When I first stumbled on the New York Times op-ed page as a teenager, I couldn’t believe what I had been missing: Every day, at the back of the A section, the world’s brightest minds advanced heady arguments. Up until then, I thought ideas lived in books, while reporting (and box scores) went in the newspaper, but there they were. And surrounding these op-eds were the opinion columns, where a trusted few writers got to cultivate readers’ attentions and opinions twice a week, 700 or so careful words at a time.
Unlike journalists, columnists aren’t bound by rigid objective standards. While George W. Bush’s administration pointed the country straight toward hell, reporting didn’t have enough teeth for me. Reading Paul Krugman explain with math how the Republicans were wrong felt vindicating, and Maureen Dowd’s mockery lightened the page. I was introduced to hate-reading; the milquetoast condescension of David Brooks helped inspire me to start writing for an audience. The columnists’ exalted positions made them some of the only consistent opinions on current events that I saw, but now that they’re online fighting with everything else for clicks, newspaper opinion columnists have been brought down from their perch a little bit.
Still, it’s hard to feel bad for them. Writing several hundred words a week about whatever you want is, as my mom used to say, nice work if you can get it. But content is content is content, and it would be one hell of a coincidence if form based on the physical inches of a broadsheet made sense for online publishers. Why pay some big writer a corresponding salary when an earnest, entry-level social media aggregator can probably get just as many clicks? Opinions from the world’s greatest minds are free on Twitter 24/7.
A decade or so after my Times discovery, the idea of it being hard to find people writing opinion is absurd, but most of the roster at the Times op-ed page is the same. Krugman, Dowd and Brooks are still there, along with Gail Collins, Thomas L. Friedman and Nicholas Kristof. The Supreme Court had the same turnover during this period; we’ve had three popes since 2004 and five new Times columnists. It’s about as secure a job as exists in media and much more stable than almost any gig in public life.
There are good reasons for a publication to commit to a columnist for the long term: A column works best after a writer develops a relationship with his or her audience and a familiarity with the form and schedule. It takes time for readers to get a feel for a writer’s style, personality and point of view, and with a column’s short size, background knowledge is important.
But insulating writers has its downsides as well. Some longtime columnists have become institutions in and of themselves — thought leaders who are playing the public role of columnists more often than they’re doing the writing job itself. As thought leaders, they’re more like court thinkers for the 1 percent than social critics; they typically get invited to speak by various interests for big money. I don’t know what percentage of their income derives from their column, but it would be revealing to know. Friedman, Brooks and Kristof are Aspen Ideas Festival brands as much as they are writers, and Dowd’s most important piece in years, amid countless vapid takes on politics and culture, was about getting too high on marijuana. Together they’ve made being a Times columnist a great job with a lousy reputation.
When I was growing up, I Iooked forward to Krugman and Collins, but they weren’t my favorites. More than any of his colleagues, Bob Herbert imbued every one of his columns with a sense of responsibility. He didn’t write like he was filling space with whatever he tripped on that week. Herbert treated every block of words like an opportunity to advocate for the ignored and marginalized. Before editors were looking for it, Herbert wrote about the racist criminal justice system and American poverty. While other columnists flattered or enraged their readers’ existing passions, he performed honest advocacy. While others mused, he investigated. I’ll never forget a column he wrote in 2007 about the arrest of a child in her Florida kindergarten classroom. He called the chief of police and said what I wanted to say: “But she was 6.” He could do it and print the answer with the disgust it deserved because he was a Times columnist. Herbert seemed to know that and take it seriously.
Even though Herbert was my model Times columnist, he never got the positive attention of his flashier colleagues. A 2007 feature in The Washington Monthly summed up conventional wisdom with its headline, “Why is Bob Herbert boring?” The author, T.A. Frank, writes upfront that Herbert is “always right” but confesses that neither he nor anyone one he knows reads Herbert’s work. Frank blames human nature, writing, “Poor people plus statistics equals boring.” Herbert put it better when he said, “The media tends to be drawn like a magnet to power. I think people who are in privileged positions either don’t think a lot about people who are not or don’t care about them.” In 2011 when he left the Times, I was sad but not surprised.
If Brooks or Friedman is the Times’ idea of a columnist, then the institution isn’t making a great case for the job or the medium. And if some teenager asked me what columns they should read, I’d send them not to the luminaries at the Times but to new columnists such as Melissa Gira Grant at Pacific Standard, Rebecca Solnit at LitHub, Ezekiel Kweku at MTV or Parul Sehgal at the Times’ Sunday magazine. Their sensibilities haven’t been dulled by years of DC cocktails parties or Aspen Ideas talks, and they all take their roles seriously.
Like an old-growth forest, the Times op-ed page needs a burn. The paper is in a unique position to make the argument for the persistence of the column form, whose limitations still have a lot to offer. But with a commitment to lifetime appointments for its big brands, the Times could also send the newspaper column to the dustbin of history, unable to attract the best potential and turning the job into a mockery.