By Suzette Martinez Standring
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Let’s talk about needless savagery that poses as column writing. On a seesaw of best and worst, columnist Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post is a fulcrum.
Hamilton Nolan of the Gawker lists her as one of “The Least Important Writers of 2013.” Yet I devote a chapter to Parker’s work in my new book, The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists.
I read Nolan’s condemnation of Parker on the Gawker, a list that also included Peggy Noonan and Thomas Friedman, and the same publication that gave a top headline to “Florida Man Caught Having Sex With Roommate’s Dog.”
Parker’s public hanging led me to marvel, “Why are his panties in such a bunch?” The mindless ferocity shocked me, but then the very definition of gawk is “to stare openly and stupidly.”
I’m not here to be Parker’s personal champion. She’s well equipped to fight her own battles.
I will deplore what this type of writing represents: a tearing down with no useful aim to rebuild. It’s cruelty behind the shield of so-called journalism. Cut off their ears, cast them onto a bonfire, and dance around the bodies.
Listen up and learn something about journalism. Parker’s work was deemed vague and vapid, basically using one column to represent her career. News flash! Every column cannot be a Pulitzer Prize entry. Even the legendary Pete Hamill admitted that there were days under deadline when he wrote about the problem of dog poop on New York streets.
If you ever wondered if world peace is possible, just read the blog posts and heave a sigh at the author’s labels and blanket statements that are inaccurate, unfair, and mean-spirited. Parker is vilified as an entitled racist conservative, hateful toward other women, a “one percenter” whose career and awards were handed to her, seemingly with no merit.
Aspiring writers, take note. Accuracy is a Basic 101.
Reality check: “conservative” and “liberal” are labels given by papers and syndicates because a writer has to be fitted into a marketing slot. Oftentimes, the columnists themselves, like Parker and many other professionals, don’t care for the branding, but you can’t fight city hall. When I spoke to other career commentators, I was surprised to hear how many of them disagreed with their given label.
When interviewing Parker for my book, I learned she left a dysfunctional childhood behind as a very young woman, and made her own way in the writing world. If anything was “handed to her” it was the public perception that her prom queen looks opened all the doors with ease. Not true if one delves into her personal story.
Neophytes, take note. When false information is posted, a writer’s credibility is called into question, so get it right! Another tenet among professional columnists: Don’t use a platform to settle personal scores. The Gawker bashing comes across like “she hurt my feelings once.”
Spotlight corruption? Yes! Shed light on truths that will liberate, inspire, or educate others? Yes! Ridicule and tear down for self-righteous fun? It’s the stuff of gossip rags but not for the serious journalist or columnist.
Some possess career longevity for good reason, whether you love or despise the columnist. A reader may hate her opinion or disagree with vigor, but will respect how the writer reached a conclusion because the facts and the thought process make it clear. Readers want to learn something about the world, as in “I didn’t know that!” Increasingly, hacks apply that concept to other people’s sex lives or mistakes any of us could have made. There’s a sense of disappointed deification as in, “Oh, this person is so great, how could she have done that?”
I once heard, “Big-minded people talk about ideas. Small-minded people talk about other people.”
In my book, I also feature Ellen Goodman, who talked about what she called “food fight journalism,” and the iconic columnist said, “If you write from a narrow, pretty didactic point of view, you may get a lot of attention — it’s like screaming in a public place — but you probably won’t last a long time. You won’t really have an effect. You’ll only have an effect on the people who already agree with you.”
The serious columnist aims to educate and ideally, to elevate public discourse. So if you build a reputation on tearing down others, then what’s the public value in that? If you belittle another’s work, then show us how to excel by example. Really, stop the screaming. As I say to my little granddaughter, “Use your words.”
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Suzette Martinez Standring is a syndicated columnist and blogger of “Suzette’s Spiritual Cafe” with GateHouse Media. Her new book, The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists, published by RRP International, now is available at bookstores or to order. RRP will be reissuing her previous book, The Art of Column Writing. Standring also is a cable TV show host and writing teacher. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.readsuzette.com.