American Culture

Stances with Wolves

The following is my president’s column for the February 2011 edition of the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Columnists get labeled as opinionated. This was brought home again after the Tucson shooting. Americans saw on the air and online — come on, paper? — as many pundits as politicians (and rarely people with facts, like FBI spokesmen).

The funny thing is, few NSNC members are op-eddies. The society often honors political commentators, and their sessions are popular at our conferences, but rather few of us run on op-ed pages. We’re feature and metro, humor and kitchen-table writers. We have different ways of shouting to the world, “Look at me!”

Sheila Moss, the NSNC Web editor, in late January posted on Facebook a link to her 17-column series on Egypt from when she traveled there a year ago. She wrote of her collection, “It was not political nor intended to be. Yet, the basic elements of what the protestors want were apparent and are even more so in retrospect. I hope for the safety of the friendly Egyptian people who made us feel so welcome.”

She’s not presuming more than she thinks she knows. She was in the nation long enough to speak at least as knowledgeably as a number of op-eddies in the U.S. have been since the protests began in earnest in Cairo and Suez.

What I’d claim is we all do have opinions, personally and over the keyboard. Sometimes we are called to choose to defend them. We often defer, as bombast is not a home skill. But sometimes it’s best to cowboy up and hop on your camel.

I enjoy propounding opinions, but sense and health insurance compel me to hold back. My column since 2003 has been the blog Brick. It’s fully separate from my newspaper employer, which only ever has asked that I refrain from candidate endorsements. The last time I heard from any big cheese was in 2006. I had written that a Democratic candidate was marginally less qualified than the barely competent Republican. He agreed that was not really an endorsement, but I got the message. I do essay a few opinions on issues, but with great care and so far have not heard from any corner office. The diligence probably makes them better columns.

Away from the keyboard, though not far, is how I see myself as NSNC president: amiable, conciliatory, compromising. For the first six months in office, NSNC members would agree. Now, I’m steering through tougher decisions. While it’s the 15-member board that sets and executes policy, I set the tone. That’s my mug atop the monthly President’s Column.

We want the society to thrive in this time of mass media uncertainty, and the choices we need to make — well, could anyone disagree? Yes, it turns out. I accept the responsibility still. The buck stops here, yada yada yada, although if the NSNC had more doe, fewer antlers would be locked.

Casual life, though, tends toward conciliation. A month after I joined Facebook a couple of years ago, I posted a question, “Why is everyone so nice, upbeat and sunny, on Facebook?” The answers were similar: Everyone wants to get along. Don’t want your wall messages “hidden” or worse be “removed” from a friend’s list, do you? Course not.

I can be happy-go-lucky only about 85 percent of the time. As far as I can tell, only one friend has cut me from his Facebook list. He wrote me first, explaining he finally realized that I don’t toe the liberal line. I’ve dropped two rascals, not for disagreement but dishonesty.

This column could conclude advising we easygoing NSNC members to “go Braveheart.” Nope. Day in day out we need to follow our own best judgment in our personal, professional and creative lives. I’m not even saying, “Choose your battles,” though that has been working for me.

While drafting this column I recalled a list from a long time ago. It took four days to find it though vivid in memory. Written by fountain pen, blue-black ink on a green index card — I had studied 12 months of my humor columns, trying to figure out what worked, to improve future pieces. It was late at night, on a cheap desk in my favorite bachelor’s apartment, half of the ground floor of a 1920s red-brick Craftsman house, dubbed the Bengalow.

Tuesday 6 June 1989. What the columns I like best usually have in common:

1. Concern things that I observed, participated in (or reported), even if in the column the event gets modified or exaggerated.

2. I have a strong opinion on the event or subject.

3. Column has a strong visual element, a scene, a word picture that the reader takes from the piece.

Item No. 1 not always the case. Nos. 2 & 3 are.”

Consider Sheila’s Egypt series. Its “Frequently Asked Questions” piece in particular nails that old list.

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