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A rogues gallery

I don't know whether it's a cause or a symptom of the demise of printed newspapers in general, but either way, newspaper opinion columnists are slowly losing the authority, respect, and general prominence they once enjoyed. This is partly because the Internet has made informed and incisive commentary much easier to come by. (It has also made virulent partisan trollery easier to come by, but that's not a threat to the old patterns; it's more of an amplification.) That doesn't mean editors and gatekeepers are obsolete -- you need to find the good stuff somewhere -- but it does mean opinion-page editors have to be more demanding and more competent than your average civilian with an interest and a blog, because the Internet has also made laziness, error, and inconsistency much easier to expose. My impression is that many young people can't see the point of reading, say, George Will on climate change when they can easily access the opinions of someone who knows much more about it. And when it emerges that someone like George Will has misrepresented scientific findings to support his opinion -- as was the case earlier this year -- and when it further becomes clear that dishonesty and error will go unacknowledged and uncorrected so long as it can be chalked up to "opinion" -- then you can hardly be surprised that young readers approach "established" pundits with skepticism and mistrust. Alex Pareene, a blogger for Salon, holds pundits to much higher standards of accuracy and insight than their editors usually do. This is another danger of the Internet: it keeps records. And people like Pareene have long memories.

When Richard Cohen writes a column defending Clarence Thomas (and attempting to draw a line between "blatant, coercive" sexual harrassment and the understandable lack of "social graces"), longtime Washington Post readers might not remember that Cohen himself was once accused of sexual harrassment in the newsroom. (But not the "coercive" kind!) Pareene remembers, and he drew on that long memory recently in naming Richard Cohen "the hackiest pundit in America." Pareene spent the week before Thanksgiving counting down his "Hack Thirty" at Salon's War Room blog:

The War Room Hack Thirty is a list of our least favorite political commentators, newspaper columnists and constant cable news presences, ranked roughly (but only roughly) in order of awfulness and then described rudely. Criteria for inclusion included writing the same column every week for 30 years, warmongering, joyless repetition of conventional wisdom, and making bad puns.

You might quibble with his picks, or the order in which they fall. (Having read that the finalists would be ranked "in order of shamelessness," I was suprised to see Bill Kristol coming in as low as #17.) You might have other candidates in mind. But I think the list is worth a look. The writeups are certainly not temperate or charitable ("George Will is a sanctimonious moralist, a pretentious hypocrite, a congenital liar and a boring pundit, to boot"), but I also wouldn't generally call them unfair, if only because it's rather difficult to be unfair to someone who has a safe job and a solid reputation as a serious commentator despite having so often failed to take his or her own work very seriously. Pareene isn't out to paint a balanced portrait of the highs and lows of so-and-so's career; he's calling attention to the faults that columnists from David Brooks (#30) to Richard Cohen get away with, and the laziness that results from their knowing that they won't be held accountable. I found the writeups entertaining (especially #10, Peggy Noonan) and potentially enlightening (he's certainly got Maureen Dowd dead-to-rights), and they strike me as a very valuable study in why smart young people are inclined to bypass newspaper editorial pages entirely. If I were responsible for editing any of the honorees, I'd be taking notice.


Commenting Guidelines

Thank you for this link. I read through about a third of the list and found it amusing, predictable, and a little surprising. Too many names on the neocon right. It is to expect when the criteria are "writing the same column every week for 30 years, warmongering, joyless repetition of conventional wisdom, and making bad puns." Crossing out "warmongering" would make a better list. Most of the conservatives still remain on the list - plus Krauthammer (whose absence is a surprise). But there would be many more liberals as well.I read some of the reader's comments, and this on Noonan reflects my own thought.---It seems really ironic to me that in the comments to the political hacks list, many of the very characteristics that make one a hack--overly partisan stance, venemous words towards people who happen to view the world differently, etc.--are on full display.There are political writers I cannot read because they just function as cheerleaders for one side or the other. There are voices that I value, and I trust, because they aren't afraid to criticize or see fault in politicians from their own side, and even in their own views. In both categories, I could list writers on both sides of the fence.One thing I always liked about Peggy Noonan is that she often criticized Republicans. That gives her credibility in my eyes. I wish that openness weren't so rare. Is she old fashioned? Sure. So is my grandma. But I don't hate her for it.Civility, tolerance, and a greater understanding of the world are what we risk when we just lob missiles back and forth. I'd rather have someone sincerely agree with me but be willing to listen to my thoughts on an issue without concluding I'm Hitler or evil incarnate than hang with a bunch of people who march in lockstep. Too much groupthink these days.henslow

Opinion columnists are like opera singers. It's easy to criticize. A lot easier than doing it yourself.Only Mike Royko was always good. Almost always. He used to be in the Chicago Tribune darn near every weekday for something like fifty years, and I think I have seen fewer than ten bad Mike Royko columns ever.

This is a great story. As good as it gets of this genre. I guess it is our thirst for heroes that draws us to quote those who may not know what they are talking about. My guess is that Pareene does not hang out with these hackers or bird of that same feather. One can imagine the angry stares. Pareene does not just generally critique but chapter and verse. Ouch. I doubt that any of the thirty ever attended a Burning Man event. Some may misread this as Shadenfreud. It is not. Just telling it like it is.

I was surprised not to see the name of Wall Street Journal's Mary Anastasia Grady on the rogues list. Her commentary about the San Jos de Aparatado, Colombia, peace community was outrageous and I have found her comments on Honduras alarming.

I've always had a soft spot for Tucker Carlson, number 22, for a story he once wrote for Esquire about his trip to Liberia as part of a very motley delegation headed by Reverend Sharpton hoping to broker peace in that part of the world.

I loved the series as it appeared last week. My only disagreements: Thomas the Blowfish Friedman should have been awarded the #1 Hack spot, and Charles Krauthammer should have been on the list. May I suggest that, henceforth, Commonweal contributors desist from referring to any columns by these hacks? Especially the awful David Brooks, whose indictment as a hack was especially keen and overdue.

One might say that on further analysis the tendency to make stars of columnists and other celebrities is our penchant for looking for a new Messiah forever. James O'Donnell, the peerless biographer of Augustine, writes that Augustine fostered this notion of the great revelation coming from the next great book. This accounts for the acclamation given to Spenser, Schopenauer, Marx, Freud, etc. They all were thought to have the secret of life in their work. So it is with celebrities. This is taken up a notch with popes and the fathers of the church. To our credit we have stripped many of these trappings in our times. But fantasy is hard to contain. At any level or field.