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.