Most Commentary is Worthless
Published on August 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

Last week the Columbia Journalism Review posted an item posing a question I've been wondering about for some time: Why do we never hear from the working class on op-ed pages?

Now, before I go any further, I'd like to note that the newspaper I work at, a mid-size daily paper, features a fairly diverse range of voices in its Sunday opinion section. But big city dailies tend to restrict themselves to op-ed pieces from "important people," and although those people might have expertise and stature, they cannot be said to represent the vast majority of Americans, because they belong to an elite.

I suppose the argument could be made that average citizens lack the education and experience needed to voice an opinion on the op-ed pages of America's daily newspapers, but I don't buy it. Most op-ed content isn't very good, and I find it hard to believe that average citizens would do a worse job of expressing themselves than the elite. Also, if the elite read what the non-elite had to say, about what it's like to work in a blue-collar job, or in a town that has seen its manufacturing sector disappear, they might learn a thing or two.

The CJR piece notes that "While political debate in the past few years has centered on issues critical to working class Americans—like health care and entitlement reform, unions, taxes—America’s most prestigious op-ed sections rarely feature contributions from actual members of the working class on these issues. (The same could be said about war fighters on America’s wars)."

The CJR piece also mentions the existence of a group I've never heard of, the Op-Ed Project, which seeks to diversify the nation's op-ed pages, because these op-ed pages represent a “tiny fraction of society—mostly western, white, privileged and overwhelmingly male.” This seems like a worthy cause. I know I've grown sick of opening up the opinion page and feeling like a bunch of old men are telling me what to think.

In fact, one of the reasons I started this website is because I got sick of newspaper opinion pages, which get lamer and less interesting with each passing year, and seem to be written for an entirely different audience than me and my friends. Because in addition to lacking working class voices, op-ed pages also lack the voices of young adults, people who live outside of Washington, D.C., and New York City, women, minorities, gays and lesbians - the list goes on and on. I used to think that as I got older I would relate more to the perspectives being expressed on newspaper op-ed pages, but I'm 35 now, and I think I'm actually starting to relate to them less. Perhaps when I'm 90 I'll pick up the paper and think, "Aha! This editorial really speaks to me and my life!" But at this point I tend to doubt it.

Over at The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby comments on the CJR piece and asks another question I've been thinking about: Do these elite op-ed contributors ever write anything worth reading? Focusng on the New York Times, he writes, "Yes, those pieces tend to come from high academics and the like. But increasingly, we’ve been struck by the fatuous nature of the work these high-ranking swells are providing. Could the Times get good stuff from the great unwashed? We don’t know—but the paper is printing tons of useless crap by people from very high stations. In the past few months, it has seemed to us that the situation is getting much worse—that the outside columns are getting odder, are increasingly worthless."

I would tend to agree with Bob. My conversations with my friends are generally ten times more interesting and insightful than what the nation's editorial writers have to offer. Which, again, is partly why I started this website.


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