The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The Op-Tech genre of journalism

David Pogue’s position is that he’s not a technology reporter, but an opinion columnist who writes about technology:

“Since when have I ever billed myself as a journalist?” Pogue said angrily. “Since when have I ever billed myself as a journalist?….I am not a reporter. I’ve never been to journalism school. I don’t know what it means to bury the lede. Okay I do know what it means. I am not a reporter. I’ve been an opinion columnist my entire career…..I try to entertain and inform.”
Recognizing perhaps that the distinction may be lost on his journalist colleagues at the NYT and elsewhere, Pogue added: “By the way I’m suddenly realizing this is all just making it all worse for myself. The haters are going to hate David Pogue even more now.”

This actually becomes a pretty complicated issue when you think about it. On the one hand – and maybe this is a bad example – the NYT hires columnists like Bill Kristol, who’s basic qualification is that they ARE partisans with an interest in promoting one side over an other. Sometimes, like Paul Krugman, they’re really smart, and sometimes like Nick Kristof, they do some reporting. But they’re basically intended to be advocates. You could criticize Kristol for a lot, but it would be stating the all-too-obvious to point out that his professional interest was bound up in the fate of the Republican party. And likewise, it would be stating the all-too-obvious to dig into Tom Friedman’s books and lectures. We’ve essentially decided that it’s cool if political writers are part of the party apparatus and/or ideological institutions. So long as they don’t out-and-out lie, they’re good.

On the other, they have technology and business reporters who are, I don’t know, supposed to uncover true facts about products and companies for consumers or investors or amateurs (like me) who are interested in these things for poorly-defined and even-less-well-understood reasons. Often, though, these reviewers interact with analysis of their objects – if the new Zune might be a hit or a dud, that becomes a fact that potentially affects sales, stock movements, personnel changes… all of that nitty-gritty stuff that’s part and parcel of being a good reporter.

Maybe in the middle somewhere, there are reviewers, usually writers who review books or movies or plays or television shows or restaurants. These writers are expected to be partial but unmotivated – they have an opinion but not a stake. This includes what some reviewers take to be draconian restrictions on reviewing the books of their friends and/or enemies. You’re there for your knowledge and aesthetics – and yet also, paradoxically, you are also there (in part) to sell the media you review.

And essentially, the objects reviewed are aesthetic objects. They’re not ordinary household goods. The closest thing to tech gadgets reviewed in a paper like the NYT is the automotive section, which is grouped with “jobs” and “real estate” in the classifieds. Nobody reviews furniture, or toasters, or bicycles. In a sense, the technology reviewer is the only reviewer who offers an opinion on things you use. At least in a sphere where not just you, but the newspaper itself, has a stake, however small, in selling the object.*

So technology journalism – at least, what I’m calling the “Op-Tech” genre, is somewhere between all of these fields. Like book and movie reviewers, they’re expected to offer their opinion on the aesthetics (and use, too) of objects placed before them. Like reporters, their value lies in their quasi-objective take on a product (which in turn helps move product) and the sources they can marshal to give them access. And like opinion reporters, they’re expected to be entertaining, partisan, and above all personal. After all, it’s their authority, their brand, that creates the conditions under which their opinion is credible (or less often, not).

* This is actually really complicated. One of the most revealing parts of Pogue’s complaint is his claim that he pushed for disclosure of his books in his columns. According to Pogue, his editors resisted it, because they thought it would be seen as self-advertising. “And you know what? I am sorry to tell you guys this, but now that the plug is going to appear in each column it’s going to raise the book sales.” (If you’re an Op-Ed columnist and you write a book, it’ll probably get excerpted in the magazine.)

Quotes from, via Romenesko.


Dan says…

The Clark Hoyt column strikes me as terrifically even-handed. The entire thing seems worth very little fuss. Pogue has a clear conflict of interest and yet the whole point is that these gadgets don’t much matter. A journalist with too a cozy a relationship with DoD spokespeople can help push a country into war. One who misuses insider information could sink a major company or rob millions of investors. Pogue writes an obviously goofy column about gadgets most beloved by the richer and more powerful. For “Journalism” Pogue’s case must be considered: any appearance of impropriety can tarnish the entire field. But the propriety of publishing the gadget reviews in the first place might be more to the point for those truly concerned with the fate of serious journalism. I think Pogue’s position is the smartest one: just don’t call me a journalist.

“But the propriety of publishing the gadget reviews in the first place might be more to the point”–wow!

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