Belittling, second-guessing is lazy journalism

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:41 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Some weeks ago, one of my colleagues on this opinion page penned a commentary critical of the vituperative style of conservative syndicated columnist, Ann Coulter. It may surprise many of you to learn that I agree with much of what he wrote. Regardless of the truth of the matters stated therein, limitless belittling barbs and personal insults should be out of bounds to the serious journalist.

However, lest the readership be lulled into believing the right wing own a monopoly on rude and malicious condemnation, it is only fair that the flip side of this coin be also held accountable. As an avid reader of editorial opinions generated by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and all that falls between, obnoxious leftists such as Robert Scheer, Jim Hightower and Bob Herbert more than hold their own in casting ad hominem aspersions at those on the right.

That there are more than enough polemicists of each persuasion notwithstanding, the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd shares the dais with Ms. Coulter in dispensing well written and witty but also malevolent and venomous attacks that serve only to detract from any message they intend to impart. Ms. Dowd, a highly talented wordsmith has, to her detriment, adopted a sneering, hateful invective in assaulting those with whom she disagrees.

The absolute nadir of her ungracious rancor was apparent in her coverage of the inauguration of President Obama. Regardless of political bent, this was a watershed moment of historic proportions for all Americans and treated as such by most journals. However, Ms. Dowd chose to ignore the richly significant occasion, instead opting to heap invective on the departing President Bush. An unrelenting cheap shot artist, she continues to attack the previous administration, realizing perhaps that it is easier than developing new material.

This is not a “gotcha” column, one intended to “get even” with my more liberal counterparts. Instead, it reflects the view of one who has not only spent a lifetime enjoying the reporting of and on the opinions generated in the news but also has been privileged to write an opinion column, for which I am extremely grateful. These are my opinions, posted primarily for those interested in the opinion writing trade – hopefully it will be informative and thought provoking.

Unlike reporters, opinion columnists should not be expected to be unbiased as they provide editorial comment on the news of the day, the particular focus determined by the columnist. The reader should expect an accurate, objective presentation from the writer; however, “fair and balanced opinions” are often in the eyes of the beholder. Most can identify with Benjamin Disraeli's “My idea of an agreeable person is one who agrees with me.”

In determining relevance or veracity of the author, I am guided by a minimum of three factors: his or her objectivity, knowledge or experience in the subject and civility. When reviewing a column, if the sentiment “liberal good–conservative evil” or vice-versa literally leaps off the page, I will probably finish it but take its conclusions with a grain of salt. Hyperbole, histrionics and pandering are no more acceptable from either spectrum.

In considering the writer’s relevant expertise on the topic, one can look to reputation, background and experience along with the reader’s personal knowledge of the subject matter. For example, a columnist may very well disagree with a course of action, whether military or domestic, but the second-guessing of a decision by a writer who has neither expertise nor knowledge in that arena nor any inclination to learn is hardly useful.

As for civility, I find many of the established syndicated columnists to exhibit a measure of partisan laziness in their product, particularly among those whose established biases predict their stance on issues. The sheer volume of railing condemnation of and personal outrage at the position of an administration or political party can occupy the lion’s share of the written word, leaving little room for objectivity or fact.

There are a number of syndicated opinion columnists worthy of emulation. David Broder of The Washington Post and Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune represent the left of center and are complimented on the right by Michael Barone, U. S. News and World Report, and Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post. While their respective political leanings are readily recognizable, their inherent civility, objectivity and abstinence from insults and name calling add both credibility and gravitas to their work.

If your pleasure tilts toward the Jerry Springer and Howard Stern experience, you will likely enjoy the contemptuous, shock jock style of the Ann Coulters and Maureen Dowds. I happen to ascribe to the less polemic approach.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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R. Whitfield Smith April 30, 2009 | 10:09 a.m.

One of Karl Miller's better columns. Would that other columnists would read it and heed it.

R. Whitfield Smith
Chapin, SC

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