Newspaper and magazine columnists: Journalism's preposterous prima donnas

Of all the bizarre and disturbing creatures that inhabit newspapers and magazines, none are quite so preposterous as columnists.

Reporters are often obsessive, copy editors pernickity to the point where you want to head butt them, and editors, however scholarly, tend to have much in common, psychologically, with the leaders of military juntas. But columnists, quite definitely, are the strangest of the lot.

To be fair (as commentators invariably write in the final paragraph when they have spent all the previous ones being outrageously unfair), columnists are not one species, but a vast family of them, plus assorted sub-species and mutants.

Some are mildly annoying, like the self-obsessed me-columnists, who write under the impression that the minutiae of their lives are as fascinating to us as they obviously are to them. These are usually either a thirty something woman wittering on about how hopeless she is at everything and doing her best to set back the cause of feminism 30 years; or a slightly older male anxious to prove how far he has progressed down the road to New Manhood. Neither are convincing.

Better by far are the satirists, not all of whose work is immediately obvious.

For some years, American marvelled at the outrageous right-wing opinions of Ed Anger, who fulminated in the Weekly World News against commies, pinkoes, and vegetable eaters, and wrote such lines as “God gave women knees to pray on and scrub floors with”.

How delicious it was to later learn that Mr Anger was in fact the alter ego of Rafe Klinger, a small, slightly balding Jewish liberal with two degrees. Mr Klinger has long since moved on, but Ed continues to rant, courtesy of other mischievous pens.

But the star names of the comment world are the current affairs columnists with their instant, stir-fry solutions to global dilemmas.

Or, as American writer Westbrook Pegler described them fully fifty years ago: “Of all the fantastic fog-shapes that have risen off the fog of human confusion since the big war, the most futile and at the same time the most pretentious is the deep-thinking, hair-trigger columnist or commentator who knows all the answers just off-hand and can settle great affairs with absolute finality three or even six days a week.”

They come at us daily, opinions flourished like banners at a demonstration:

  • the political pontificator, ever wise after the event
  • the why-oh-why merchant, deploring some incident as symptomatic of how the country is going to the dogs
  • the hired celebrity cashing in with a few cliched thoughts
  • the resident minority group spokesperson, ever ready to tell us all how prejudiced we all are
  • and the ‘murder is wrong’ columnist, bravely condemning terrorists, paedophiles and people traffickers.

Fully expecting the world to take them seriously, these are, at their most extreme, the natural descendants of one Frederick Peel Eldon Potter, the proprietor of the Skibereen Eagle, a four-page sheet published in late Victorian Ireland. Once, when Mr Potter was offended by some act of Tsar Alexander II, he wrote a column warning his Imperial Highness on behalf of the paper’s 4,000 readers that “the Skibereen Eagle has its eye on Russia.” Russia somehow survived.

Yet what such columnists lack in humility (and originality) they  can normally make up for in 24-carat vanity. Whether it is, like Arthur Krock in the 1940s, returning home each evening to demand his family fall silent so he could read them his New York Times column, or the crazed insistence that none of the column’s words or facts, however wrong, can be altered, columnists are the prima donnas of print.

Nothing shows this more than their fussiness about the personal photographs that often accompany their words. I have known these to be of such extreme vintage that a columnist who wrote from home managed to pass completely unnoticed when she did finally show up in the office. No one recognised her, and, when she introduced herself, they took her, from her lack of resemblance to the column’s ancient picture, to be an imposter.

But if their faces don’t age on the page, their words certainly do. I own dozens of books that are collections of columns by the great names of the trade, and most of these articles are rendered, by the passage of even the shortest time, either utterly irrelevant or bafflingly obscure.

Good news reporting, of whatever age, tells a story; columns of the past are barely even ephemera.

Our newspapers, I fancy, would be a great deal better if more journalists followed the example of American Bob Considine, who, in 1973, wrote the shortest column on record. It read simply: “I have nothing to say today”.

Picture: Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn

David Randall is the author of The Universal Journalist, the world’s best-selling journalism textbook, and voted the best how-to book of all time by Press Gazette readers. A former chief news writer and foreign editor of the  Independent on Sunday, he has edited a provincial paper, and news edited and night edited three national papers. 
The updated and expanded 5th edition of ‘The Universal Journalist’ is out now. Full details at: http://www.universaljournalist.co.uk

Comments

4 thoughts on “Newspaper and magazine columnists: Journalism's preposterous prima donnas”

  1. An ironical one, too. Man taking swipe at columnists’ sweeping generalisations then proceeds to come up with a few of his own.

    “Ephemera”? That’s not how I feel when I enjoy another flick through my anthology of Sir John Junor’s Sunday Express columns of yore, or Jim Murray’s sports columns for the LA Times.

    The names, places and – yes – some of the attitudes may now be dated but genuine wit and mastery of the written word never fades.

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