Entertainment and Objectivity



The line between old-fashioned objective reporting and opinion writing is blurry enough on the big subjects like the war on terrorism and the economy, but in entertainment journalism, it’s becoming nearly impossible to differentiate between the two, especially since those who deliver this product don’t, and won’t.

Take it from me: This is a rough neighborhood to work in if you are lobbying for decency and family-friendly programming on television and regularly deal with the entertainment press. In the daytime, you’re working with reporters you assume are dedicated to telling the story in an objective and balanced manner. But when they go moonlighting on more opinionated Internet web logs, entertainment reporters often make it clear that the concept of upholding decency is a bad joke.

Take John Eggerton, a TV reporter for Broadcasting & Cable magazine. He moonlights on the magazine’s website on a blog called B&C Beat. Blogging from a Los Angeles porn convention, he finds the opportunity to dismiss the idea of a “community standard” of decency: “[T]hat is the joke of the FCC's attempt to determine what community standards are in deciding what not to let broadcasters air. A reasonable-person standard can range from a reasonable Morman [sic] to a reasonable L.A. clubber.”

But Eggerton is comparatively mild in his declaration of disagreement with efforts to push Hollywood to acknowledge that anything crosses a line — even spousal rape scenes. On Time magazine’s website, TV critic James Poniewozik takes to his own blog to bash the Parents Television Council. “I’ve wasted a lot of bandwidth blogging about the uselessness of groups like the PTC,” he writes. “It’s nice to see them starting to do the work for me.”

Poniewozik argues that since the PTC took nine days to complain about the rape scene on FX’s Rescue Me, it somehow proves that no one with “delicate morals” ever saw the show in the first place. Moreover, “Edgy TV pretty much advertises itself as such… people are not idiots. Not even PTC members.”

It is easy to respond without resorting to personal insults. Was it inappropriate for members of the Sierra Club to complain about the Exxon Valdez given that they didn’t actually see the tanker pollute Prince William Sound? Moreover, FX most certainly did not advertise in advance a scene where a man would rape a woman and she would enjoy the violation. And even if it had — so what? But put that argument aside. Last year Time magazine devoted a cover story to the indecency debate, promising on that cover to deliver “What’s really at stake in the red-hot indecency war.” But there was no mincing the angle Time would take with this issue. The loaded story headline — “The Decency Police” clearly telegraphed where the magazine was headed in this “news” report, and the subhead only underscored the thrust: “Has TV gone too far — or have its critics?” The focus was on the PTC. The author was James Poniewozik.

So PTC Executive Director Tim Winter wrote to Time’s editors, asking how someone with this blatant an opinion — the PTC is “useless” — could be expected to perform as an “objective” reporter covering the organization. To her credit, Time arts editor Belinda Luscombe offered the courtesy of a reply. Just because Poniewozik was “critical of your work,” she wrote, it doesn’t disqualify him from covering it. “Just as car critics who have a low opinion of General Motors still write about the auto industry and the issues it faces, Mr. Poniewozik's low opinion of your organization and its methods does not stop him from being able to talk about TV and the issues of decency.”

But that wasn’t the point. Winter wasn’t suggesting Poniewozik shouldn’t be “able to talk about TV.” He was asking how a blogger/critic with as strident a position as Poniewozik could be expected to be fair in a news story.

Then Poniewozik himself responded (again, give him credit for that), adding his two cents in an email to Winter. “I consider myself a critic first and a ‘reporter,’ or anything else, a far-distant second,” and he believes Time’s readers clearly see him that way, too. “Readers of the magazine will have seen the numerous reviews and opinionated articles and essays I have written in most issues of the magazine for seven years.” But he concludes his lengthy email with this remarkable statement: “My cover story was a news story, and I immodestly think it was a good one.”

So how can the public distinguish between subjective opinion and objective reporting when the author won’t?

(This update courtesy of the Media Research Center.)

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