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How long would you give the “we have no idea who’s right” style in journalism?

Jeremy W. Peters, The Right’s Blogger Provocateur, New York Times, June 26, 2011.

The stories and videos Mr. Breitbart plays up on his Web sites, which include Big Government, Big Journalism and Big Hollywood, tend to act as political Rorschach tests. If you agree with him, you think what he does is citizen journalism. If you don’t, his work is little more than crowd-sourced political sabotage that freely distorts the facts.

Jeremy W. Peters, Andrew Breitbart, Conservative Blogger, Dies at 43, New York Times, yesterday.

Mr. Breitbart was as polarizing as he was popular. On the political right he was hailed in the same breath with Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge as a truth-teller who exposed bias and corruption. On the left, he was derided by many as a provocateur who played fast and loose with the facts to further his agenda.

I’ve been thinking about this kind of passage a lot lately, what with NPR officially backing away from the “he said, she said” style of reporting. Here, I just want to make one observation.

The logic of the “we have no idea who’s right” report involves a flight to safety. Confronted with a figure of controversy, for whom there are many knives drawn, the safe choice is to do the Rorschach thing. “Each side sees what they want.” What the story-teller sees is that: two radically incommensurate views. 

But at a certain point in the public decay of that style, the equation flips around. The once “safe” choice becomes the riskier option. That point is reached when enough people begin to mistrust viewlessness and demand to know what the writer thinks, even though they also know that they may not agree.

For those people, the “Rorschach” device scans as cluelessness or arrogance, or both. The very risk to reputation that the author wanted to avoid by refusing to stake a truth claim is brought on by… refusing to make a truth claim! Which doesn’t mean that the remedy is to “choose sides.” It’s harder than that. One actually has to make sense and nail things down.

And to make it even trickier, who really knows when this flip-over point has been reached?

(Photo by Mark Taylor, Creative Commons License.)

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    Interesting question for future journalists to think about:
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    How long would you give the “we have no idea who’s right” style in journalism? Jeremy W. Peters, The Right’s Blogger...
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