The exit of Lou Dobbs from CNN earlier this month caught many people, inside and outside, the media world by surprise. While Dobbs stood out from his colleagues for being highly opinionated and, at times, controversial, he was an innovator who helped build CNN from the ground up.
In his later years, Dobbs became vilified by some for his hard-line, conservative stances on such issues as immigration and domestic policy. However, to say that he was let go by the network for standing up for what he believes in, does not give justice to the larger issue surrounding why CNN and Dobbs split ways.
Dobbs' departure from CNN is part of a struggle taking place through the American media sphere as it attempts to come to terms with the rise of advocacy journalism.
As CNN Senior Political Contributor Ed Rollins pointed out in a recent opinion column, Dobbs is a journalist who believes in taking a stand. Dobbs believes in taking a side, fighting for that side, and dragging the viewer over to that side, whether he or she wants to come or not.
Some television news networks, such as Fox News, have taken the stance that there is no such thing as truly objective news, and have unapologetically taken a political stance on the issues they choose to cover and the way they report them. As Rollins points out, news stations like CNN are trying to hold onto the idea of reporting the facts to the best of their ability and letting viewers determine their own positions.
There are times when advocacy journalism is called for. The muckrakers of the early 20th Century helped document the dangerous conditions facing industrial workers and the deplorable conditions of food processing plants, leading to the creation of life-saving regulatory practices. Modern-day investigative journalism has exposed fraud, gross environmental violations, and even helped spare innocent people from execution.
However, as a newspaper person, I tend to take the side of CNN: It is disingenuous to lead someone toward a certain point of view and call it news.
Most daily newspapers have an editorial page that distinguishes news from opinion. At a paper as small as the Clayton News Daily, reporters like me, who cover local politics, also end up giving their two cents' worth (through personal opinion columns, not news stories) on national issues, personal experiences, and occasionally, Sea Monkeys and recipes for vegetable tempura.
However, whenever I argue my own beliefs and opinions, it is on the editorial page. When a reader chooses to read one of my columns, they know exactly what they are getting into. If someone has a problem with my opinions, they can simply direct their eyes to another section of the paper.
This is not so for broadcast journalists who mix in their own personal views with the news of the day. By telling viewers that they are watching news, but in fact, presenting them with opinions, the journalist leads the viewer into the desert, smashes his or her compass, takes away his or her provisions, and says, "the only way to salvation is through me."
Television shows like Comedy Central's, "The Daily Show" and talk-radio programs like "The Neal Boortz Show" take sides, but they don't try to hide what they are. People who view or listen to those programs can affirm their personal beliefs or sharpen their arguments against viewpoints they disagree with. Broadcasting opinion and calling it news, however, drags a person by the ear into the journalist's own personal wilderness, without giving the person a chance to decide how they want to feel.
That is dishonesty, which is the by far, the greatest journalism sin of all.
Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.