Editorial Pages-A Future in Doubt

By Simurda, Stephen | The Masthead, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Editorial Pages-A Future in Doubt


Simurda, Stephen, The Masthead


Opinion is not worth a rush; In this altar-piece the knight, Who grips his long spear so to push That dragon through the fading light, Loved the lady; and it's plain The half-dead dragon was her thought....

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS (1865-1939)

Seven years ago I was asked to write a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about the state of the editorial page. I found myself plunged into the middle of a robust and occasionally acrimonious debate.

You all understand it well. In simple terms, the debate was between those who favor a traditional approach to the editorial page and those trying to mix it up a bit. In the end, I offered some kind words for the reformers, and those who might have disagreed with me were good enough to spare me their invective.

But near the beginning of that article I also asked a question that I've come back to in my mind ever since. Essentially I asked if the editorial page was in danger of becoming anachronistic. My answer at the time was a waffling "probably not." Now I'm having second thoughts.

Between the blather of talk radio, the growth of cable TV talk shows, a new universe of weblogs, and the growing tendency of journalists to seek comment from those with the most divisive or extreme positions on most issues, we just have too many opinions out there.

No one has to go looking for them. "They're in our face. They are shouted from the television screen by "commentators" who have apparently met in secret and decided that the volume with which they deliver their opinions is more important than the opinions themselves. They are delivered in dismissive language after a "host" has hung up on a caller who offered an opinion that differed from his own. They are MI over the Internet, weaving all kinds of scenarios based on information of dubious origin.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson did a wonderful study in 1994 in which she observed people who listened to talk radio over a nine-month period. She found that these listeners said they knew more than other people about the issues of the day but actually knew less. Worse, she found that those who said they relied on talk radio for information about the health care debate said they were the best informed group when they were actually the least informed of those she studied. And that fair and balanced study from ten years ago was conducted before Fox News even existed.

Things have gotten only worse since then. We've become a nation in which everyone has an opinion. Journalists get to offer their opinions on television and radio. Talk show hosts ranging from Bill O'Reilly to Ellen Degeneres tell us their opinions. …

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