Reader challenge: Can the columnist

Too liberal? Too right-wing? Or just bad? Which opinion writers would you dump?

by David Kopel

Dec. 8, 2002

'I engage with the Snark - every night after dark - In a dreamy delirious fight," wrote Lewis Carroll, in The Hunting of the Snark. My last column featured a snark hunt of its own, suggesting that the appearance of New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and Nicholas Kristof in both Denver dailies was excessive, given the pointlessly snarky nature of her columns and the Upper West Side banality of his.

As Carroll details, the Snark is an elusive creature, and Dowd's columns have been better than usual recently. For example, on Dec. 2 (The Denver Post), she offered a scathing criticism of the selection of Henry Kissinger to investigate Sept. 11 intelligence failures, detailing his record of deceit all the way back to the George H.W. Bush/Kissinger collaboration to oust Taiwan from the United Nations, while claiming to support Taiwan.

But consider her contribution on the Saudi terror-funding scandal (News, Nov. 28). We get one fact that's not already well-known: Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar was born poor. Much of the column consists of Dowd comparing Bandar and his wife, Princess Haifa, to Jay and Daisy Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby. The Gatsby allusion might seem clever, if Dowd hadn't already worked it to death, having previously used Gatsby analogies for the Prada Hotel (December 2001), the Clintons (January 2000), Hillary Clinton (June 1999), Bill Gates (January 1998), and Bill Clinton (August 1996). (Not all these Dowd columns appeared in the News or the Post.)

My anti-Dowd column provoked a bunch of reader e-mail, about evenly split on the issue, with intense emotions on all sides. Few people seemed to care one way or another about Kristof (who also wrote a good column recently, about the Chinese government covering up its AIDS epidemic).

Some of the Dowd defenders insisted that the only possible explanation for my criticizing Dowd was the vast right-wing conspiracy, and my determination to silence all voices other than my right-wing "buddies." These readers were apparently so upset by my critique of Dowd that they couldn't bear to read the remainder of my column, in which I enthusiastically recommended a new book by the radical leftist professor Todd Gitlin.

The conspiracy theorists reasoned that I criticize Dowd because she is "on" to the Bush administration, which I'm supposedly desperately trying to protect. To the contrary, Dowd's snide criticisms of Bush, like her snide criticisms of almost everything else, are often unencumbered by logical consistency or persuasive facts. If you want columnists who target Bush effectively, then Molly Ivins, William Safire, Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman (on the days when he gets his facts right) are all much better.

Too often, Dowd is a left-wing version of Ann Coulter: erudite, funny if you already agree with her, but too prone to use personal insults, and for that reason, unconvincing to readers not in her ideological camp.

So here's my reader challenge: Write me and tell me which columnist you'd like the News or the Post to drop, and suggest a replacement. The replacement, however, must share the same general ideology as the dropped columnist. Liberals can only be replaced with liberals. Likewise, any local columnist has to be replaced with a local. Please explain why you think the replacement would be better. I'll detail your suggestions in a future column

"For the love of money is the root of all evil" says the Bible (I Timothy 6:10). "The lack of money is the root of all evil," is a saying sometimes attributed (incorrectly) to George Bernard Shaw. Both points of view are enthusiastically embraced in The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril, a new book by Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser of The Washington Post.

Examining newspapers, network television and local TV news, Downie and Kaiser bemoan the decline of all media from the "Golden Age" of the 1960s and 1970s, when media budgets seemed limitless, and news operations were run for the promotion of civic knowledge, not for profit. But over the last 20 years, corporate managers responding to market imperatives have slashed overseas bureaus, and trivialized the television news with health and diet stories that don't cost much to produce. All the while, local media monopolies or quasi-monopolies reap huge profits, little of which is invested in quality news coverage.

The Downie-Kaiser critique is basically accurate, although very little in the book is news to anyone who follows media criticism. The book mostly ignores the Internet revolution, other than to smugly note, repeatedly, that many of the most popular Web sites are run by old media like The Washington Post and NBC. At best, The News about the News might be a good first book for someone who's never read a media book before. Overall, the book offers a stolid and not particularly insightful summary of the facts - rather like the Associated Press stories which Downie and Kaiser criticize.

 

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