Certifiably

President’s Message

First published in the November 2010 issue of the e-Columnist

Ben Pollock

By Ben S. Pollock
NSNC President

“Politics make strange bedfellows” goes the quote by 19th-century newspaperman Charles Dudley Warner, and this fall it’s been columnists getting renown for jumping on the mattress.

Columnists, commentators, news analysts, bloggers, interest-group hacks, cable yaks — aren’t we one big dysfunctional extended family? Which, to stay in this pop-psych metaphor, would make us co-dependent on our cousins, the extended family of news gatherers and the corporate beanies who keep roofs over our keyboards.

A local friend last week asked me to evaluate Election Tuesday 2010. I noted the similarity this year with Bill Clinton’s first term that saw the rise of Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey as vivid opponents. Conservatives head to Nov. 2 with great strength but, other than cable news junkies, how many Americans recall the names of GOP leaders, unlike 1994?

Pack of yaks, from Minnesota Public RadioThe most-identifiable voices against President Obama and Democratic-majority houses of Congress seem to belong to … commentators. The best-known congressional Democrat is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and that’s largely by her crossed-out image on GOP campaign materials. Two cable (not even network) comics, back by a score of humor writers (what a great job that must be!), seem to be better known than other top Democrats.

The most prominent voices and words this season belong to scribes like us, or nearly like us. A good 10 of the NSNC Lifetime Achievement laureates have been frequent TV speakers. While columnists getting celebrity is fine, this fall’s infamy has a dark side. Still, I’d deposit cable yaks’ $50 NSNC membership dues. Glenn, Juan, Comedy Central staff: click Join or Renew.

Not that many NSNC members are political writers. We’re more likely in October to write about leaf-raking versus leaf-blowing. But we have interests and skills in common.

From roughly the Civil War to roughly now, the mainstream news media has split information and comment, with the weight given to information. That the teeter-totter now seems to lean toward opinion is largely because of the growth of 24/7 TV news, which needs content, and cable yaks are cost effective.

This is no revelation. We can laugh at it or see it as an portent, but once we accept that’s how things are, we can recalculate what it means for columnists of all formats, interests and skill levels … and use it.

What comes to mind is certification, rather, just an authoritative nod of certification, because one of our strengths as columnists is independence.

Adding NSNC to your posted credits provides solidity. If your dues are current and you had a bath this week, there’s not a soul who’d fault you for listing it.

“Member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists” infers professionalism and identity. If editors and readers or viewers were to continue from that, they’d assume NSNC members hone their skills through tips from the website, newsletter and conferences. They’d guess NSNC members take ethics seriously, by the word “newspaper” with its implicit standards, to say nothing of our Code of Conduct.

I have a Google Alert set up on our name so I get e-mails every time it’s used. I open each column that mentions the society. It makes the member look good.

If this was the National Association of Realtors, you’d be expected to pass some courses. To become a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, you’d have to first be selected for a juried exhibit.

I feel more comfortable hiring a Realtor when buying or selling a house. Seeing “NWS” after a painter’s signature at a gallery also assures. But it doesn’t mean that just any Realtor would be the best for my needs, or that he’s any good at all. A registered watercolorist often is a “Sunday painter” when art can do so much more. Certifications are filters.

Certification, though, edges too close to control. Any sort of litmus or vow offends our Emersonian verve. It’s also a First Amendment issue. We have the right to speak about things we know little about. So what if that makes some of us jerks, others wealthy, and some both.

Specialized certification though is useful: If you, say, can write powerfully on health or law and have a medical or legal background, you must shout that.

The NSNC has a more elaborate filter: Our annual column contest. Every year we have about a half-dozen categories so being a winner or even a finalist is exclusive. Use that in your credit line, by all means.

We have bad eggs, too. Should we fry or censure them to ensure the society’s good name? I’d oppose that. As reprehensible as plagiarism is, for example, what constitutes stealing ideas or content continues to flex. If we had a little court, it wouldn’t be fair or fast enough to suit some people. “Caveat emptor” lies with those who hire or read NSNC members, just like variously certified car mechanics.

Where does that leave columnists on the eve of an important election, to say nothing of clearing off fallen leaves? Stronger. Especially if you back your thoughts with facts, one of which is you care enough about the craft to belong to NSNC, a reputable brand of more than three decades’ standing. Your best closing line is “NSNC member.”

Ben Pollock has been a National Society of Newspaper Columnists member since 1991 and was a finalist in the 2009 NSNC Column Contest.

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