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The Stepford pages: Get the op-ed off the assembly line.

The op-ed page is a bore.

As an occasional contributor of columns to newspapers and a regular reader of my colleagues in the racket of professing opinions, I confess that I find the contents of the op-ed page lacking in both emotional appeal and rational argument. Most of the work published in this form, even by amateurs who have not had the benefit of a ghostwriter or expert editor, suffers from a mechanical approach.

The formula is as follows: If the writer is already famous, then the column simply opens with the trademark style, whether that be the classical quotation, the rhetorical question, or the one-liner. If he or she is not famous, then the column must establish authority through impressive credentials or a personal experience.

The remainder of the standardized 750 words introduces a few facts about some current crisis. The bulk of the piece considers pros and cons of different options. The conclusion suggests a tentative resolution as the best choice.

The majority of readers probably could not distinguish between editorials, opinion columns, and letters to the editor. They can be summed up as "Yadda yadda yadda."

They differ only in their source and the remuneration given to the author. The anonymous institutional voices are paid a salary to speak for the paper itself; the syndicated types earn their keep on commission and represent themselves; and the community leaders and general public are earnest and unpaid.

Lately, the profession has talked about "civic journalism," with noble aspirations of the Fourth Estate's leading public discourse on great ideas. The word "discourse" is repeated as if it were actually used in discourse. The term "civic journalism" sounds positive. It has few detractors - just reporters who wish to be perpetually pessimistic - but even so it remains so vague as to be meaningless.

Instead of being "civic" in the sense of being civil, I propose that we try to be "civic" by engaging in the vigorous debate that is representative democracy in action. That is the responsibility the press should recognize for itself.

The problem is that most writers strive so diligently to be the voice of moderation that they speak mediocrity. The limits of length and a required ninth-grade reading level allow general appeals to common sense. They force us to sound more or less the same despite our considerable differences.

There are few surprises. There are talking heads - metaphorical disembodiment of thinkers represents their detachment of their ideas - but not much substance.

I would welcome reading an occasional crank in the mainstream media. Every now and then, we should hear from an astrologer, a creationist, a fiat-Earther, the UFO-ologist and the religious zealot, the conspiracy theorist and gold-standard advocate, the libertarian ideologue and his leftist counterpart, a sexist prude and a lesbian radical, even the Holocaust denier and the white supremacist.

We should give these folks a voice in order to engage them and not merely for novelty's sake. We know from endless surveys that many among us already are followers of their message. The rest of us ought to be exposed to these thoughts.

We can either be converted or confirm for ourselves that some people will believe just about anything. The dozens of specialized magazines and Internet Web sites devoted to this unusual cause or that obscure obsession offer the same discussions over and over. Extremists become dangerous in their isolation.

We also must continue to participate in dialogue. We are confused by the First Amendment, which may as well be a luxury rather than a right for our abuse of it. We mistake the notion that everyone has a right to speech with the notion that everyone is right in that speech. Because everyone is entitled to his or her viewpoint, it is hardly worth the bother to see through another perspective or look for common ground.

I also would like to see some contemplative essays. We would do well to have an article every day in every newspaper that is not news - something from someone who is not selling anything, not even an idea, but instead a contribution from a historian or a reprint of an inspirational speech.

The busy reader scanning the headlines would enjoy an opportunity to pause. It would be a nice break from the busy day to see a passage from Shakespeare or the Bible, or the Gettysburg Address in full, or an excerpt from a Michel Montaigne or a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay.

I wager that we would read expository essays. Real readers are curious individuals. Many readers would welcome controversy if it were reasoned. If we can have features devoted to horoscopes, coins and stamps, bridge and chess, gardening, advice, and pets, we also should have serious options.

By printing some outrageous op-ed articles every month along with a few profound ones - and who knows whether those might turn out to be the same - newspaper editors would do a service and gain a benefit. The service to the community lies not only in educating but also provoking. The benefit is seeing subscribers interacting with the newspaper as if it mattered, not simply using it as an alternative to reading the cereal box over breakfast every morning.

Otherwise, the electronic alternative will supersede its print predecessor. Perhaps that transition has begun. What is remarkable about online periodicals is their sense of spirit. They are alive; they are communities, rough and imperfect to be sure, but developing more robustly than ink on paper ever could sustain.

Regardless of the medium, we should strive toward an ideal colloquy: all writers being readers and vice versa. As much as participants respect each other, they must respect the process.

Think about it.

Frank H. Wu is an associate professor of law at Howard University and the author of Beyond Black and White (Basic Books). This article originally appeared in the online journal Intellectual Capital (www.intellectual on February 25, 1999.
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Author:Wu, Frank
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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