Columnists Talk Shop
By Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
Director of Media
No matter which political camp you stood in this past year you were bound to take a hit on your stance. Many felt disillusioned. Readers no longer knew whom to trust and fake news seemed to be peaking just when it mattered most. It’s no secret the industry is evolving and struggling in that evolution. Now, more than ever, we need to lift our profession.
Columnist and “The White House Chronicle” executive producer and host for PBS Llewellyn King says a “golden period” existed in journalism where there was an attempt to be fair and to report both sides. “There was a balance in the newspapers which is eroding… has eroded.” This erosion has encouraged suspicion of the media.
The irony is that we only know of hostility towards mainstream media because we’re reporting it. “There is no source of information to the public except through journalism,” says King and columnists are a different breed. The opinion section of a newspaper, according to King, is like “a newspaper within the newspaper.” Columnists are not accountable to either side of politics. “The role of the columnist,” King says, “is to bear witness and provoke thought.” He considers us to be a bit like politicians. “People rail against the political establishment (whatever it is) and then often re-elect the same people,” says King. “It’s like how people will rail against us but keep reading us. That’s our re-election.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and Professor-in-Residence at Kent State University Connie Schultz considers columnists to be leaders. “We have to be leaders,” she says. “Faster, sooner and more rigorously than the people around us we have to figure out what comes next.” She believes we cannot just rely on politicians for that. “And I say that as the wife of a United States Senator,” she stresses, referring to Sherrod Brown. “As columnists, we cannot ignore politics if we’re going to be engaged at all in the world at large.”
Schultz believes that quality journalism is fundamental in writing our opinions. “I would argue that what we need more than ever are strong columnists who rely a great deal on reporting and really know how to land with their opinions.” She says, “A good columnist anticipates the counterargument and takes care of it, addresses it.”
Syndicated humor columnist and English Professor at the University of Connecticut Gina Barreca agrees. “Having an opinion does not make you an informed writer,” she says.
With the rise of fake news it is absolutely essential that we be informed writers and point out lies. However, Schultz cautions, “when we respond to this information, what we have to be careful about is mocking others. We can do it with humor if we want — how crazy it is — but we can’t just mock entire groups of people. Do what as columnists at our best can do.” The high road is made of informed people challenging ideas, not attacking people.
Barreca, a New York Friars Club member, understands the power of humor well. She says, “You occupy the role and your voice might be heard because it’s sharper, funnier, quicker or more recognizable, but the point is to help others find their own voices and versions of events. You’re not there to have the last word or the best solution; you’re there to open up the conversation.”
A columnist’s words must go beyond their wit. King says, “If you can write a column and get any one person to know something they didn’t know before then you’ve probably won. They may not necessarily absorb the whole idea but they will at least think about them.”
That’s the magic we perform as columnists. We share information, add some perspective and spark conversations.