When I read Sara Vanden Bergeís July 31 editorial, in which she announced that the Empire-Tribune is bringing back local columnists, it felt like she was responding to the question Iíve muttered to myself almost every morning for the last year or two: Where have all the columnists gone?
For 17 years, Iíve been reading at least two newspapers every morning, always saving the op-ed pages for last. Columnists Iíve followed all these years feel like old friends (Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, George Will, Leonard Pitts) or old sparring partners (E.J. Dionne, Clarence Page, Cal Thomas).
Until recently, a typical op-ed page featured three or four opinion columns. Lately, though, itís not unusual for an op-ed page to include only one column or even none.
The reason is no mystery. People who crave commentary no longer have to wait for tomorrowís op-ed page. They can search the web, listen to talk radio, or watch Fox News or MSNBC.
Call me an old fogy if you must, but I think the old-fashioned op-ed column offers readers depth and civility they arenít likely to get from those other sources.
It starts with the audience. An op-ed columnistís audience is made up of people who read newspapers. Since people of all political persuasions ó left, right, up, down, and center ó read newspapers, the columnist knows that most readers who see his mug on the op-ed page do not share his political beliefs.
On the other hand, people who read The Huffington Post or listen to Rush Limbaugh are mostly people who share the commentatorís views and have Googled her or tuned to him specifically for that reason.
So while Rush Limbaugh entertains an audience of believers, George Will faces an audience of skeptics. When one commentatorís audience already agrees with her, and another commentatorís audience is skeptical, the two commentators will behave differently.
Op-ed columnists usually explain their views in depth because they know that most of their readers are skeptical. E.J. Dionne doesnít just rant about ďcapitalist pigs.Ē He explains why he believes central planning is superior to the free market system.
Thomas Sowell doesnít just write, ďFree enterprise is the American way.Ē He explains why a free market system is more efficient than a centrally planned one.
However, Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews can spend their airtime reciting talking points and slogans. Hope and change. Family values. Soak the rich. Iím for the regular folks. No, Iím for the regular folks. They neednít go any deeper, because their audiences agree with them and donít need convincing. Iím not saying Hannity and Matthews couldnít explain themselves. Iím just saying they feel no obligation to do so, because their respective choirs donít demand it.
The commentator who faces a skeptical audience has good reason to keep a civil tone. Columnists like Charles Krauthammer and Leonard Pitts have little to gain by being hostile. Centrist and undecided readers would be more disgusted than impressed.
Michael Savage and Keith Olbermann, however, have little to lose by being hostile. Since their audiences agree with them, they can call the opposition ďpervertsĒ or ďidiotsĒ or worse without fear of losing listeners or viewers. In fact, their ranting and raving are central to their appeal. Their listeners and viewers want someone to echo their opinions and reflect their anger, and Savage and Olbermann oblige them.
So when you change the medium, you change the audience, and when you change the audience, you change the incentives that influence commentatorsí presentations.
As more people abandon newspapers and go to the internet, the television, or the radio for opinions, look for political commentators to become more shrill and more shallow.
Iím looking forward to August 29, when the Empire-Tribuneís local columnists will be introduced. Maybe weíll discover our own Thomas Sowell or Leonard Pitts, or even our own Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck. Iím sure theyíll bring a lot of pleasure to E-T readers.
Tommy Richardson is an Erath County resident and writes a monthly column.