Commentary That Provokes

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Provocative commentary is integral to a newspaper's obligation to readers. But it often hits just the wrong nerve. Those visceral reactions are still on my agenda.

Readers continue to vent about fashion editor Robin Givhan's commentary on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's hint of cleavage -- and my column last Sunday about it. Mail is still coming in about an op-ed by Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. And some readers didn't like a piece by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Hezbollah supporter, that was included in OnFaith, a feature that also runs Saturdays on the Religion pages. Gail Freedman of Minneapolis put it this way: "Once again, your news organization has given a soapbox to terror."

The purpose of commentary -- whether by journalists or not -- is not only to let writers press a point of view but also to stimulate independent thought in readers. The best opinion columns are supported by reporting, facts and cogent arguments and give honest credence to opposing arguments. They are written by men and women with credentials. To bring up a sore point, Givhan has such credentials. While not journalists, so did the Muslim writers.

Though it may sound holier than thou, journalists feel they have a high calling to challenge the status quo through reporting and opinion; it is an important part of shaping debates and the social agenda, as well as defining popular culture. Commentaries are not meant to tell readers what to believe, though readers often take them that way -- and many readers don't appreciate commentary unless they agree with it.

Bill Kovach, a longtime editor, former Nieman Foundation curator and journalism guru, put it this way: "It's the very reason we exist -- to provoke people to think of other possible ways to interpret facts and culture. If journalists don't provoke people to be skeptical, to ask questions, then a truly informed democratic society won't happen."

In these days of talk radio, cable television and blogs, newspapers are still pretty tame. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said, "The new media are all much edgier and abrasive in language and tone. To rise above the din, [newspapers] have to be pungent to be noticed." He sees this as a "time of uncomfortable transition," to a world in which newspapers will have less of an institutional voice and individual voices will be more important.

If columnists aren't interesting and provocative, they won't be read. No newspaper wants to receive thousands of protests, but that is not as serious a problem as having readers turned off by dullness. A provocative commentary that might result in protests will win every time over a ho-hum column that readers would pass right over. Few readers seemed to pass over Givhan's piece on Clinton.

This past week, some readers questioned whether Givhan had been "set up." One reader wrote: "[Givhan] was astute to notice out-of-character attire, and the Clinton campaign was banking on someone taking note of it." Ann Lewis, senior adviser to Clinton, laughed at that and said, "It was not on anyone's radar."

Givhan's fans also weighed in. Jean Farmer of Glen Allen, Va., wrote: "I am one woman who totally agrees with Robin Givhan's 'take' on Hillary Clinton's cleavage. . . . I knew immediately where she was coming from and why she was writing about it. Women today have arrived at a place where we can be judged on everything about us -- clothing and cleavage included -- without detracting from what we are as people. What we wear and how we present ourselves are all part of our 'package.' "

Many readers see journalists as highhanded and arrogant, pushing commentary beyond the pale. Readers should protest when they're offended, and many times they have excellent points to make that should be considered or result in further commentary.

As Kovach said, "The saddest thing would be if readers just stopped at their anger and didn't think further about it."

This shows how differently journalists and readers view such commentary: Every woman I talked to in the Post newsroom thought the Givhan column was worth running, even if they quibbled with aspects of it. And I heard no controversy about running the Muslim writers; their articles were seen as important to helping readers understand the points of view of those often labeled as the enemies of the United States.

Editors give great freedom to columnists. If you're the Style editor (or the executive editor), you don't tell a controversial and, yes, pungent, fashion writer what she can't write. Editorial cartoonist Tom Toles drives some readers nuts. But you don't tell a cartoonist as sharp as Toles what to draw. Journalists think Pulitzer Prizes are important (Toles and Givhan have won them), but readers couldn't care less.

Before the Internet, newspaper journalists often felt that their readers couldn't get along without them. Although more people are getting along without newspapers every day, newspaper Web sites are thriving (though not pulling in the revenue newspapers do). In this era of citizen journalism, it's good for us mainstreamers to remember a great line about journalists: "We don't know as much as we think we do, and we're not as important as we think we are."

But if we're not occasionally ticking off readers, we're not doing our job. And, by the way, Givhan will be starting a Sunday column soon.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or

© 2007 The Washington Post Company