Why Does the Washington Post Still Pay Richard Cohen?

Can anyone explain to me why Richard Cohen still has a job?

Twitter -- or at least my corner of it -- has been busy ridiculing/gasping at yesterday's offering from columnist Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. (In keeping with Commonweal tradition, I must clarify that I am not talking about this Richard Cohen.) In a week when everyone and their mother was weighing in on the George Zimmerman trial verdict and trying desperately to say something new, Richard Cohen contributed the most unhelpful and unreflective response of all: a defense of racial profiling, coupled with a complaint that no one in public life is brave enough to "talk honestly" about how "we all" are "understandably" afraid of black men. His column was ironically titled "Racism vs. reality."

A number of people more thoughtful and probably less well compensated than Cohen have taken the time to dissect that column in all its awfulness. The best response in my opinion is from Alex Pareene, who summarizes the column's main point as "Richard Cohen Is Terrified of Black People." He links to other valuable analyses, from Peter Hart at FAIR and Tom Scocca at Gawker, and especially this take from Jamie Chandler at U.S. News explaining how Cohen is misusing and ignoring the statistics that should inform the discussion he says he wants to have. (Also very good at patiently dissecting Cohen's wrongness is Elspeth Reeve at the Atlantic.)

What truly amazes me is that each of those writers can link to past columns of Cohen's in which he commits similar offenses -- defending racism and then complaining when people identify it, accurately, as racism; asserting that "everyone knows" something when "everyone" seems to refer, at best, to "men exactly like Richard Cohen"; posing as a brave truthteller when in fact he is simply airing prejudices uncomplicated by even the most basic research; claiming to have learned lessons and then later making exactly the same mistake he made before; and of course the basic failure to construct any kind of coherent argument in the 750 words allotted to him each week -- but they all find different examples of these Cohen tics. Each new response digs up another totally embarrassing column from the archives to hold up against the latest one. (The most common comparison is to an infamous column from 1986 in which Cohen defended white shopkeepers who refuse to let black men into their stores: read some of it, and the follow-up doubling down, here.) And no one pays much attention to my favorite "whaaaa?" moment in Cohen's latest: the part where he tries to play gotcha with President Obama by suggesting that "the former Barry Obama" must certainly have been afraid of black men he saw on the street "when he was a Columbia University student living on the lip of then-dangerous Harlem." I read a line like that and almost feel bad for Richard Cohen. He seems so confident that he's just landed a palpable hit, and a clever one at that. "I am a funny guy," he once declared. Oh, honey.

(Speaking of humorous observations: asked to defend his work, Cohen giggled to Politico that hooded sweatshirts are "the uniform of billionaires and thugs." Which I think we can all agree would make much zippier advertising copy for this Washington Post merch than what they went with: "The hoodie: the perfect utilitarian piece of clothing.")

But that brings me back to my question: How does Richard Cohen still have a job? This thing he does of concern-trolling liberals by writing tedious, lazy, laughably un-self-aware social analysis, with "jokes" that make you cringe and points that refute themselves -- it's not just the late-career doldrums of a longtime newspaperman. Judging from that glance back at 1986, Cohen has apparently been exactly as bad as he is now for at least twenty-seven years.

I suppose the person who ought to field this question first is the WaPo's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who essentially told the Huffington Post that anyone who objects to the idiocy of Cohen's latest column is the real bigot: "If I had not published the column, just as many people would be asking why the Post can’t tolerate diverse points of view." There are a few problems with that assertion! The main one being that it's unlikely "just as many people" would have read the unpublished Cohen column. (Unless there's some very popular Richard-Cohen-outtakes blog I don't know about, and if so would someone please send me the link?) But also, while I know embattled editors like to fall back on this excuse, it is not actually true that being open to a variety of viewpoints requires printing every opinion that comes your way, however ill-founded or poorly argued. The line between editorial judgment and knee-jerk intolerance is not all that thin.

The real answer may be "That's just how it's always been." But newspapers are having trouble getting young people to subscribe, and I submit that part of the problem is that they continue to give a prominent position to people like Richard Cohen. I have said this before. The internet is full of commentary, much of it free, from people who have original thoughts and perspectives and back them up with research; people who furthermore do not expect to be protected from criticism and do not complain that they've been unfairly attacked (or "lynched") when that criticism comes to their attention. As Elspeth Reeve wrote in response to Cohen's whining, "It is unacceptable to complain that 'nobody is talking about X' when you have an Internet connection." Judging from his writing, Richard Cohen may well not have an Internet connection, and if he does he may not use it. But most people, especially young people, do. And so newspapers shouldn't be surprised that those people have no use for their opinion pages -- not when they keep publishing whatever garbage Richard Cohen phones in.

Update: I would be remiss if, after all that, I did not point you to this 2008 column by Richard Cohen about how newspapers are better than the Internet (or, rather, better than a BlackBerry, which he uses as a metonym for the Internet, although it's not totally clear to me that he knows what a BlackBerry actually is). "I concede also that newspapers sometimes can be wrong and occasionally...inexcusably brain-dead," he says. Well, that's something!

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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