What is opinion journalism?
Here's what I do for a living
Two years ago one of my oldest daughter's friends asked what her father did for a living. "He listens to records in his office," she confidently replied.
This was not quite an exhaustive description of my duties. From her vantage point as a toddler, she could not distinguish between the physical space and the job usually performed in it. She might just as easily have gotten the impression that I am a professional viewer of Skip and Shannon Undisputed.
How do I make my living, though? If I were asked to give a succinct description of my work (for that, believe it or not, is what writing four or five days a week is) I would say that I am an entertainer and that journalism is simply a form of mass entertainment, like Hollywood or Major League Baseball, albeit one with somewhat lower average earnings potential. My job is to write things that please readers, to amuse, to clarify an inchoate feeling, to elucidate a vexed question, and at least occasionally, I hope, to inspire laughter with 800 or so words. Broadway it ain't. But odder things have been called fun.
I offer this definition in deliberate contrast to the prevailing one, which involves a kind of hypothetical constitutional role for the free press in helping some equally imaginary informed citizenry to think through the great prudential questions of our age. If I believed that this is how journalism, especially opinion journalism, really works, I would have resigned years ago in horror at the idea that I had been assigned any role, even an impossibly benighted one, in shaping the destiny of the American republic.
Which of these is closer to the truth? My instinct is that to say that while there is something to both definitions, the conditions under which the latter obtain are rare even for the most talented writers. (Did H.L. Mencken change the public's mind about a single question?) But even if they were combined, in full knowledge that aiming high is no guarantee of even hitting the rim, they would form only a partial interpretation at best — an attempt to prescribe what, under something like ideal conditions, a columnist's job might involve. If I were asked instead to give a descriptive rather than a prescriptive account of the opinion-having business, to say what it looks like in practice as opposed to what it ought to be, my response would be that I am here to elicit your outrage.
This admittedly rather sordid activity can take two basic forms. The first involves writing things that call attention to real or perceived injustices, which gives rise to what readers will fondly suppose is righteous anger. The second requires me to write more or less the same piece and wait for it to reach a very different set of readers, who become indignant because they are as convinced of my fecklessness and ignorance as the others are of my sagacity. Because I write on the internet, both kinds of readers share what I have said with others on social media, who either agree or disagree with their implicit assessment of my mental (and no doubt spiritual) capabilities, which in turn gives rise to another round of recriminations. Rinse and repeat.
I am happy to admit that the first two accounts of opinion writing are somewhat pollyannish. But I think that the third one, which best describes the actual opinion journalism that exists in this country right now and the means by which we are conditioned to respond to it, is actively dangerous, so dangerous that it is ultimately incompatible with the ends presupposed by either of the former accounts and, in the long run, with democratic self-government itself, and the various accounts of "the good life" apparently guaranteed by such a system.
This is true for two related reasons. The first is that a society that has made outrage its primary mode of communication is incapable of being entertained, moved, or, perhaps worst of all, teased. (This reality is not immediately obvious, least of all to the outraged themselves, who mistake the dopamine hit of a fave for all of the aforementioned feelings.) The second is that those questions — about taxation, infrastructure, the provision of medical care, the environment, foreign policy — that a free press is meant to help adjudicate have a tendency to disappear from view, unmissed, while I issue my fourth superlative in as many hundred words about a politician's unimportant speech and you and your former coworker argue about whose basic fitness for the human race is called into question by his attitude toward what I have written (and will forget about tomorrow).
There is a very real sense in which this transformation has already taken place. The underlying structural realities in American society are remarkably impervious to change, and increasingly the only important question, I think, is how soon it will be before both of our major political parties decide that a basic income scheme will absolve them of their responsibilities. Certainly it is difficult to imagine a world in which the share prices of various corporations do not continue to increase at an acceptable rate, in which we do not continue to purchase cheap consumer goods made by wage slaves and a dizzying number of "services," in which, in addition to not taking drugs or spending billions of collective hours enjoying various crass forms of entertainment, we do not occasionally indulge in what amounts to gossip about insignificant events that we dignify with the name of "politics." In this country as it is likely to exist for the foreseeable future the actual underlying objects of opinion columns — the unlikely passage of certain pieces of legislation, the umpteenth development in the latest meta-scandal — become irrelevant except insofar as they allow the rest of the machine to function. They are a means to an end, like the horses in a numbers racket.
In saying the above, I realize that I am inviting all of those things that I have apparently taken such pains to decry. While some of you are nodding along at the folly of your fellow indiscriminate partakers at the outrage banquet, others are no doubt already taking offense at what you have decided is my unwarranted implication that you, somehow uniquely, are susceptible to this pattern. There is probably no better illustration of the futility of this endeavor. (Actually there is: in the time it took me to compose the above paragraphs, Hasbro's decision to replace Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head with an intersex vegetable companion for toddlers occasioned dozens of articles and goodness knows how many hundreds of thousands of words on social media before the company announced that nothing of the kind was taking place. This was greeted by some social conservatives as one of their greatest victories in recent years.)
But it is precisely by acknowledging such difficulties that I hope we can forestall some of the worst consequences of our present situation. There are, as far as I can tell, two things that must change. Opinion columnists must write with some end in mind that is not outrage, including that of the shared variety, which will mean ignoring a great deal of that which seems genuinely to demand it. Readers, meanwhile, must respond to what the former have written, if at all, with carefully considered, good-faith criticism or a simple shake of the head. (For either of these to take place, social media will very likely have to play a role in journalism very different from its present one, in which it exists primarily as both the source of and the destination for so much of our pointless anger.)
And finally, there must be some space, perhaps one far away from the internet (or at least the internet as it is currently conceived) in which there is simply no room for outrage of any kind. There must be some way of writing and some attitude toward what used to be called "the reading life" that keeps old hacks like this one gainfully employed and readers like you satisfied with what you have (hopefully) paid for that does not leave you and me and the rest of the country looking for meaning in the emptiness of an all-consuming object-less wrath. Instead, we must find a way to share what we think — for it must ultimately be a two-way street — about presidents and senators and HHS bureaucrats and policies and campaigns that allows us to remember that (in the words with which I always intended to end my last regular column for this website) "we must love one another or die."