The death of Joseph Kraft, one of the republic's preeminent political columnists, occasions some reflections on the present low estate of what hitherto had been an august journalistic form, the syndicated political column.
As a columnist, Kraft was an intense writer whose approach to public affairs was intellectual and vigorous. He combined learning with rigor to explicate political issues in an interesting way. He was a liberal and, by my lights, wrongheaded, but I always looked forward to reading his knowledgeable and carefully argued columns.
There are not many surviving political columnists whose work I look forward to, and it appears that readers share my lack of interest. Many syndicate executives do too. They are more intent on signing on columns concerned with the mysteries of gardening and interior decorating than columns concerned with the great game of politics.
Political columns do not sell terribly well unless the columnist is already famous -- literary skill is secondary. The problem with political columnists, according to one of the brightest syndicate executives in the business, is that most are stupendously uninteresting, irrelevant, predictable and -- as for their knowledge of the issues -- superficial.
Part of the problem is that American journalism has become monotonous. It wants to offend as few people as possible. In a nation abounding with diversity and bustle, American newspapers have become standardized and vapid.
Contemporary journalism is to the journalism of 50 years ago what Muzak is to real music. The comparison is apt on other grounds too; there are editors in this country who believe in their heart of hearts that their finest and most profitable service to the community is to assist the citizenry at the grocery store. Some of a newspaper's best customers buy it solely for grocery ads, and no daring opinions expressed elsewhere in the newspaper should discomfort this hungry clientele.
The only place in a contemporary newspaper where the reader will consistently find controversy and uninhibited expression is on the life-style page. Ann Landers and her colleagues deal with hotter stuff than any political columnist sermonizing on the op-ed page, and they do it with brass and amusement. The reason for this, I suppose, is that the "style" pages of the country are less governed by political orthodoxy. Many of their editors are essentially concerned with fashion and other nonpolitical matters; hence they are not mortified when a writer heaves off a controversial political or social opinion.
Another reason is that the editorial page editors are frequently more devoted to community relations than to conveying news and ideas. They see themselves as plenipotentiaries from the paper to local groups: real estate agents, an ad hoc committee opposing the local hamburger stand's golden arches, the nearby community of expatriate Eskimos. They do not want to rile folks up. Angry letters to the editor are too distressing to bear.
Many political columnists do not want to rile folks up either. They want to be admired and led. They recognize that in most media there is a reigning liberal orthodoxy, and they follow its pieties. They favor the poor. They oppose oppression. They are foursquare for peace, disarmament and understanding. These are the tough cases they champion, and the result is a drone of political commentary that is soporifically monotonous. After all, who opposes the pundits on these matters? If American political columnists became any tamer there would be no need for the First Amendment.
In fact, syndicated columnists have no need of the First Amendment. They are not likely to speak freely anway. Even the staid British express themselves more boldly, and in Britain journalists are up against libel threats all the time. Moreover, they write more carefully and they are not prudish about scolding each other. In America if a pundit pauses to mention a colleague it is only to compliment him and always with the tacit understanding that the compliment will someday be reciprocated. Only in a blue moon will a columnist ever file a judgment that a colleague is an ignoramus or sleeps with his hat on. The result is a journalism that is not only monotonous politically but also devoid of personality.
Can anything be done about the tedium of political punditry? I am not optimistic. The reigning orthodoxy sees every other point of view as idiotic and possibly immoral. The growth of the conservative view is ignored for the sake of public decency. But somehow some personality must seep into our art. Let us not only compliment our colleagues; let us also castigate them.