It’s Open Season on Opinion Writers in the Times and the Post

From a Tim Noah post on Facebook about opinion pieces in the New York Times:

The basic problem is that so few of the NYT’s signed opinion pieces are any good. Not that they’re “right” or “wrong,” which matters less than everyone thinks. But that they aren’t good.

I’m all for diversity, in both the multicultural sense and the let-conservatives-have-their-say sense. But the first consideration in hiring columnists and “contributing writers” should be quality.

It’s amazing to me that the most powerful newspaper in the world tolerates so much mediocrity on its op-ed page. Not a new problem, I should note.

NYT columnists were mostly washed-up bores when I was an editor on the page in 1982-83. A column was bestowed on a writer for services rendered to the paper, not because the writer in question possessed any knack for discursive writing.

Today the situation is, if anything, worse. You have Maureen Dowd, a very gifted feature writer whose method as columnist is to write the conventional wisdom but give it edge by phrasing it in gratuitously, sometimes pathologically mean language.

You have Charles Blow, a haughtily self-righteous liberal bore.

You have Gail Collins, an intelligent person who in her column chooses to impersonate a not-intelligent person, for reasons known only to her.

You have David Brooks, who used to be an interesting conservative writer but has turned into a pedantic lay minister.

You have Paul Krugman, who’s actually quite good, I think, but given to repetition and the occasional bout of paranoia.

You have Nick Kristof, who I would like if I were a better person but because I’m not I can’t abide his frequent attestations to the extreme fineness of his character.

You have Fran Bruni, whose column attests to his apparent niceness and not much else. Michelle Goldberg is showing some promise, but she’s a bit on the earnest side. Bret Stephens is kind of mediocre. Ross Douthat I’m poorly equipped to judge because the topics that animate him bore me to tears. Still: kind of a prig, no?

And then there’s the long procession of contributing writers, who are also a pretty tedious lot.

So I get why James Bennet wants to shake things up.

But he seems engaged more in typecasting than in a talent search. Get me a winger who hates Trump (Stephens). And so on. Some of this predated Bennet. What Bennet should be saying is merely, “Get me the best. They don’t have to agree with me. They just have to be good.”

Part of the problem is that it’s very hard to be a good columnist, and even harder to stay one. The great columnists can be counted on one hand.

Instead of signing up too many columnists and contributing writers to load the firehose that the Internet demands Bennet should beef up on editors to sift through freelance submissions. That was the original idea for the op-ed page when it was invented in 1970: Lots of one-off pieces. Almost nobody has 20 good op-eds in them but a lot of people have one.

There was a time in the distant past when one turned to the op-ed page to read these one-off pieces. Sometimes they were by famous writers. Sometimes they were by regular people. Rarely were they by politicians or special interest groups peddling some line.

Good writers wanted to write for the page. I wrote a few op-eds there myself (after I was no longer on staff). It never paid decently, but it had a cachet comparable to writing for the NYTBR or NYRB. You knew you’d be read.

Those days are long gone, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to bring them back. Being an op-ed editor was one of the easiest jobs I ever had. I would call up interesting writers and say “Will you write for us?” and they’d say “Yes.”

The Times op-ed page is less dominant than it once was but it’s still the best real estate for short-form discursive writing on politics, policy, and society. Even if nothing can be done about the dreary columnist roster, the rest of the page—which used to be the best part—is salvageable.

An email reaction to Tim Noah’s Facebook post from Mike Feinsilber, longtime reporter for UPI and reporter-writing coach for the AP:

Even though I grew up on James Reston and Arthur Krock,  I don’t read the Times’s columnists as assiduously as Timothy Noah so I don’t feel qualified to agree or disagree.  But I wonder why he ignores Thomas Friedman who, while preachy, brings a useful custom to columnizing: He reports. He goes places and talks to people.

And why does he ignore Timothy Egan, who writes from Seattle and brings a Western eye to the carrying on in Washington. Egan is the author of my favorite book, The Worst Hard Times, about the impact of the Dustbowl on America and the American character. Maybe Noah doesn’t read the Times on Saturdays when Egan writes and gives us something to think about for the rest of the weekend.

Maybe Noah should widen his reading and check out the Washington Post’s editorial pages, where David Ignatius, another reporter-columnist, offers thoughtful insights into foreign affairs, Michael Gerson contributes  a conservative’s balanced assessments of Trump and Trumpism, E. J. Dionne gives a liberal’s viewpoint that educates, George Will imposes a vocabulary lesson on his readers but finds stuff to write about that others don’t. Robert Samuelson makes economic matters make sense, and Richard Cohen writes with two fists pounding, irresistibly.
An email reaction from me to Mike and several other journalist friends about Noah’s Facebook comments:Maybe the larger point is that in the digital age newspaper columns are harder to do because there’s so much opinion on the web. There now is a shortage of good reporting and analysis and a huge oversupply of opinion. I feel as strongly about Washington Post columnists as Noah does about Times columnists.

The exceptions: John Kelly in Metro does a reporting column—mostly looking back—that often is fun to read. Dan Balz writes columns that are more analysis than opinion and is much more interesting than the straight opinion columnists. The op-ed columnists I look forward to reading include Robert Samuelson, who explains economic trends in ways the average reader can understand, David Ignatius on the Middle East, and George Will on baseball.

I’ve always thought columnists would be better if they didn’t have to write on a fixed schedule. I’ve always suspected that most columnists on a fixed schedule start their day by thinking what the hell can I write about next? Everyone else is writing about Trump—but that’s because it’s the easiest to write.

The Washingtonian once ran a cover story, “First, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers,” the cover line a play on Shakespeare’s “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” As for Washington Post columnists, I’d first shoot Dana Milbank, Richard Cohen, and Petula Dvorak as a warning to the others.

An e-mail response from another former Washingtonian editor:

I prefer columnists whose positions—political or social, left or right—shift over time based on deepening powers of observation. Certainly agree with Noah’s point that “almost nobody has 20 good op-eds in them but lots of people have one.” Wish he had named some when he said “the great columnists can be counted on one hand,” which might have provided clues to the reasons for some of his judgments. I admire his general candor, however.

Agree with Jack that some columnists should be shot, or at least badly wounded, but I have other candidates in mind. And if Charles Krauthammer recovers from surgery, I hope he’s reassigned to food criticism and sent to very bad restaurants.

Speak Your Mind