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Why The Washington Post Op-ed Is So Dull.

From the pulpit of a packed National Cathedral in Washington in late July, mourning orators offered fulgent farewells to Katharine Graham, the ruling power of The Washington Post since the mid-1960s. But one thing the eulogizers--dearest friend Henry Kissinger foremost among them--left unnoted is that Graham presided over one of the dullest op-ed pages in America. It is a sheet of numbing sameness: centrist or rightwing viewpoints, listless writing, and pro-establishment megaphonics. Most of it is produced by ensconced white males day after repetitive day, week after stodgy week. It is a wasted resource. For readers with a yen for a diversity of views or--not to be intellectually greedy--a desire for the offbeat, daring, boat-rocking, or witty, the Post's op-ed page is not the place to look.

The daughter of a lifelong Republican who denounced President Franklin Roosevelt's fiscal policies as irresponsible, Graham wrote in her memoir, "I was and am a centrist."

Such a claim is customarily put forward to create an image of impartiality, that one is agenda-free. Yet centrists are as prone to agenda-pushing as anyone else. In Graham's case, the bents were reflected in the Post's editorials. In the 1980s and 1990s, the paper supported aid to the contras, the nomination of Edwin Meese to be Attorney General, NAFTA, and U.S. military bombings in Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia. Supporters of those issues could rally left-of-center undecideds by saying, "Imagine that, the Post is on our side," when the reality was, "Naturally, the Post is on our side."

The Post tacks left only on the safe liberal issues. It opposes the death penalty. It punches Big Tobacco and the NRA. It favors civil liberties, AIDS research, curbing dogs in Georgetown, and similar toughies. Since the Watergate heydays--marked by the gritty editorial writing of Roger Wilkins and the courageous stewardship of editorial page editor Philip Geyelin--the Post has rarely found an editorial limb it dares go far out on.

In 1977, Katharine Graham explained her centrism: "Papers that want to serve and keep their readership cannot afford to be eccentric or extreme. As Walter Lippmann once remarked to me, a newspaper may be a little to the left of its community, or a little to the right, but it cannot move too far from the center of opinion without alienating its audience and losing readers of the paper--or the editorial page."

This proclamation came near the time that the Post became publicly traded. Shares sold for under $20. Post stock is now around $560 a share, the second richest after Berkshire Hathaway, the corporation of Graham financial mentor Warren Buffett. It also came shortly before Graham fired Geyelin, an open-minded editor who kept the op-ed page available to voices from all sides.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Post's tightly controlled op-ed page mirrored the leanings of Katharine Graham: Be cautious about eccentrics and extremists but print the rightwing Novaks, Wills, and Krauthammers, and embrace the Kissingers and other insiders of power and propriety. For those two decades, Meg Greenfield, a confidante and salon companion of Katharine Graham, ran the paper's op-ed page--or what she liked to call the choicest piece of "real estate" in Washington. As landlord, she commandeered space for herself by habitually reprinting her biweekly Newsweek column at the top of the page.

Apolitical and given over to interminable going-around-in-circles ruminating, Greenfield had a slant on things that was on display in Roger Wilkins's autobiography, A Man's Life (Ox Bow Press, 1991). Shortly after Wilkins joined the Post to write editorials in 1971, he was having lunch with Greenfield, then deputy editor of the editorial page. He told her he "was beginning to explore the women's movement. I asked Meg about it. `I don't know much,' she said. `I'm like you. I've never been a "cause" person.' That was either a serious misreading of me or Meg was gently instructing me in the preferred approach to the work at hand. Other things she mentioned at other times confirmed the latter suspicion. High passions were tolerable foibles in minor associates, but not appropriate for more serious members of the staff, the principal shapers of the Post's opinions." Editorially, Wilkins concluded, the paper was "drifting right." Two years later, he went to The New York Times.

Today, torpor marks the Post's op-ed page.

One measurement of a quality op-ed page is unpredictability: readers turn to it with no guess about who will be there or what will be said. That means a daily offering of diversity in both writers and topics.

This is the trend nationally. Lynnell Burkett, editorial page editor of the San Antonio Express News and an officer of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (NCEW), believes that "if you expect people to read your op-ed page it has to reflect the variety of voices in the community. That means gender diversity, ethnic diversity, and a wide variety of political views."

Fred Fiske, NCEW president and senior editorial writer of The Syracuse Post-Standard, agrees: "In these days when newspaper resources are circumscribed by tight budgets, when editors face even greater constraints on their time because of technology chores and a staffing crunch, the course of least resistance might be to rely more on syndicates and other prepackaged commentary, to give voice mainly to regular contributors.... Seeking out new voices, welcoming ever more diversity, and taking risks with provocative and controversial writers can consume time we don't have and not always produce results. But that's the envelope editorial pages should be pushing. It's a way to lead the community's conversation in new and exciting directions."

The directions taken by The Washington Post's op-ed page are old and tedious. In a recent three-month span--May, June, and July of this year--424 columns appeared. Only twenty-six were by women. In May, nine out of 141 columns were by women. June had twenty-one days of op-eds exclusively by males. July saw eleven days with a female byline, except that three were co-written with men. The Post buys the columns of several women Ellen Goodman, Molly Ivins, Geneva Overholser--but they do not appear often. In ninety-two days, Goodman ran four times, Ivins once, and Overholser not at all. Blacks and Hispanics were equally shorted. Writing by minorities outside the Post's two in-house black op-ed columnists appeared only occasionally. These included Albert Wynn, a Maryland Congressman, Ruben Navarrette Jr., a Dallas Morning News writer, and, for some flavoring from the East, the Dalai Lama.

Among the nation's major dailies, the Post has the most locked-in op-ed page. Like a Capitol Hill restaurant catering to elite regulars, space is automatically reserved for a few management favorites. Most Sundays, those given tables are David Broder, Jim Hoagland, David Ignatius, and George Will. Only one seat is filled by an outsider. During the thirteen Sundays of May, June, and July when sixty-two columns ran, forty-four went to the Favored Four. Among the remaining eighteen, two were blacks--one the Secretary of Education, the other from the New America Foundation. None were women or Hispanic.

From Monday through Saturday, other regulars dominate: Robert Novak, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Kelly, Robert Samuelson, E. J. Dionne, Jr., Richard Cohen, Michael Kinsley, and William Raspberry.

Novak is the willing knee dummy for any rightwing ventriloquist needing a mindless mouth,

Krauthammer and Kelly are nasty neo-cons who write as if meanspiritedness equals brightness.

Samuelson is a one-note berater of the left--on the days when he isn't writing cluelessly about economics.

Dionne, Cohen, and Kinsley are anemic liberals with seldom an emphasis that might be noticed. Of the three, only Kinsley writes with wit. Dionne specializes in sleep-inducing prose, while Cohen's specialty is Cohen. In a June column, he referred to himself five times in the first four sentences: "I am," "I eschew," "I would," "I have," "I will." As the summer rolled on, the egomania worsened. On August 3, the first eight sentences of his column had fifteen first-person singulars, and one sentence had four.

Raspberry, meanwhile, specializes in commenting on reports that task forces, foundations, institutes, and professors happily feed him.

After they all have their say--regardless of whether or not it is compelling--the Post's op-ed page becomes a bulletin board for establishment heavies whose columns read like memos shared among the good old boys. Once again, rightists and centrists dominated during the three-month period: Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Alexander Haig, Zbigniew Brzezinski, R. James Woolsey, William Bennett, William Kristol, Robert Bork, Robert Kagan, Colin Powell, Samuel Berger, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Bill Gates Sr., assorted formers (former assistant secretaries, former Senators, former White House press aides), and, last but definitely least, think-tankers.

Only rarely during those three months did anyone from the left break those ranks: Representative John Lewis, Robert Borosage, Dianna Ortiz (the Catholic sister tortured in Guatemala), Robert Kuttner, and a scattered few others. Fifty or so rightwingers and centrists to every lefty: That's balance.

If diversity is limited among the Post's opinion writers, so also are topics. Nothing was written about Vieques. Nothing on the wars in Africa. Nothing on conditions in U.S. prisons. Nothing on corporate wrongdoing. Nothing on U.S. arms sales abroad. Nothing on the nation's number one health problem, heart disease. Nothing on domestic violence, the leading cause of injury among American women. Nothing on the effects of alleged welfare reform on poor people. Nothing on the death toll in Iraq due to economic sanctions. Nothing on health and safety issues affecting workers. Nothing on the poverty of Native Americans or their current trust fund lawsuit against the federal government.

This selectivity brings to mind an article by former Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz, which ran in the Summer 2000 issue of the Nieman Reports magazine. The article, "The Sound You Hear Is Silence," was based on queries to 124 editorial writers, columnists, and commentators on what they said about corporate crime or misconduct in the previous decade. Mintz concluded: "Year after year after year, leading mainstream opinion-shapers shun the subject. Moreover, they generally prefer not to admit the shunning. It's fleedom of the press.... It's a rare day in 3,650 days when the national media expose Americans to opinions on corporate wrongdoing."

Should doubts persist about Post favoritism, there is the monthly Henry Kissinger column. The former warlord, now the president of Kissinger Associates, is given as much as 40 to 50 percent of the op-ed page to instruct those of lesser intelligence--i.e., the public--on how to keep America mighty. At 1,500 to 2,000-plus words a column, it's to be wondered whether any Post editor dares tell The Great One that a syllable here and there needs chopping.

Oddly, while the op-ed page languishes, much of the rest of the paper is a showcase for journalism ranging from first-class to world-class. There is the investigative reporting of Sari Horwitz, the criticism of Tom Shales and Tim Page, Mary McGrory, the Metro columns of Courtland Milloy, Bob Levey, and Marc Fisher, and the obituary writing of Claudia Levy and Adam Bernstein.

Why can't the op-ed page also distinguish itself?

The current overseer of the Post op-ed page is Fred Hiatt. In his mid-forties, and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, he came to the paper in 1981. After covering the Pentagon and writing from Japan and Moscow, Hiatt was brought to the editorial and op-ed pages by Greenfield in 1996. Publisher Donald Graham, Katharine's son, installed Hiatt four months after Greenfield's 1999 death and proceeded to dash anyone's hopes that diversity, liveliness, and unpredictability might come to the op-ed page: "Fred's journalistic values and standards are of the same type as Meg Greenfield's, and that's the best type there is," Graham wrote. "Post editorial policy is not going to change."

Hiatt, who chimed in with his inaugural comments that included "a belief in capitalism and the virtues a market economy brings," has, indeed, not become a changer.

Not yet, anyway.

In mid-August, I wrote to him saying I was preparing this article and would be glad to have his thoughts. He replied in a letter saying, "I agree that the page should strive for diversity of viewpoint and subject matter. I'm working on it." As a personal acquaintance and one-time colleague, I admire him for his innate modesty and friendliness, and I wish him luck.

But it will take pluck, too. To free up the Post's op-ed page would mean, first, telling all the regular columnists that their days of privileged regularity are over. Space is not guaranteed. As horrendously difficult as it may be for the nation's capital to get through a Sunday without the thoughts of Broder, Hoagland, Ignatius, and Will, or Mondays and Thursdays without Novak, or Fridays without Krauthammer, or a month without Kagan or Kissinger, and as stubbed as the toes of all these Big Foots may be to have their den raided, the pleasure of the readers should come before the entitlement of the writers.

"The Post's op-ed page is a huge disappointment to those of us who cherish the craft of opinion writing," says Laird Anderson, emeritus professor of journalism at American University who taught opinion writing for more than twenty years after reporting for The Wall Street Journal. "The mix of columnists and their views is thoroughly predictable. I see little innovation in reaching out to writers--and there are literally hundreds of them in this town--who could lighten up the landscape of commentary. The page is dull. But because it has little competition and, in my view, because it panders to pedestrian opinion-makers in government and politics, the page will remain bland and largely uninteresting."

Anderson was one of many Post readers--including several who work at the paper whose sentiments I sought. After a time, I stopped asking. The opinions, like the commentaries on the op-ed page itself, were predictable.

Colman McCarthy who wrote editorials for The Washington Post from 1969 to 1978 and columns from 1969 to 1997, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. His next book is "I'd Rather Teach Peace: The Class of Nonviolence" (Orbis Books, 2002).
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Title Annotation:editorial pages
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Words:2345
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