Friday, September 21, 2007

Bob Herbert? Boring?

Even before I read it, the recent Washington Monthly article, Why Is Bob Herbert Boring? inspired a reaction - "Because he writes about issues that many people claim to care about, but which they don't really care about. The author exemplifies my point.
This bothers me. Bob Herbert is the only national columnist at a major newspaper who consistently writes about the issues in our country that matter most yet seem to be covered least.... But, honestly, I don't read him either. I'll devour a Maureen Dowd column in which David Geffen trash-talks the Clintons. But I'll skip the next day's Herbert column counseling me to pay less attention to Anna Nicole Smith and more to, for instance, rebuilding New Orleans.
In my opinion he's one of the New York Times' better columnists, presenting steady, well-reasoned, fact-based analysis. For me, Dowd's attempts at gossipy wit often render her columns to dull to wade through.

For the most part, the author shares my immediate reaction - but then shifts responsibilty to Bob Herbert for not writing for his audience. They quote Herbert, in my opinion unfairly, to try to advance this argument:
I asked Herbert why he thinks his columns draw less attention in blogs and other media outlets than those of his colleagues. "The media tends to be drawn like a magnet to power," Herbert said. "Stories about power will generate more chatter." He added: "I think people who are in privileged positions either don't think a lot about people who are not, or don't care about them."

* * *

When I asked Herbert who he envisions his readers to be, he laughed. "I don't picture readers," he said. "I picture issues and the people that I'm covering."
I've never really had the sense that syndicated columnists, on the whole, spend a great deal of time thinking about their readers. George Will doesn't care if his readers want to read about baseball, but he frequently substitutes baseball commentary for his wilted political analysis. Charles Krauthammer doesn't care that is ideas are so trite that you can almost always predict his entire column from the headline. While columnists can target a larger group of readers through their subject matter, readers for the most part seek to seek out columnists who they expect to agree with. Simply put, if you write about subjects people don't care about, no matter how loudly they protest to the contrary, people won't read your column. If Herbert wrote for his audience, he may well develop a larger base of readers, but if the author's thesis is correct he'll have to start writing about the mendacity of one political party or the other, the Iraq war, perhaps throw in some catty name-calling, perhaps follow David Brooks' example of not caring about factual accuracy and then discounting his myriad errors as "jokes". What a joy that would be to read.
But I also think that the Times op-ed page could use more than just one writer on Herbert's beat. The New York Times (or any other major paper that professes to care about America's dispossessed) owes it to readers to find the sort of columnists who can wed the sentiments of Bob Herbert to the influence of William Kristol. And maybe, better still, it will find a conservative columnist who weds the sentiments of William Kristol to the influence of Bob Herbert. It wouldn't be a terrible world if we could read a conservative columnist in the Times and say, for a change, "Man, why is he so boring?"
That's just silly. Here's my counter-challenge to the Washington Monthly - take any popular columnist and have that columnist cover Bob Herbert's beat for a year - the columnist is to announce the change of subject matter up front, and to adhere to the Herber beat with no deviations. By the end of the year, I suspect that the Washington Monthly will be astonished that their (formerly) popular columnist is suddenly "even more boring" than Bob Herbert.

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