Rethinking the Editorial Page/George Will’s Mathematical Obama Drama

This week, lefty blogs have been deploying such deadly partisan weapons as counting and multiplication against some offhand remarks in a recent George Will column. Will, playing to the tired meme that Obama is a self-centered egomaniac, claims in passing that Obama is inordinately fond of the word “I.” And it turns out even high-school level mathematicians can easily expose the idea as pure poppycock, at least comparatively. Just as it once took no less than a telephone and some basic knowledge of climate principles to similarly unravel Will’s previous pronouncements about Arctic Ice.

All well and good. George Will is working in a field (politics) in which the slightest rhetorical flourish is inevitably going to be treated as akin to an assassination attempt on the Archduke of Ferdinand. Step out of line, and there are entire think-tanks devoted to roughing you up. All as it should be.

But the problem is that the repeated roughing doesn’t have any real consequences: Will is one of a treasured few commentators with plumb spots in the most read sections of the funny papers. And there’s a reason “editorial writer” is such a great job: you get paid ridiculous amounts of money to do the easiest thing in the world with far less oversight than say, the guy who makes airplane disaster instruction cards, let alone real journalists. As long as you repeat emotionalized memes in an engaging manner, regardless of their accuracy, you’re going to win the heart of any editorial board looking to fill out their roster with someone clever and with the right partisan reputation.

Does it really have to be this way? In the past, perhaps: conventional newspapers could only feature, promote, and celebrate a couple of contracted, syndicated writers in their stable. There just wasn’t that much real, viable competition for the position of being witty in short form that met the needs of the folks laying out the print pages. The problem with this system, however, is simply the grind: every contracted writer has their off weeks: a column is due on demand but nothing of particular interest has yet occurred to them. So they ramble out lazy talking points and call it a day.

But it’s just not necessary for readers to put up with this anymore. I simply don’t need to subscribe to the New York Times and get a couple of decent William Safire pieces padded out with weeks worth of deadline-inspired mediocrity. I can instead just surf the best of the best, no matter who it happens to be this week, day, minute.

So it’s strange that this insight hasn’t really hit the major dallies: it’s something that could easily liven up even a print-only business’ commentary pages. I’m not saying that columnists need to be replaced entirely, just that there are countless snarky rebuttals from newcomers available for purchase and placement that could often outdo the original product. The blogosphere may be a sort of bargain basement fire-sale of uninformed opinion on the whole, but its big enough to contain plenty of daily gems as well. And so there’s simply no reason why newspapers can’t, in lieu of yet another Maggie Gallagher column that I could have written in my sleep, simply offer to purchase and run with the latest bit of winning insight from any random upcoming blogger. Shop around for the voice of the moment.

Sure, you don’t get the branded bit of fan familiarity that keeps retirement-home viewers coming back to see what Andy Rooney has to say about grocery stores this week. But fewer and fewer people read political opinion in that way anymore: they’re fans of the raucous debate writ-large, discovering and digging new favorite voices everyday. And dumping unreliable or uninformative ones just as quickly. The content is fast and flexible. And there’s no reason why newspapers, endlessly complaining about their tragically declining readership, couldn’t try to take better advantage of it, treat the web like a resource rather than a competitor.

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~ by Drew on 2009/06/10.

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