Why Is "Opinion Columnist for the New York Times" a Permanent Job Category?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

This post was almost titled, "Another Mindless Pundit Pens Another Mindless Generational Mea Culpa."  Last Sunday, it was New York Times opinion columnist Frank Bruni's turn to dish out the pablum about how badly current middle-aged people have screwed over current younger people.  It was the usual stuff about how "entitlements" are going to destroy the economy, how older people vote in large numbers and redirect money toward themselves, and all that.  And when I say "the usual stuff," I mean it.  I have read near-clones of this column over the years by other professional hand wringers.  Not everything Bruni wrote is wrong, of course, because there is plenty to complain about in our environmental policy, but the fiscal stuff is just ridiculous (and trite).  The people who write such columns generally seem to mean well, but they have no idea what they are talking about.

Bruni relies on the supposed expertise of one fiscally conservative Democrat (who has been out of office for years), and he even manages to make it sound as if it is possible to "reform" Social Security and Medicare in a way that harms current retirees, ignoring the reality of all such proposals, which simply use younger people's confusion and anger as an excuse to put in place future cuts that will kick in exactly when those younger people are the ones who will have qualified for benefits.  (And it cannot be otherwise.  Both politically and morally, it makes no sense to ignore current retirees' reliance interests by suddenly -- when it is too late for them to try to build up more savings, or put off retirement -- changing the terms of the deal.)

Reading Bruni's column, I almost allowed myself to think that he had not read my Verdict column from three months ago, in which I described exactly why all of that is nonsense!  Seriously, however, the real problem here is that there seems to be a rule book that requires op-ed columnists for the Times and a few other prominent places occasionally to pretend that they know something about federal budgeting and macroeconomics, writing exactly the same safe rhetoric that every other self-important, ignorant blowhard writes.

It is hardly a new insight to say that these people are professional dilettantes, but the current opinion-driven media age has given this tiny group of people more influence than ever.  Back in April, my favorite media critic, Alex Pareene at Salon (he of "Simpson-Bowles Is Magic" brilliance, as well as The Hack List) had had enough of the idiocy that fills the Times op-ed pages.  But his response, "Blow up the Times Op-Ed page, and start again! Why Friedman, Brooks and Dowd must go," was disappointingly small-bore.  He actually had positive things to say about Ross Douthat, and he said that Joe Nocera is good on business stuff.  The comment on Nocera was especially puzzling, because Nocera's experience as a business columnist has apparently given him no expertise whatsoever on those topics.  (Seriously.)

Complaining about the various Times columnists is, of course, great sport.  Even though Thomas Friedman has said things that are truly evil, he is generally just a terrible writer and even a worse thinker.  Maureen Dowd's rhetorical style is so stale that even she could not possibly be having fun any more.  Indeed, the supposed liberals on the NYT op-ed page -- Dowd, Friedman, Nocera, Nicholas Kristof, formerly Bill Keller -- are usually so trivial that they are not even worth reading.  I have criticized all of them, and the inescapable conclusion from years of reading these hacks is that there really is no reason for Pareene to exempt anyone from his suggestion to "blow up" the current lineup.  Yes, we would also lose Paul Krugman (more on him below) and Charles Blow, as well as Gail Collins, who is usually (but not always) inoffensive and sometimes even interesting.  But it would be more than worth it.

Where I further disagree with Pareene, however, is in his suggestion that the Times "start again" after blowing up the op-ed page.  Presumably, he means finding a new select group of people who would be good at the job, and giving them twice-a-week gigs on the most important real estate on the planet.  But why would we do that?  Historically, I can understand why newspapers created the job category of "opinion columnist" and tried to elevate their status.  As a business plan, it certainly made sense to get people to say, "Oh boy, today is Tuesday.  I wonder what Tom Wicker's column is about."  This sold a few extra newspapers, I suppose, and every newspaper felt that it had to follow suit.

Things have changed.  The Times could easily more than fill its op-ed page with non-star writers every day, all of whom would be nearly certain to say something more interesting than the current stable of tired scribblers.  When the Times reduced the width of the physical newspaper a few years ago, it dropped one of its guest slots from the op-ed page, such that the paper copy often now has only one guest op-ed along with two of the name columnists on a given day.  That decision was surely not driven by a lack of quality submissions.

But what would happen to the truly good columnists, like Krugman?  (Regular readers of Dorf on Law are, of course, aware of my, er, ambivalence about Krugman.)  Frankly, they could be found on the web.  Krugman was a superstar economist before he became a regular Times columnist, and he will continue to be one, even if he ever leaves that position.  I was sorry when Frank Rich left the Times, but if I want to find him, I can.  (I am certainly not saying that no one should write regular columns.  Personally, I like knowing where I can find insights from Professor Dorf, for example, on a regular basis.  I just do not think that even he should be on the Times op-ed page regularly.  Sorry, Mike!)

The point is that the Times is now in a position where it need not see itself as the Supreme Court of opinion writing, with lifetime tenure given to people who were selected by an opaque (and obviously deeply flawed) process.  The Times is now able to simply say, "Here are a handful of columns that you'll want to read," and people will believe them.  What would be lost if the usual suspects all disappeared?

Interestingly, in another area of commentary, I think that it makes great sense for the Times to maintain a small group of columnists.  The film critics of the Times are uniquely good, and they could not be effectively replaced by a random procession of semi-professional critics.  This is not to say that they are all great, but I look forward to reviews by A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis in particular.  In fact, their commentary often improves the movie-going experience.  For example, Dargis's review of "Ask the Dust," a 2006 film starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, turned what would have been a merely good two hours into a thing of beauty.  It is true that the Times continues to employ Stephen Holden, who seems to think that film review involves little more than plot regurgitation.  But he is the exception.

It is on the op-ed page, however, that space is being wasted on the permanent roster of opinion columnists.  The Times should have the vision and courage to flout convention and announce that it will simply stop devoting predetermined space to any columnist.  The Times has navigated the death-spiral of newspapers and magazines, steering a course to dominance.  They do not need Dowd, Friedman, or any of the others.  They could do everyone a favor by giving us a one-stop place to find a collection of excellent writing every day, rather than a one-stop place to think: "Hmmm, based on the title and extracted sentence, is Kristof's column today going to be another waste of time?"  Far too often, the answer for nearly all of the current columnists is a resounding "Yes!"