Perils of Punditry, The

perils of Punditry, The

Hickey, Neil

What happens when reporters deliver opinion on TV

More than ever, journalists are delivering not just news but opinion as well. In print, the sacred line that traditionally has divided editorial page (and op-ed) columns from news columns is being blurred, as reporters add generous portions of analysis to their delivery of the facts. That trend is most apparent in television. Many print journalists appear on broadcast and cable channels, national and local, to engage in punditry – some of it enormously speculative, unsourced, and, at times, emotional – that they would never attempt in their customary roles as reporters on a beat. Some are paid for that service, either by the TV news outlets on which they appear, or by their own employers.

To discover how journalists around the country feel about this new era of free-wheeling opinionizing, the Columbia Journalism Review, in conjunction with the nonprofit, nonpartisan research group Public Agenda, polled 147 senior journalists for their views. The poll was confidential, but more than a quarter of our respondents agreed to follow-up telephone interviews to expand on their answers, and still others added brief, explanatory essays to their questionnaire. Sixty-five percent of the sample work in print journalism; 19 percent in television, and 12 percent in radio. (Other: 4 percent)

Surprises abounded in the poll results:

Almost six out of ten in the sample feel sure that journalism is made worse when reporters and editors step out of their customary roles and assume the mantle of broadcast pundits and commentators. Only 15 percent think it improves journalism.

Fully three-quarters believe that newspeople put their credibility at risk when they appear as commentators on television and radio talk shows.

More than seven out of ten think that such appearances blur the line between factual reporting and expressing opinion.

Well over half fear that journalists are trivializing their craft by trafficking in speculation and rumor when they turn up on TV and radio shows.

64 percent worry that newspeople thus assume the inappropriate role of newsmakers, and actually influence events and public policy instead of just reporting them.

But almost two-thirds say that – in spite of those negatives — radio and TV shows are “more informative” when journalists go on the air to proclaim opinions, attitudes, judgments, assessments, appraisals, prejudices, perceptions, viewpoints, impressions, conceits, and assumptions — rather than simply relating facts as they know them.

In light of all that, we asked our poll sample for brief essay responses to the query: Is there really any measurable, quantifiable value to news organizations having their employees take time away from regular duties to ladle up opinions as sages and savants? Among the six out of ten who answered “Yes” to that were:

Rob Dean, managing editor, The Santa Fe New Mexican: “We want our readers to find us authoritative. Reporters who appear on TV and radio usually demonstrate that.”

Randolph Brandt, editor, The Journal Times, Racine, Wisconsin: There’s an “obvious promotional value” to a newspaper, and, in addition, viewers become familiar with, and learn to trust “the expertise that reporters and editors have.”

Walter Zimmerman, news director, KITV-TV, Honolulu: Yes, there is value to such activity, “but it is marketing value, not news value.”

Roy Teicher, managing editor, Kansas City Kansan: “There is potential value. Given the sorry state of punditry, the real eye-popping views are likely to come from entrenched beat reporters, not their indoor, wheel-spinning colleagues.”

Ellie Dixon, managing editor, The Caledonia-Record, St. Johnsbury, Vermont: “Such appearances bring visibility and perhaps credibility, and certainly recognition, to news organizations. The participant is perceived as a player – at least in the trade.”

David Zeeck, executive editor, The Morning News-Tribune, Tacoma, Washington: “In a visual world, seeing is believing. It’s important to let readers and non-readers see our people. If done right, TV can help attract readers, enhance credibility and widen audience.”

Jerry Bohnen, news director, KTOKAM, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: “It gives readers more of an insight into the reporters. And it lets the reporter reveal details of a story he/she could not, in limited space on paper.”

Douglas Clifton, executive editor, The Miami Herald: “If journalists offer insights based on authoritative knowledge, that might provide value.”

Thomas Mitchell, editor, Las Vegas Review-Journal: “It gives personality and a face to the writer.”

John Temple, editor, Rocky Mountain News, Denver: “It raises the profits of a news organization — especially important in a competitive market.”

And then there were the naysayers. More than a quarter of the sample see no benefit in sending forth their editors and reporters to perform as theorists, thumbsuckers, and deep thinkers.

Dan Suwyn, managing editor, Savannah (Georgia) Morning News: “There’s a marketing benefit, but it isn’t measurable. The loss of credibility, however, is measurable.”

Debora Halpern, assistant news director, WFLA-TV, Tampa: “[Broadcast punditry] is a dangerous trend that reinforces a belief held by many that journalists really have a hidden agenda.”

Bill Millsaps, executive editor, Richmond Times-Dispatch: “These appearances only help increase the reporters’ speaking fees.”

Jim Boyd, news director, WMT AMFM, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: “A reporter is a reporter is a reporter. You want commentary? Find an expert!”

Narda Zacchino, associate editor and vice-president, the Los Angeles Times: “If the story is about newspaper coverage, i.e., how we covered a story or why, it’s legitimate. Big problems occur when big bucks are paid for commentary by newspaper people who are supposed to be objective (columnists not included).”

Heather Allan, bureau chief, NBC News, Burbank, California: “Unless the ‘commentators’ or ‘pundits’ have a special knowledge of the subject at hand, they tend to make it up just because they’re on camera.”

Ray Cave, former managing editor, Time: “There is a profit value to the company. There is a disservice to journalism.”

William K. Marimow, managing editor, the Baltimore Sun: “I believe that newspaper reporters can engage in meaningful broadcast discussion and analysis of the news; but when it becomes emotional with shouting and theatrics – it crosses the line.”

Carol Hanner, managing editor, The State, Columbia, South Carolina: “Journalists have become so much a part of the political process that they are both reporter and subject of reporting. Columnists and opinion writers can play a valuable role on TV and radio, but reporters who deliver opinions confuse me as a viewer.”

Strong views on both sides of the punditry question came from other members of our poll panel — those who chose to remain anonymous. Sadly, said one, the public may not perceive how journalists’ often reckless opinionizing can perilously undermine their proper role as messengers of the facts. News too often verges into “infotainment,” said another, when newspeople forget their proper role. The more visibility, the less credibility, declared a third.

“Beyond the boost to our collective ego,” said a print journalist, playing the pundit “contributes no added value to our image or our bottom line.” Another: “There’s no value to anyone. And for the audience, their suspicions about the press as partisans are usually confirmed.” And, maybe worst of all: there’s “scant evidence” that parading a publication’s staff on TV and radio brings any boost at all to circulation.

But then: A “lively marketplace of ideas is what we need to live,” and the robust exchange of ideas “is worth the risk.” A similar opinion: “What’s wrong with a journalist who has a point of view?” While objecting to the “cuteness” that too often marks journalists’ TV performances, a respondent decided that television is “too important for print to ignore.” And another was sure that “it stands to reason” that TV appearances, “especially on C-Span, strengthen relations with existing readers and attract new ones.”

TALK SHOW APPEARANCES: “A BIT OF SOPHISTRY”?

Most of our panel (52 percent) work for news organizations with guidelines for employees’ TV/radio talk show appearances. Prior approval by a supervisor is the most common requirement, along with strict nonpartisanship. (“Advocacy can cost a reporter or editor his job,” says one editor.) A top manager tells us: “They must clear appearances with the editor, but, in truth, we turn almost no one down. Staffers like to do it for ego reasons and we rarely stop them.” Some publications require payment for guest appearances on TV and radio; others forbid it. Many insist that no news be delivered that hasn’t already shown up in the journalist’s publication. “Occasional appearances are routinely approved,” reports another editor, “but regularly scheduled ones are discouraged as competition – unless there is a strong promotional component for the paper.”

Ralph Langer, retired editor of The Dallas Morning News, says he cautions reporters going on the air to talk about the story, not to become part of it, lest they undercut their capacity to report fairly in print on those same events.

David Hall, editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, has especially strong views on the matter: “We don’t allow our people under any circumstances” to express opinions on TV/radio. “If we had a show here like Washington Week in Review, I wouldn’t let a Plain Dealer reporter appear on it.” The McLaughlin Group, he believes is “an abomination. I don’t know how those people can look themselves in the face after they’ve been on that program. I don’t know what it is, but it sure as hell isn’t journalism.” The putative benefits of print journalists appearing on talk shows “is a bit of sophistry editors have sold themselves.”

At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says editor John Craig, management has a stipend structure for TV/radio appearances and handles all arrangements. “If one of our reporters appears on a CBS program, CBS pays us and we pay the reporter. Our people are on the air all the time.” But he resists providing reporters who may be asked for opinions. “What you really worry about are situations where people are in over their heads or are not acting in the best interests of the paper.”

Another editor has but a single guideline: “All pundits must shrink their heads back to normal size prior to returning to the newsroom.”

NOTE PERCENTAGES FOR ALL CHARTS MAY NOT EQUAL 100% BECAUSE OF MULTIPLE RESPONSES OR ROUNDING. SURVEY RESULTS BASED ON RESEARCH BY CJR AND PUBLIC AGENDA.

Neil Hickey is CJR’S editor-at-large. Additional reporting on this story was done by assistant editor Nicholas Stein.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Jan/Feb 1999

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved