The demise of the general opinion columnist

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Bernie Sanders handled an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, where he managed to force her to deal with serious issues instead of the superficialities that are her forte. After writing it, it struck me that Dowd had not crossed my mind for a long time. I do not subscribe to the New York Times and never seek out their opinion columnists though once in a while I will read an article if a link comes up to their work that looks interesting. It has been ages since I came across any mention of Dowd. But she is not alone in being ignored. There was a time when regular opinion column writers like Dowd, David Brooks, George Will, Thomas Friedman, the late Charles Krauthammer, Richard Cohen, and the like would be referred to by others as sages or barometers of some issue. Now they seem to be largely ignored.

One can understand why. All these people are generalists who opine about pretty much anything that catches their fancy. They do not have any specific area of expertise (Paul Krugman is an exception in that he is an accomplished economist) but presumably are thought to be people whose thoughts on any and all issues are worth listening to. But the reason that were granted that level of credibility is that major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post granted them valuable space in their pages on a regular basis and thus conferred on them the aura of being oracles who could explain to the great unwashed masses the meaning and significance of the news of the day.

But in the days of the internet that provides a platform for pretty much anyone, why read the views of generalists when there are plenty of people with expert knowledge in an area whom one can turn to? What can generalist op-ed writers provide that makes them worth seeking out more than (say) the average blogger? The only thing they have is possibly access to political people, like the way that Dowd scored a lunch with Sanders. But that hardly makes reading them worthwhile since news reporters can do the same. The fact that there are so few references and links to their pieces these days suggests that more and more people are tuning them out.

It may be only a matter of time before the regular newspaper op-ed columnist, who has dedicated space two or three times a week to write about anything that they fancy, disappears, to be replaced by freelancers with expertise in specific areas who get commissioned to write articles about topics of the day about which they actually have deep knowledge.


  1. Matt G says

    I remember when David Brooks first came to the New York Times. His articles were notable for the comments section, where it was conclusive demonstrated that his readers are more intelligent than he.

  2. says

    All these people are generalists who opine about pretty much anything that catches their fancy.

    Bloggers with a bigger blog. Generalists can be useful for strategic analysis but complicated issues are for domain experts.

  3. says

    Part of the reason we tend to look for anointed generalists is because it’s hard to immediately tell if a specialist is bought or wrong. For example, Andrew Wakefield might appear to be an expert in autism, if you don’t research him a bit. That’s the problem: you really can’t trust any spokesperson. In my parents’ day many people trusted Walter Cronkite, but arguably by toeing the government line, Cronkite helped prolong the Vietnam war. Yet, when he began describing it critically, a lot of people re-assessed what was going on.

    Many years ago I learned a cognitive trick, which is to ask myself and others “how did you form that opinion?” Sometimes you think “oh, I got it whole cloth from Andrew Wakefield. Time to fact-check myself.” This can get time-consuming if you are updating your beliefs because you’re reading Howard Zinn.

  4. machintelligence says

    I remember the radio commentator Paul Harvey. I knew the Vietnam war was about over when he finally came out against it.

  5. says

    I think one of the positive aspects of social media is that we can now hear all the people saying the emperor has no clothes. That, and it’s one thing when these people would pontificate in the papers but being online has shown how really empty they are. Everyone saw Bret Stephens for who he really is, and that he is still writing columns and is still being invited to be a pundit on television just further demonstrates how seriously we should take opinion columns.

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