TRD101: Noses are Like Opinions
by Michael Maynard
Even though my home town newspaper, The North Adams Transcript, was not huge in size or circulation, it did have one very good section: the op-ed page. The Transcript picked up in syndication the works of some of the best columnists of all time, such as Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, Herb Caen and others. I grew up loving to read good columns and secretly harbored a desire to be a columnist myself. A good columnist’s work inform you about topics that you might never have considered, causes you to think about those topics in ways you haven’t thought about them before and the best, columnists motivate you to action.
A good column is an opinion based upon facts tempered by common sense and fueled with the passion of the columnist to tell you why this subject and his/her opinion on it are important. Writing a column is also a very moral act and a civic responsibility; a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. There are a number of top-notch columnists today who combine all of those traits.
Writing a column is the prose form of haiku. You have a limited number of words, usually 600 to 1,000, to make your case and your points. Each word in the column is precious and deliberate. It takes a skilled word craftsman to write 2-3 columns per week and make them interesting and informative. The words have to flow, they have to have a rhythm and they have to be in your voice and style I think it is a different, and tougher, art than writing a book.
The best columnist in the business is Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. Mr. Kristof not just gives his opinions, he takes action upon them. His recent works to raise the level of consciousness and urgency on the massacres in Darfur are brilliant. His adoption of a young women forced into prostitution in Thailand was moving, compassionate and highly moral. I greatly respect Kristof for understanding that he has the greatest forum in the world, the op-ed page of the New York Times, and he understands how to use it for the world’s good.
Close behind Kristof is his fellow NYT columnist, the underappreciated Bob Hebert. Hebert’s work to bring justice for police killing of blacks in Tulia, Texas, and stopping IBM’s dumping of PBC’ used in manufacturing printed circuit boards in rivers and coverage of the subsequent California trial It was Pulitzer Prize level work and unfortunately, I did not, as I promised to Hebert, send in the paperwork to nominate him.
There is the national treasure, Molly Ivins, who is funny, wry, sharp and insightful. Many right-wingers fault columnists for their criticism of George Bush and the Bush Administration, but given Molly Ivins’ long history with the Bush family from Texas to Washington, these wingnuts have a very hard time doing so. There are many other top notch print columnists that I read: Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, and Maureen Dowd of the NYT; Scott Lehigh and Derrick Z. Jackson of the Boston Globe, Joe Conason of the New York Observer, and Hendrick Hertzberg of the New Yorker Magazine. If I could write with the passion, majesty and moral clarity of the should be nationally syndicated James Carroll, I’d really be dangerous. For my right wing friends, I do read George Will and Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, and occasionally agree with them, as infuriating as they can be at times. The Internet has spawned a few top-notch columnist commentators, such as Josh Marshall of Talking Point Memo (www.talkingpointmemo.com) and Professor Juan Cole of Informed Comment (www.juancole.com).
The commonality of all of the above is not only their commitment and passion for what they do, but the soundness of their opinions. They do their research, they talk with experts and qualified sources, they think through what they write before they write it, and they’re not afraid to push forward or buck public opinion. They’re knowledgeable, credible and likeable. It’s a strong tradition of public instigation of discourse handed down from H.L. Mencken.
But if you look at the list of columnists on the Washington Post Syndicate and Creators Syndicate, there are way too many people claiming to be credible opinionators. It’s isn’t how qualified you are, though qualified experience certainly helps. It isn’t how well you write, though being able to write a declarative sentence is necessary. It’s how well you enjoin the public discourse and writing a column is public discourse. It’s not about which side of the political spectrum you’re on and how you respond to issues of the day by reflex. It’s about how well you’ve thought out what the public ramifications of what you write. People do take action and form opinions based upon what you write. You become a member of the public trust.
Noses are like opinions. Let to run at will uncontrolled for too long, then others become infected by you. Red versus Blue America is really a disease of the public discourse called knee-jerk no-nothingism on both sides. There are too many opinions and opinionators out there, and not enough building understanding through intelligent discourse. Too many noses, not enough well-reasoned opinions.
You may not agree with what I write, and that’s fine. But if I get you to think about why you don’t agree first before your write to me or talk to others, then I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, engage your mind, not inflame it further.
So TRD101's basics lesson is this: the next time you read a newspaper, magazine or Internet columnist, ask yourself these two questions: do they really know what they’re writing about? Are they telling me what to think or enabling me to think for myself? Opinions are also like noses, everybody has one, and most shouldn’t be blown in public.
That’s the Real Deal 101 for today, like it or not.
© Copyright Michael Maynard, TRD101, March 2006.