Nominations of Better Columnists

As an extension of my last post, let me start the nominations for online writers that you feel like could serve as better columnists for the New York Times than most of the current group. Basic things to consider: reasonably good writers in stylistic terms, evidence that they could handle writing regularly and could write within the space constraints, evidence of the ability to surprise either in their take on issues or in the way that they choose to write about issues, evidence of a wider or different range of concerns than the Usual Suspects.

Make no more than three nominations so that this doesn’t turn into a huge loves-and-kisses to all your blogging buddies.

Here’s my starter list, people I think combine a distinctive style and range, a demonstrated ability to think on their feet in short-form writing, and a fresh angle on things.

1. Scott McLemee
2. Belle Waring
3. Michael Bowen

I could list another twenty people who primarily write online without breaking a sweat who I think would all be interesting, superior additions to the NY Times’ roster of columnists. Another one hundred, probably, if we’re talking about who might be more interesting than Bill Kristol. I can also think of many mainstream nonfiction writers and essayists who I’d love to see take a stab at a regular column.

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14 Responses to Nominations of Better Columnists

  1. SamChevre says:

    Jacob T Levy
    Radley Balko

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Amen to both those. Jacob especially.

  3. bryan says:

    Are there any regular op-ed columnists at any paper you could point at as being closer to your ideal than those at the Times?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Not quite a newspaper columnist, but Jonathan Rauch is great. Molly Ivins was predictable, but at least a great stylist. Fareed Zakaria is also not quite a regular op-ed person but close enough, perhaps–I think he’s very smart and readable.

    The regular columnists at the Economist are often a great read by all the criteria I’ve suggested.

  5. SamChevre says:

    I’ll add, on further thought:
    Thomas Sowell–who actually writes a column.
    Walter Williams–very different in POV from the Times, but somewhat predictable.

  6. back40 says:

    There’s a lesser known cultural historian, Timothy Burke, who at times is as good or better than any name yet mentioned. If both Burke and Shalizi wrote for them I’d be tempted pay for that, at least at first until they ran out of fresh material and resorted to their own agendas as Krugman and Kristol have done. It’s a tough gig for the long term, especially if you have a life.

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    I agree, Tim, that Scott McLemee and Belle Waring can write some surprising – and, more to the point, interestingly surprising – things. But not (as far as I have seen) about politics. Their politics seem reflexive to me, like most people’s. In general, I find political writing more predictable, and therefore more frustrating, than any other kind. And might that not be because audiences, especially large audiences like that of the NYT, want it that way? Don’t you get a sense that many people read columnists precisely because they know where those writers are coming from? A regular NYT columnist writer whose opinions couldn’t be predicted might give a lot of pleasure to you and me, but might just piss most readers off.

    While I’m here, and on the subject of interestingly unpredictable writers, let me second the props for Tim Burke. I don’t think he can match Bill Kristol’s conservative cred, but maybe we can work around that limitation. . . .

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think I can write well in that format, at that frequency, in that manner.

    Sowell isn’t bad.

    Alan may well be right that some of the Times readership is just looking for the Punch and Judy show. Not this Times reader, though. Even within the limits of the Punch and Judy show, however, there’s better than Kristol, who is simply a hack.

    Both Belle and Scott do surprise me politically on a number of occasions, in good ways. The trick to being surprising, I think, is to not be the 10,000th person to weigh in on the same issue that’s making the news cycle, but to do something like write a blog entry about Bob Avakian.


    To give an example of where I think everyone has this obligation, I used to really appreciate Nat Hentoff’s basic civil libertarian stance at the same time I used to find his column in the Village Voice annoying as all shit. Why, when I agreed with much of his basic position on civil liberties issues?

    Because Hentoff only picked off the low-hanging fruit. He just wrote about stuff that he could push the meter up to 10 on, the kinds of events and issues where he could push himself into the position of ideological purity and hammer on his enemies.

    But civil liberties isn’t always that easy. For example, what do you do about the kinds of complicated pressures that commercial ownership of the means of speech can put on the possibilities of speech? What do you do if you’re dealing with a “fire in a crowded moviehouse” situation? How do you respond to a sophisticated theory of speech as an act (as opposed to just finding some crude dumbass version of that argument)? Hentoff never wrote about any of those issues, never tackled a tough case that challenged his own position or certainty.

    That to me makes you a bad columnist in the end. It isn’t just that you’re predictable and boring, it’s also that you’re a coward. Which pretty much describes the majority of the pundit class. You’ll rarely see any of them talk about their own mistakes, tackle an issue that confuses them, go to a grey zone, rethink a problem. That is not just the province of academics, nor is that a kind of writing that must be difficult and confusing. Orwell could write very clearly in that vein (that Hitchens claims Orwell to be his hero is a fucking outrage, since Hitch has never had an Orwellian moment in his writerly life). It can be done. I think there are bloggers and published essayists in American public life who do it. Some of them ought to be on our op-ed pages. I don’t expect them to show up on Fox News; I do expect them to appear in the New York Times.

  9. bryan says:

    Do you really want NYT op-ed columns detailing Bob Avarkin and Lyndon LaRouche’s doings? Not to pick on Scott–I find those subjects and his treatment of them morbidly appealing and fascinating–but it seems inappropriate to an op-ed page. I find blogs about obscure ’90s indie bands very interesting, but I don’t think David Brooks and Paul Krugman ought to once in a while devote a column to Butterglory or the Olivia Tremor Control. I guess the NYT could hire someone to do a regular column about “off the beaten track” subjects, but it seems appropriate otherwise for regular op-ed columnists to discuss the sorts of things that are going to seriously effect the lives of millions of people.

  10. Thanks for the nomination, Timothy. But I’m puzzled by some of the discussion.

    I’ve posted, what, a handful of things about Avakian or LaRouche at Crooked Timber or Cliopatria — out of, literally, hundreds of newspaper articles and or Inside Higher Ed columns that I’ve published over the past few years. The vast majority of things I write involve putting contemporary events or topics in a context that they might not otherwise be seen to have, given the pace and attention span of the mass media (looking at David Horowitz via Hannah Arendt, for example).

    So I’m not sure why anyone would extrapolate what I might do in the Times from a few blog posts. For what it’s worth, the last time I was in the Times, a couple of months ago, it was to review a book by the philosopher John Gray. That seems like a more typical piece, actually.

    As for being “reflexive” rather than “surprising”….all I can say, after a quarter century of watching how these things work, is that the standard script for being “surprising” in public affairs is pretty much: “I was a member of the New Left and it is in the spirit of the 1968 rebellions that I support this war!” or “I’m a proud liberal and if FDR were alive today he’d definitely join me in calling for Social Security to be privatized!”

    Gosh, that kind of thing sure is provocative. It gets you on the TV, and that’s what counts. I’m afraid being a democratic socialist has not led me to cultivate the gift for such stunts — an oversight I regret more with each passing year, of course.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I think mixing it up now and again with things which are obscure-but-windows-into-central-issues would be great. As well as “less obvious takes on obvious questions”. So yes, I do want some op-ed columnists to poke and prod and do the less obvious thing in many respects. Even if they’re going to write about the big news story of the day, they ought to work hard to produce added-value rather than simply transcribe an opinion that I could hear by flippiing around the television.

  12. Richard says:

    My vote goes to Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings.

  13. Cosma says:

    While it is, indeed, an honor to be nominated, I want to chime in and say that I think Tim is asking for the impossible. Writing twice a week on a topic of broad enough interest to attract the readers of a newspaper, and broadly familiar enough that one can say something to that audience in only 700 words, is rapidly going to leave you with nothing surprising to say. You need more room or less frequency or ideally both. Krugman is, to my mind, actually astonishingly good as a columnist – and I agree with Gary that I can largely guess what he’s going to say. (Unlike Gary I happen to usually agree with it and regard it as a valuable service to the republic, which no doubt colors my evaluation.) That is probably the outer limit of what can be achieved under these conditions.

    Of course there is no law saying a paper needs nine columnists rotating through the week, instead of forty rotating through the month, giving them a lot more time to think of something to say. Presumably this would keep anyone from being a full-time columnist, but my gut reaction is that this would be a good thing.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    That would also be a fine direction to go: get rid of “regular columnists” altogether.

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