Why The Times Should Abandon The News-Opinion DivideS

When Microsoft's bid for Yahoo fell through, hotshot reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin produced a scathing analysis of the deal-making skills of the Redmond software giant's boss, Steve Ballmer. 'Microsoft has tried to spin its reversal as a show of "discipline" and "self-control." But what it really shows - painfully - is Mr. Ballmer's indecisiveness about this deal.' Ouch! And fun! But you won't find Bill Keller and his fellow editors boasting about Sorkin's punchiness: because they're still in denial about the blurring of news and opinion, and so much else.

31-year-old Sorkin, part of a new generation of Times reporters, has been permitted opinion before. "Mr. Murdoch may be the perfect publisher of The Wall Street Journal." Let's take another example: Alessandra Stanley's front page indictment of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's troublesome pastor. Stanley's review called Wright "the compelling but slightly wacky uncle who unsettles strangers but really just craves attention... [Wright] doesn't hate America, he loves the sound of his own voice."

Sorkin's slam on Ballmer is a sign of a livelier Gray Lady. The challenge from web news sites, the threat of layoffs-and now competition from Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal-have lifted the metabolism of the newspaper in a way that the exhortations of earlier executive editors never could. An intelligent or provocative slant is one way that a newspaper can differentiate its story from the thousand other rehashes of the same information. British hyper-competitive newspapers have made an art of such spin; as America's media becomes more competitive, outlets are following Fleet Street's example.

It's not only the news pages that are livelier. The Times' City Room blog led the pack in covering the sudden death of movie star Heath Ledger: they were quick with the breaking news, information from the scene and background on the Dark Knight actor's bouts of depression. During the Eliot Spitzer scandal, the paper's website broke the first pictures of the governor's call-girl, Ashley Alexandra Dupré. And the newspaper's opinion writers like Frank Rich have led a devastating intellectual charge against George Bush and the Republican administration.

So what's the problem? All this messy modernity compromises the Times' prissy self-image. The newspaper's proprietors and editors are obviously moderate liberals, and the conservative columnists are either watered-down or compromised, as token as the useless liberals allowed to whine on Fox News-but the Times can't acknowledge that it's partisan. On the web, the Times has opted for speed and sensation, passing on a false detail that Ledger's apartment was owned by Mary-Kate Olsen-but the newspaper still maintains it applies the same standards of accuracy as in print. (It's still scarred by the fabrications of Jayson Blair, five years ago.)

Most painful of all to behold is the editors' contorted defense of an outmoded notion of objectivity. Here's the summary, it's fine for opinion to be expressed on the opinion pages, and in columns on the news pages, but only so long as those columns are written by designated columnists and not by multitasking reporters, who are only allowed to express "points of view" and not opinions, as if there were any way to distinguish between the two.

The mandate of columnists in the news pages "is fundamentally analytical," executive editor Bill Keller told the paper's public editor. "They may have a point of view on an issue, but they are not partisan or ideological. They don't endorse candidates. They don't prescribe outcomes. ... They are free to express opinions of a certain type that grow out of a particular expertise and a body of reporting." His deputy, Jill Abramson, was equally opaque when defending Alessandra Stanley's put-down of the attention-craving Reverend Wright. On May 4, in another column by the public editor, Abramson was quoted saying, "She had a lot of interesting things to say that didn't go over the news-opinion divide." (So how interesting would one have to be to go over that line?)

You know what? Screw the news-opinion divide. When the Times was still pure, reporters would simply trot out some tame expert to give the story the slant they planned; it's less convoluted-and wordy-for writers like Sorkin and Stanley simply to express their own views. Readers can get raw information from wire services and press releases; the only value the Times can add is time-saving summarization-and attitude.

The Times is the closet-case of newspapers. Everybody knows that the political bent is liberal; that the newspaper's reporters have opinions; and that they're hungry for a juicy story, even if the rush to publish can introduce mistakes. None of these are crimes; they only become embarrassments because of the paper's official position. Bill Keller needs simply to come to terms with the nature of modern newspapers. He and his colleagues will feel so much lighter if they do.