Is it about the message or the messenger?
Wednesday, 11 December 2013 12:44

by Steve Matrazzo

This week’s By the People, located on page 8, leads off with a letter from former Dundalkian Scott McWilliams, who took issue with my Nov. 28 column. He managed to find the most complimentary possible way of disagreeing with my commentary, and he raised a thought-provoking point:
    “I find it interesting when journalists feel entitled to offer an opinion ... even though they have never done [the things on which they’re opining].”
    It’s a familiar notion; don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, etc. The same thing can look very different to people viewing it from different perspectives, with different interests and histories.
    The brief subsequent exchange I had with Mr. McWilliams was stimulating, and it squared nicely with a few other matters that crossed my view in roughly the same time window.
  

One was the Dec. 3 item on Gawker.com, “What’s Wrong With America’s Newspaper Opinion Columnists in One Chart,” by Sarah Hedgecock. In it, she noted that columnists, especially those writing for high-profile outlets, tend to have certain demographic traits:
    “Why are newspaper opinion columnists so consistently baffled by the politics, technologies, and social mores of the 21st century? [W]e’ve figured out the answer: They’re old as hell .... [I]f you’re staffing your back pages with almost all veterans, you’re missing out on a wide swath of important perspectives.”
    [Cue the Logan’s Run references ....]
    She reported that the average age of columnists for major publications and syndication services hovers around 60, and went on to note that columnists skew strongly male and white as well. She offered a valid argument that such demographic uniformity carries with it a certain unhealthy uniformity of perspective. After all, the only shoes in which those columnists have walked a mile are their own, right?
    The piece generated considerable reaction, with many Gawker commenters agreeing with Hedgecock’s assessment, but others pointing out that journalists generally work for years to earn the privilege of writing a column. Thus, it was noted, the ranks of columnists are bound to skew old, and are likely to remain tilted toward white males until the [fortunately] growing numbers of women and minorities come into seniority in greater numbers.
    [One opined that demographics aren’t the real problem, noting that “they are all writers. Writers in general are pretty detached from reality.” Ouch.]
    Other outlets, too, had plenty to say. Chris O’Shea of New York-based online outlet Fishbowl NY noted that “older people have this thing called experience. This is why they get columns. Sure, some .... are out of touch. But guess what? There are a lot of idiot twentysomethings too .... No one wants a world where only old guys pen columns. But they certainly don’t want a world where only Gawker-aged writers do either.”
    Not surprisingly, the topic made its way into discussions within the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers), a professional group of which I am a member.
    There was, of course, widespread recognition of diversity as a worthwhile goal, but Gary Crooks of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., raised the question of just what constitutes “diversity”:
    “One characteristic being overlooked is income level. Columnists are middle-class on up. How many are poor? How many know what that’s like? There isn’t economic diversity. So does that mean there is a hole in coverage/perspective? That seems to be the argument when it comes to other characteristics. [The Gawker piece] wouldn’t touch this. It would give us more diversity within the same economic class.”

    Joanne Bamberger, editor-publisher of The Broad Side, a current events-commentary site focusing on female writers, added:
    “Economic diversity is such a big topic that is often ignored …. I’ve gotten my head handed to me for daring to suggest that those of us who had to work our way through college – or didn’t go to college – have a different perspective on certain issues.”
    Philadelphia Inquirer
editorial page editor Harold Jackson, who told me he used to bring his son to Dundalk for baseball camp – “many moons ago” – crystallized the matter well: “Opinions result from experience; experiences matter.”
    It’s certainly true, and it seems to dovetail with the recent release of  White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making, by Nicholas Carnes,  published by the University of Chicago Press and noting the consequences of a government virtually devoid of people who have any significant working-class experience.
    “[A] background in business or law is the norm and the average member  [of Congress] has spent less than two percent of his or her adult life in a working-class job,” the book’s web page noted.
    It might also seem to line up with the perspective of an editor/columnist who spent 20 years as a blue-collar worker before entering journalism.
    I consider my background to be a critical asset, giving me a perspective and a frame of reference that I wouldn’t otherwise have.  But — I don’t see it as a “qualification” that makes me any more or less fit to write commentary than anyone else.
    In the end, the essence of this job is not mere opinion, but insight — giving information, analysis and perspective on a topic, and doing so with at least some measure of eloquence. The ability to do that is not subject to any demographic measure.
    Either I can deliver the goods — providing insight and provoking thought — or I can’t. Simple as that.
    And the measure of it will always be on the page — not in my c.v.
    Freelancer Abigail R. Esman ultimately hit the nail on the head:
    “The whole demographics issue remains a total straw man. Good opinion writing comes from people with intelligent, informed and carefully-measured insights into the issues, and the ability to craft their ideas in clear, articulate, and — gasp — well-constructed sentences.  Period.
    By the way, I got a good laugh out of Eagle associate editor Bill Gates when he asked what “c.v.” means; it stands for “curriculum vitae,” which is a foreign-language term for .... résumé.