Nicholas Kristof, president of the galaxy

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.

Big mistake.

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.

Or take Friedman, whose anti-ear… never mind, you’ve heard it before.

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

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2 Responses to Nicholas Kristof, president of the galaxy

  1. Kevin says:

    Two questions:

    First, why is wielding power bad? That such is the case is clearly your main point, I just don’t see why you think it’s bad. It’s not because they’re boring in the commission of their power, right? Then what is it?

    Second, these fine folks are all opinion journalists. Their task is surely to change minds – but if they change my mind on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, then who cares (to use a famous example)? What else are they supposed to do if not change my mind on matters of importance to the US and the world? Isn’t every word they write inevitably an exercise of power?

    So that’s more than two questions; I suppose I should call it two families of questions. Also, I look forward to hearing your report on your recent trip to the epicenter of democracy in action.

  2. Mike says:

    Hey, Kev — I’m very sorry that I dropped off the edge of the galaxy for a few weeks there.

    To attempt to answer your questions: you’re exactly right, I’m arguing that the wielding of power is bad because it’s boring. Or at least it becomes boring when people are trying too hard to wield power.

    This brings us to your second family of questions, which may reveal that we have a basic disagreement: no, I don’t think the task of an opinion journalist is to change minds. It’s to be read.

    I guess some might argue that this is a crass way of looking at opinion journalism. How dare the profit motive intrude?!? But I don’t think profit-driven opinion journalism is wrong at all. The whole point of journalism is to be enjoyable, informative and stimulating, and an interesting op-ed column is all of those things.

    I think most people go to an opinion page to wrestle with strongly argued ideas, not in hopes of being persuaded to change their minds. (Sure, it happens, and it’s thrilling when it does. But in that case, the payoff comes from the thrill of grokking a new idea — not actually in the holding of a more philosophically rigorous position.)

    When a columnist is more interested in changing minds than in thrilling the readers, readers stop reading. And once that happens, the columnist is not going to change anyone’s mind.

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