Almost nobody thinks he or she wields power.
Most people think politicians wield power. But tell this to a politician, and they’ll point you to lobbyists, donors, bureaucrats, journalists or (most of all) some other politician.
There is, however, a tiny class of people in this world who are aware that they wield power. And the knowledge all too often destroys them.
I’m speaking, of course, of the New York Times’s 10 op-ed columnists.
- The stable, for those keeping score:
- David Brooks
- Roger Cohen
- Gail Collins
- Maureen Dowd
- Tom Friedman
- Bob Herbert
- Nick Kristof
- Bill Kristol
- Paul Krugman
- Frank Rich
It’s the perchiest perch of them all, the most prominent job in written opinion journalism and the fastest track in the English-speaking world to becoming a public intellectual. One of the hardest jobs in the world to do well, even for these people. For these people are very smart. They are very well-informed. These people have opinions.
And these people have the terrible knowledge that millions of thoughtful, respectable people respect them.
It’s enough to ruin any writer. The definitive piece on the problem is T.A. Frank’s brave, thoughtful “Why is Bob Herbert Boring?” But while Frank’s simple conclusion (“he doesn’t write with his audience in mind”) is accurate, it’s not really the root issue.
The root, illustrated by Frank’s piece, is that Herbert knows he has power and can’t resist using it to improve the world.
The problem Frank sees in Herbert’s work is shared by Kristof, the self-described “broken record on Darfur” who specializes in wrenching, accurate, dull columns like this pro-sweatshop piece from last week. The reporting is impeccable; the arguments are familiar.
Then there’s Rich, the verbally gifted drone who was fatally ambushed by Stephen Colbert in 2007:
Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn’t have to think about. It’s all George Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay.
There. Now I’ve written Frank Rich’s column too.
The reason I can’t stand half the New York Times columnists isn’t that they’re wrong, it’s that they’re boring. They’re boring because they’re trying to wield power.
I don’t write this to further abuse these much-abused guys, who may not be my cup of tea but are much more talented than me and possibly anyone I’ve ever met. I write it because every public figure in the world, even a two-bit reporter like me, shares their problem on a tiny scale. You get a little power, you always want to do a little good.
But as geekly god Douglas Adams would tell Nicholas Kristof, there’s no faster way to squander power than to attempt to use it.
- posted by Mike