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Packer on NYT Columnists

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Last night I wrote a post on newly-announced NYT columnist Ross Douthat in which, as an example of his writing, I quoted from his recent post on RNC chairman Michael Steele. A couple of days ago, the New Yorker’s George Packer gave his thoughts on Douthat’s selection as the NYT’s new conservative columnist. Packer notes that “Douthat, the Times’s choice to replace Bill Kristol on its Op-Ed page, is so thoroughly his predecessor’s opposite that the selection is itself an admission and correction of a mistake. … this excellent choice shows that the Times has begun to see its conservative columnist as something more than a quota hire.”

Packer goes on to comment very briefly on all the NYT columnists, and I found his observations sufficiently interesting that I wanted to share them. Here they are (italics mine):

Douthat’s path to a Times column is as unusual as William Safire’s, who had been a Nixon speechwriter before joining the Op-Ed page. Most columnists start out as reporters and earn their right to an opinion after years of talking to many different kinds of people, mastering many different subjects in the three-inches-deep manner of journalists, and wearing out many pairs of shoes. But this is by no means the only type of background for a successful column. These days, it’s striking that the Times’s columnists seem unable to contend with the earthquake rolling under our feet. With the whole world undergoing a once-in-a-lifetime upheaval, the stars of the Op-Ed page have almost without exception fallen back on the comfort of well-worn stances and personality tics, which are the habitual danger of publishing one’s thoughts every week for years. Friedman, who knows a lot about economics but has too much faith in elites, calls for a summit of “the country’s 20 leading bankers, 20 leading industrialists, 20 top market economists and the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate,” as if these very individuals are not the main agents of the catastrophe. Dowd publishes a column of inadvertent self-parody whose subject is Michelle Obama’s arms, and whose sum total of reporting is a conversation in a Washington taxi with her fellow columnist David Brooks. Kristof continues to call necessary attention to chronic, less-noticed disasters, but he does it more and more by making himself the hero of a moral drama and, in a recent series of columns from Darfur, insulting his readers with the suggestion that they’re too shallow to read on unless he bribes them with celebrity gossip. Rich never challenges his own side, and the result is a weekly display of rhetorical bravura and cheap shots. Bob Herbert has one tone of voice, and as often as outrage is called for, it’s also tiresome. Only Brooks and Krugman seem to be registering the earthquake in a meaningful way, asking themselves difficult questions on a regular basis and struggling out in the open with the answers, which is why the page is at its best on Friday.

In other words, be careful what you wish for. A Times column used to carry huge influence, and on occasion it still can, but it can also dull the sharpest blades, and as Kristol showed, it can be very hard on a sub-mediocre effort. Douthat will bring youth, intelligence, and an important conservative point of view. My one piece of unsolicited advice: talk regularly to people who don’t read blogs (like this one).

Categories: Newspapers, Politics
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