Distinguishing news from opinion

TRAVERSE CITY — This is an opinion column, not news.

I say that, in part, because of the following, which a conservative follower posted to my Facebook page the other day: “The author of this article is bias and only tells the small part of the whole story that tries to persuade her point of view. Every day it becomes more evident that the liberal news media are no longer simply a megaphone for liberals in Washington, New York, and Hollywood. The media are now leading the radical Left and using their platform to push a socialist agenda.”

He wasn’t referring to me. He was referring to the reporter of a Newsweek story that I had posted with the headline, “Trump administration argues detained migrant children don’t need toothbrush, soap.”

There is no debate that the story was accurate. It merely reported what happened in a 9th District Court hearing. Administration lawyers did, in fact, argue that rules requiring migrants to be held in “safe and sanitary” conditions didn’t include toothbrushes and soap because they weren’t specifically listed as requirements. They also argued that requiring kids to sleep on cold concrete floors did meet the safe and sanitary standard.

Those interpretations clearly weren’t shared by the judges on the panel.

“You’re really going to stand up and tell us that being able to sleep isn’t a question of safe and sanitary conditions?” U.S. Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon asked Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian.

“Are you arguing seriously that you do not read the agreement as requiring you to do anything other than what I just described: cold all night long, lights on all night long, sleeping on concrete and you’ve got an aluminum foil blanket?” U.S. Circuit Judge William Fletcher asked Fabian. “I find that inconceivable that the government would say that that is safe and sanitary.”

I agree with the judges, obviously. Safe and sanitary in my book would certainly include toothbrushes, soap and something other than a concrete floor to sleep on. And if you don’t think so, where is your heart? These are little kids, in strange land, who have been separated from their parents.

I think the only reason the government is making such a dumb, hard-hearted argument in the first place is because Trump is trying to deter other immigrants and he doesn’t care what happens to these kids as long as he gets his way.

I disagree with him on his approach to the immigration issue. But my opinion – or yours – isn’t the point here. The point here is this brief news story simply reported the facts of a court hearing, which is what a news story is supposed to do. It didn’t include any commentary or opinion.

So, why was my conservative poster so upset? And why are so many people like him upset these days?

One reason (my opinion) is an inability or unwillingness to distinguish news from opinion. In the past, this wasn’t hard. Seemingly everyone understood that a news story was a news story, in other words a recitation of the facts, and that an opinion was just that, someone’s opinion on the news whether it was an editorial (which, to remind you, is the opinion of the editorial board of a newspaper or TV station), an opinion column or an editorial cartoon. We’ve always argued about what’s in the news, but these days we argue about whether the news IS opinion.

I’ll settle that one right now: It’s not. Mainstream media outlets report the news straight up, regardless of the howling you hear from the far left or far right.

What’s changed is the proliferation of websites and TV programs that blur the line – usually intentionally – between news and opinion. An example on the left is CNN. An example on the right is Fox News. Both report political news with a clear slant. That’s wrong. News reported with a slant isn’t the news at all, it’s analysis, at best, altered reality, at worst. I encourage you not to consume it.

That’s not to say CNN and Fox don’t produce real news. They do in some cases, although usually only on topics far, far from politics. But they also follow any political news with panels of “experts” who invariably lean the way they’re supposed to.

I recognize these panels for what they are: talking head babble, in other words, opinion. But a lot of people aren’t able to or don’t want to make that distinction. They seem to think or want to believe that opinion panels are part of the news coverage itself, which isn’t the case.

Fact is fact, opinion is opinion.

CNN, Fox and others could fix this problem overnight by labeling these segments as opinion and the news as news but they won’t, of course. It’s part of their business model now.

Even if they did, that alone wouldn’t fix the larger problem. We’d still have hundreds of websites that purport to cover the news but instead offer up partisan tripe, including but certainly not limited to Huffington Post, The Hill, Red State, The Daily Beast and National Review. We’d also still have people like Hannity and Limbaugh, who enrich themselves by making bogeymen out of the mainstream media.

No one should listen to these con artists. They and the conservative party have damaged the nation by sowing false and unwarranted distrust of the mainstream media. In fact, if you really want just straight ahead news, the mainstream media is precisely what you should be relying on, not run away from, AP and Reuters in particular.

In other words, we need more, not less, of the kind of reporting my conservative follower railed against. We also need to stop consuming news based on whether it matches our political views.

That’s how America becomes great again.

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Andrew Heller, an award-winning newspaper columnist, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. Follow him at andrewheller.com and on Facebook and Twitter. Write to him via email at andrewhellercolumn@gmail.com.