Morris: Opinion moves to Page One


Leo Morris

I just came across a statement so indefensibly foolish that it is hard to fathom how it showed up in print.

“Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think. They don’t believe we have the expertise to tell anyone what to think on most issues. They perceive us as having a biased agenda.”

That was a statement from a committee of editors at Gannett Co., publisher of USA Today and 250 daily newspapers across the country (15 in Indiana, including the state’s largest, the Indianapolis Star). They recently announced a dramatic change in their editorial pages, which are to be printed much less frequently and will stop carrying things like syndicated columns and editorial cartoons. Even space devoted to letters to the editor will shrink.

Just the facts, in other words. Straight-ahead coverage of the news with no haughty pronouncements from on high about “what it all means.”

Well, now.

The editors are certainly right that people perceive a bias in the press but – I hate to break it to them – it has zero to do with their editorial and op-ed pages.

What people object to is not opinion honestly labeled and presented but the pretense that news is being reported to them objectively and evenhandedly when it fact it is riddled with narrow-mindedness and one-sided preconceptions. The media, including newspapers, have a narrative in service to an agenda, and information that does not serve that narrative is diluted, slanted or just outright omitted.

Go back and read the first sentence of this piece again.

It was strongly stated, with no qualifications or hesitation, begging to be affirmed or refuted by reasoned argument.

It was an opinion, at the top of a column by someone with an agenda, offered to you (presumably) in print or online in the editorial or op-ed section of a newspaper. You might end up agreeing with it or disagreeing with it, but you should not be offended at having encountered it.

I can’t speak for all editorial page editors but, having worked as one for 30-some years, I can honestly say I never tried to tell readers what to think. I offered them something to think about. Before every round of candidate endorsements (Gannett is doing away with those, too), I wrote an editorial telling readers we hoped they used our opinions as just one source among many in making their voting decisions.

I felt I was doing my part to elevate the conversation, offering good arguments to generate better ones, to create a debate that would help us all sort through the clutter to glimpse at least a part of some greater truth.

I was also trying to assure readers that those of us at the newspaper knew the difference between a fact and an opinion and would do our best to keep them separate.

And, finally, I was trying to remind reporters of their obligation to readers. All of us have prejudices and preconceptions and, try as we might, we can’t always keep them at bay, no matter how “fair” and “neutral” we try to be. But the effort needs to be made by those claiming to present the news to others. The “news” means all of it, not just the parts its disseminators agree with.

The demarcation between facts and opinion has all but disappeared today, and citizens seem increasingly comfortable with following the particular mix that mirrors their own beliefs. “Confirmation bias” is no longer a cognitive danger to be avoided – it is a comfort actively sought. We no longer bother ourselves to see the other side, to challenge assumptions, to weigh claims and counterclaims, to think instead of react.

We don’t need less opinion. We need more forthright opinion, honestly expressed rather than lurking in disguise.

Gannett might hope it is helping vanquish the perception of bias from its readers. It is not. It is reinforcing that perception.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].