comments directed by kos regulars to progressives who try to raise issues that indicate some of these people think that progressives who don't understand that their rights aren't as important as bring pragmatic and winning elections at all cost are the enemy or something. I'm sure it's possible to have a large blog that's really informative and inclusive and fosters some great exchange of information, I just haven't seen it so far.

Ryan Adams said...

You should check out blogs like Firedoglake and Americablog... I think they do a good job on staying true to their causes (albiet, I generally don't read the comments on Americablog).

One problem with Kos, both as a blog and blogger, is that he's extremely interested in elections. You could even call him an elections blogger. He is willing to sacrifice a little on an individual basis in some cases (esp red states) because he thinks that overall it'll help all of our causes. He could be right, he could be wrong... I don't know.

That said, there are some election bloggers - like Matt Stoller of MyDD - who aren't so willing to sacrifice. (Matt Stoller is probably my fav. blogger, btw).

Mass Marrier said...

Columnists and reporters are generally sluts and chameleons, at least figuratively. I certainly was, professionally and back to college and high-school days.

The vast majority of reporters take an almost religious and certainly compulsive pride in staying objective (think Fair Witnesses in Stranger in a Strange Land. Yet as columnists, the role incorporates opinion making, which is far more subjective. You don't just present to the reader; you attempt to lead.

I remember even as a reporter, I'd use the notorious middle ground of news analysis when something required more than just the facts, Ma'am.

With the obvious exceptions of Jacoby and Lehigh, Globe columnists rare outright lie or overtly distort. Yet opinion and bias are rampant.

I can deal with that.

steverino said...

All appropriate hat tips to your blog, Ryan, but I find it amazing that perhaps the most progressive state in the union does not have a progressive, scoop-powered community blog. BMG has the technology, but it is in fact becoming worse than "everyman's blog"--it is not attracting independents, the great disaffected center of Mass. politics, but the robotrolls who already populate such useless forums as the globe's message boards.

In this state, progressives have more or less taken power, yet they have nowhere to discuss what to do with it.

Ryan Adams said...

A site like that will emerge sooner or later, Steverino (wink wink hint hint).

bostonph said...

It's not just that BMG has been over-run with right wing Robotrolls. It's the sense you get that David et al think having them on there gives them cred.

It's as if they think having a Republican State Committee member spinning in their comments section makes them players rather than playees.

steverino said...


You probably won't see this comment in an old post, but I have the urge to plant a wet one on your cheek.

Don't worry, I control my urges.

But you are right on. Those robotroll voices add nothing. They are just the gnawing gnats that keep progressives busily swatting in defense instead of getting anything accomplished.

Really, the blog is starting to look the fool.

Anonymous said...

As far as I'm concerned, BMG is becoming interesting.

On the subject matter of the post, whether or not columnists are supposed to be biased, the fact is that they are not expected to not be biased.

There's a difference. I expected by-lined columnists to be biased, and I accept or reject what they say in their columns accordingly. I do so based on the fact that they are, of course, entitled their own opinions, but not their own facts, and I actually do see whether their assertions of fact pass the smell test.


Anonymous said...

A quick look at RedMassGroup is quite instructive. Ms "civil discourse" shows much more of her true colors on there.

EaBoClipper is at least consistently shrill.

The problem is there's no one to listen to them *there* so they go liberal bashing over on BMG.

Anonymous said...

I too am getting frustrated with BMG.

(I also wonder whether the Purple One isn't a Republican sock puppet.)

Getting up an alternative scoop blog would require a few folks with a comment to write enough dairies a week to encourage traffic.


bostonph said...

As today's conversation on BMG shows, it's never going to get better. The blog is exactly how the editors want it to be.

Me, I'm moving on. Who needs to read rehashed versions of Rush and Michael Savage?

(I agree on the Purple One.)

Anonymous said...


In case there was any doubt about the Purple One and PP's true natures:

Is there nothing you can't blame on a strawman?

Anonymous said...

Words to remember next time the ever santimonious Peter Porcupine (aka Cynthia Stead) comes sliming through here:

EaBo - your comment got deleted with half the thread...

...including some swearing, namecalling and nasty trash talk about the bush twins including a link to a 2001 story. The Editors there took down a LOT of comments, and did not single you out that time. As you say, you were far from alone in your scepticism.

As far as the Sosman comment goes - I didn't see it, but I CAN say that they recently upped the number of zeros required to make a comment disappear from three to eight. so the Editors (at least) are making some effort.

I was amused last night to read some comments on Ryan's Take from some commenters on BMG that they need to start a NEW progressive blog, now that BMG has sold out and has gotten so conservative.

Who knew being questioned even a teeney bit was too much for some people?

Yr. Obedient Servant, Peter Porcupine, Republican
by: Peter Porcupine @ Tue Mar 13, 2007 at 10:43:54 AM EDT

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