New Leonhardt “demystification” vertical has me thinking about the role of media in spreading understanding by inspiring, not explaining.
— JAMES ❄ POULOS (@jamespoulos) February 26, 2014
— JAMES ❄ POULOS (@jamespoulos) February 26, 2014
5. It’s not the form that’s obsolete. Think of all the columnists over 40 that nobody likes. What’s going on here? A generational failure?
— JAMES ❄ POULOS (@jamespoulos) February 26, 2014
On his Twitter feed, James Poulos has been speculating about the nature of newspaper columns and columnists. His postings made me think of which newspaper columnists I read regularly. As a former newspaper columnist myself, and a journalist who got into this line of work in large part because I loved reading newspaper columnists when I was a kid, I was startled to realize that it came down to … Ross Douthat and David Brooks. It’s not that these are the only newspaper columnists worth reading, nor is it that these two are the only newspaper columnists I read at all. It’s that they are the only ones I read regularly (as opposed to reading when someone else links to them, or when I find myself thinking, “I wonder what’s on N.’s mind today.”
Why is that? Why those two and nobody else? Well, for one thing, in most cases, I know what every other NYT columnist is going to say about whatever the topic is. And beyond the Times, I know what most columnists are going to say about most things, and that they will write about a fairly narrow and conventional range of topics. There are exceptions, of course. Krauthammer stays within conventional boundaries, but his muscular prose is worth reading; Will still manages to surprise on occasion, and I will never lose my taste for his high Tory prose. There are others.
What sets Brooks and Douthat apart? In Brooks’s case, I like how you don’t really know what he’s going to write about next. His least interesting columns, to me, anyway, are his political pieces; he seems to me to have gotten bored with Washington, and is instead far more interested in science, culture, and human behavior. He often surprises me, often makes me consider things I had never considered.
Douthat is also surprising. I learn things from his careful political analyses, but he also writes a lot about culture, and doesn’t say predictable things. I know what his convictions are — he’s Catholic and he’s politically conservative — but how he applies those convictions to contemporary challenges is something we don’t often see among newspaper columnists. When his Catholic NYT colleagues Frank Bruni and Maureen Dowd write about Catholicism, you know exactly what they’re going to say, and exactly the tone in which they’re going to say it. It’s easy to dismiss, because they’re just phoning it in. In Douthat’s case, whether he’s defending the Church or criticizing the Church, you get the impression that the column’s author has authentically grappled with the issue at hand, in all its complexity, searching for answers.
I don’t know the extent to which I’m writing here about how my tastes and interests have changed, and to what extent newspaper op-ed journalism has failed to change with the times. For a couple of years I edited the Sunday opinion section of The Dallas Morning News. As I would put together the copy for each issue, I would have to read nearly every column on the wire, to see which ones I wanted to feature in my section that weekend. It was often like going to the grocery store for jam, and finding 20 varieties of grape. What I looked for was a piece of writing that told the reader something he didn’t already know, or that made him challenge his own assumptions, or something that made him think about an old issue in a new way. I didn’t really care if it came from the left, the right, or from no place in particular. What I searched for was something not far from what Poulos means above by the term “hit experiences.” I wanted readers to have the experience of being suddenly, deeply moved by the things they read in my section. This can’t happen all the time, and it may not happen at all in a given Sunday’s paper. But that was my goal: to surprise, to delight, and to move the reader.
To make that happen, the last place I looked was on the op-ed wire. Rather, I searched blogs, websites (e.g., Slate), and the websites of small magazines. There was so much more variety there, stylistically and in terms of opinion. Not coincidentally, this is where the younger writers were being published. They had little or no chance of breaking through onto the nation’s op-ed pages, which are run by deeply conventional older people who, having been raised on op-ed columns, may not even know how much better the stuff available on the Internet often is. There is no way someone like, say, TAC’s Daniel Larison could become an op-ed columnist, even though he’s consistently interesting. He doesn’t have the credentials for it. Sure, he can write well and intelligently, he’s got a strong point of view, and he often challenges the status quo — but he didn’t come up through the newspaper ranks.
I don’t mean to disparage column-writing; it really is an art. When I was a film critic, it used to irritate me when I would meet people who thought they could do what I did. Nine times out of 10, you’d start talking to them about the movies, and you’d quickly realized they wouldn’t last a week in the job, unless they were writing for the Bugtussle Weekly Reader. You may be smarter than every newspaper columnist writing about your topic, but if you don’t know how to translate your insights into clear, crisp, persuasive prose, in a 600 to 800-word package, and do that consistently, then sit down and shut up. The thing about the Internet is that it gave all kinds of writers who really are as smart or smarter than newspaper columnists, and who really can write as well or better than they, a chance to bring their insights to the public. What I tried to do as a newspaper op-ed editor was find these people and bring them to newspaper readers.
I didn’t do it long enough to know if I succeeded. My problem can be summed up in the phrase: “You can have all the good ideas in the world, but if you’re not organized enough to execute them cleanly, week after week, with minimal mess and hassle to your colleagues and the production schedule, then go find something else to do.” Still, that was my goal. I do think too that there is a generational divide here. Back in 2003, I went to the national convention for editorial page editors and writers. At 36, I was one of the youngest people there. There were only a handful of folks in my generation present. We found each other quickly, and ended up marveling at how much groupthink we saw. We were at a convention of intelligent, talented newspaper professionals, but the uniformity of thinking was striking. Reflecting on it, it wasn’t just the liberal politics that grated, but it was a sense that something very new was happening — the web — and few of these people were paying attention. This doesn’t make them bad people, I hasten to say, but it did make them dinosaurs.
The reason Ross Douthat’s ascension to the NYT op-ed page was so exciting for many of us was not simply that one of our tribe — young Catholic/Christian conservatives — had been given one of the most prominent platforms in American journalism. It was that the Times took a chance on a young writer who had made his reputation primarily writing for the web. Yes, Ross wrote for The Atlantic‘s print version, but he became best known for his excellent blogging. I don’t know if it’s possible, or even desirable, to “save” newspaper columns in an era in which the newspaper as we know it is rapidly ceasing to exist. But it is possible to rejuvenate op-ed pages by searching out the best talent on the web, and bringing them into the newspaper fold. The problem is that newspapers, including op-ed pages, are still run by older people who read worn-out warhorses like Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman, and think of them as models. You want someone to write a political and cultural column from a smart-aleck feminist perspective? There’s got to be at least a dozen people who can do it better than Dowd, but they’re not likely to get their foot in the door. Same with Friedman on foreign policy. When I was putting together the op-ed page, I almost never published Friedman or Dowd, because there were far more interesting takes elsewhere on whatever they were writing about. What I’m trying to say is that if the problem with columns is generational, it’s not so much with the columnists themselves as it is with the decision-makers in newspaper management who don’t really get the web and its possibilities.
As for columns that “spread understanding through inspiring, not explaining,” it seems to me that inspiration by definition is not predictable. You can’t hire a columnist and tell her to inspire twice a week. What you can do, though, is hire a columnist who is capable of being inspired by new ideas, and bringing that sensibility to her readers. I’m not a big fan of Nick Kristof’s column, but I do read him with appreciation because he gets out into the world to see what’s going on, and writes about what he sees. You get the idea that he’s a writer who wants to keep learning. Brooks is not the reporter Kristof is, but you get the same idea from him: that he’s a writer who is looking for new ideas to inspire him.
In my own work, I find that a back-channel approach, so to speak, into contemporary issues has been more illuminating, and certainly more interesting, than reading whatever the Washington-New York think-tank/journalism consensus is. For example, I find that my current reading of Massie’s biography of Peter The Great is helping me to understand Vladimir Putin more than most contemporary geopolitical analysis. Why? Because I’m seeing that Putin’s dispositions are not unique to him, but are profoundly Russian. It’s not that Putin is a latter-day Peter The Great — far from it! — but rather that he is the product of a culture and a mindset deeply rooted in historical experience. (Leon Hadar’s TAC warning to American conservatives not to fetishize Putin is apt; Putin is not a philosophical conservative, but a Russian nationalist — which is not necessarily a bad thing, but he is going to be looking out for Russia’s national interests first, not the principles of Christianity or conservatism as Westerners understand it.) My point here is that a newspaper columnist who would be likely to interpret Moscow’s geopolitical strategy with reference to the tsars of old stands to bring something new to the American public’s understanding of the current situation. I don’t think that’s exactly Poulos’s concept of spreading understanding through inspiration, but it might be, in the sense that such a columnist might inspire his readers to take a different look — not necessarily a more favorable one, but a different one — at Putin and Russian foreign policy than they’re likely to get from the Usual Suspects.
You probably have examples in mind from your own experience of ways that current newspaper columnists could make their work more inspired, and therefore inspiring. I’d like to hear them. Whether you and I, readers, are coming from the left or the right or somewhere in between, I think we can agree that the uniformity of consensus opinion in our newspapers and on TV is a big part of the problem. And it’s not only uniformity of opinion about the left-right boundaries of our discourse. It’s a uniformity of opinion about what constitutes news. Let’s take Fox News for example. This is supposed to be the conservative news network, but their idea of what constitutes conservatism, and news of interest to conservative viewers, is deeply Washington-centric, and deeply centered in the media class and its prejudices. In this, they’re no different from the competition; it’s just that as someone who has been part of the conservosphere for most of my adult life, it frustrates me to see how much Fox is ignoring for the sake of observing media conventions. For example, I’ve long marveled over the lack of religion and culture coverage on Fox. By religion and culture, I don’t mean the “War On Christmas” and other tabloid staples. I mean any sort of serious, sustained coverage, both in reporting and commentary, of stories emerging out of the world of religion and culture — stories that tell us, for better and for worse, something important about the world we’re in.
Here’s an example. In my little Southern town, the Methodist church is about to get a new minister — a woman pastor. She follows a woman pastor, who broke the clergy gender line at the church. My folks, who attend there, gave me the news the other night, and I mentioned to them that they will probably not live to see another male pastor at that parish. I explained to them that this is partly because of their age, but also because in mainline Protestant churches, the clergy class is becoming more and more female. Women make up about 20 percent of the clergy in mainline Protestant denominations, including Methodism — but that is fast changing. According to a 2006 New York Times report:
Women now make up 51 percent of the students in divinity school. But in the mainline Protestant churches that have been ordaining women for decades, women account for only a small percentage — about 3 percent, according to one survey by a professor at Duke University — of pastors who lead large congregations, those with average Sunday attendance over 350. In evangelical churches, most of which do not ordain women, some women opt to leave for other denominations that will accept them as ministers. Women from historically black churches who want to ascend to the pulpit often start their own congregations.
It’s clear that what’s going on at the local Methodist church reflects a national shift in the culture of Protestantism. How are congregations receiving this? How is the increasing feminization changing clerical life, and the lives of their congregations? Are churches that accept women pastors thriving by comparison to those that don’t? Why or why not? None of these questions are new to people on the left and the right who follow trends in American religion, but they were new to my mom and dad, who are ordinary people (and big Fox News watchers) whose experience of religion is whatever happens at their own church. They really didn’t know about what’s been going on in Methodism and in mainline Protestantism — the broader trends, I mean. This is a big story! When a conservative town in the Deep South gets its second female Methodist minister, something’s going on. You might call it progress, you might call it decline, but Attention Must Be Paid. This kind of story is such a rich source of insight into how our country is changing, but it’s not the kind of story you are likely to see in our national media, unless, say, the female minister came out of the closet, and her congregation revolted — in which case the story could be folded into the gay-rights narrative that obsesses our national media today. An ordinary female pastor with a husband and kids taking up the pulpit in an ordinary Southern river town, and everybody accepting it — that is a more socially revolutionary thing than a lesbian pastor running afoul of her congregation. But it’s not the kind of thing that most people in the national media are going to care much about, because they don’t patrol these waters, looking for stories.
I am inspired by writers (and broadcasters) who patrol waters like this. I am inspired because they inspire me to think differently about what I think I know.
Enough. I digress, endlessly, and I have a chapter to write. What kind of journalists inspire you? How could newspaper columns be better? Are they worth saving? If so, how can they be saved? Is James Poulos onto something? What are columnists for?
UPDATE: Note well that if I had had the discipline of a column format imposed on me, I would have had to have said all this in 700 words. Less sometimes is more.