A field guide to the op-ed war zone.
Test your wits with this riddle.
What's short but not stunted, learned but not pedantic, brisk though not rushed, clear yet not over-simple, argumentative while not whining, and memorably phrased without being glib?
It's the ideal op-ed piece, of course.
Because its readers are usually well-informed, hurried, and opinionated themselves, the op-ed page must be the light cavalry of literary forms, an 800-word argument striking quickly and sharply.
The military metaphor is not off target. For since Aristotle, the Clausewitz of dialectic, rhetoricians have depicted argument as a military exercise - attacking the audience's mind to capture its agreement.
With these thoughts in mind while teaching a course in op-ed writing, I foraged for a way to classify its types. Required reading included The Conservative Chronicle and Liberal Opinion Week. Together the papers were a battlefield to observe strategies and to set models for regular weekly writing of a piece and two analyses of professional pieces.
Reconnoitering the two tabloids, I mapped out the following classification of op-ed types, each defined where the trajectories of subject, tone, and purpose cross.
* The reconnaissance piece. Here's the survey, either a round-up of examples illustrating a point or a map of related issues. It's what you're reading now.
* The intelligence piece. This type either decodes or probes an issue. Analytical depth is its insignia. Its chief practitioners are George Will and Bill Safire, William Pfaff and David Broder.
* The barrage. With metaphors exploding, here's the all-out attack on a policy or value. Its Pattons are John Leo and Pat Buchanan, Anthony Lewis and Alexander Cockburn.
* The siege. This is a relentless series of barrages, for example Samuel Francis on immigration, Brent Bozell on the liberal media, or Carl Rowan on NAACP leadership.
* The sharpshooter. The sharpshooter pots an individual. Wes Pruden on President Clinton and Molly Ivins on Senator Gramm are the aces in the field. This type validates Mencken's comment that "I believe that people like to read abuse."
* The beachhead piece. With little chance for immediate policy change, this type nevertheless lands the opinion in the reader's mind. I think of William Buckley on the legalization of marijuana, Ed Koch on mind control to stigmatize drug use, Michael Levin on the just use of torture, and (painfully) of a piece of mine on halving a bicameral legislature in Maryland.
* The redirected fire piece. A subtype of the barrage and the intelligence piece, it focuses attention on the "true" or "important" issue as distinct from common wisdom. Used by virtually every columnist, its most familiar line reads, "But the real point is . . . ."
* The Reveille piece. Less reverently, it's the Chicken Little piece. A wake-up call, it argues for readiness, usually out of fear for what might come. Take your pick of any conservative or liberal columnist on the Second Amendment.
* The Purple Heart piece. The succor-in-the-ranks corps, this type argues for the "victims" of life. Clarence Page, Christopher Matthews, and Bob Herbert command here. One platoon is the sympathy-for-the-woman piece, head nurse Ellen Goodman.
* The Taps piece. This is the tribute to a dead person, an obituary deployed on the op-ed page. Ron Brown and Jessica Dubroff were the subjects of recent Taps.
* The salute. Anti-type of the sharpshooter piece, this is a tribute to a living hero of the columnist.
* The memorial. An anniversary piece arguing the importance or relevance of a historical person or event.
* The by-the-book piece. In this type the columnist uses an important book or article either to bugle its message or to launch an opinion from it, thus informing and persuading simultaneously.
Whatever the type, they all rally 'round the flag flying Epictetus's dictum, "It is not actions but opinions concerning actions, that most irritate men."
Or, while everyone has a right to an opinion, not every opinion is right. But one certainly is: The op-ed page is a war zone.
H. George Hahn is professor of English at Towson State University and editor of the U.S. Navy League's All Ahead Full. He has published many op-ed pieces in metro dailies.
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|Title Annotation:||opinion-editorial page|
|Author:||Hahn, H. George, II|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1996|
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