Age Before Beauty in Opinion Commentary? Maybe That’s a Good Thing

Cute little baby typing on retro typewriterIn a Gawker column entitled, “What’s Wrong with America’s Opinion Newspaper Columnists in One Chart,” Sarah Hedgecock opined about why newspaper columnists often seem out of touch:

“Why are newspaper opinion columnists so consistently baffled by the politics, technologies, and social mores of the 21st century? We’ve crunched some data, and we think we’ve figured out the answer: They’re old as hell.”

Hedgecock makes a fair point about, say, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen missing the mark on his piece about whether America could accept New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s interracial marriage. But her conclusion, made in a somewhat mocking tone, that older writers come up with “bizarre” things to say because of their age is a condescending over-generalization that misses the mark. And while the concern about the need for diversity of views in opinion journalism is a valid one, a focus on age is misplaced.

No doubt, there is a need for a diverse range of perspectives. But good opinion journalism isn’t just about spouting personal opinions—it’s opinion plus journalism. It’s a craft. It’s a way to explore the news of the day through a lens of life experience and different perspectives. And one doesn’t come by experience or perspective without having lived on the planet for a few decades, which is something that editors often take into account when they are choosing columnists.

Creators Syndicate columnist Connie Schultz wanted to be a columnist long before any editor would allow her the chance. Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize winner who is in the Baby-Boom generation, was a reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, OH, for many years before her bosses gave her a shot at column writing. Today, she says that was probably the right decision. “[N]o editor would give me a chance until I was 45,” she wrote via email. She continued:

“For me, the timing was just right. I’m certain I could have handled column-writing in my late 30s, but in retrospect I’m glad editors didn’t hire me to unleash all my views on the world when I was in my 20s or early 30s. When I was younger, I spent too much time trying to finish other people’s sentences. Now, I’m much more interested in starting a conversation.”

The question of just how much age should be a factor in deciding whose voices should be on the op-ed pages of newspapers sparked a lively discussion among members of the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers). Commentary worth its weight isn’t just about opinion; everyone has opinions, but not all opinions are worthy of the op-ed pages, or even online space. What makes opinion journalism worth our time is that is offers readers insight and analysis that isn’t reserved to just one generation, according to Lois Kazakoff, deputy editorial page editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. She writes:

“Good commentary is not dependent on age, but rather insight. The public conversation is not the view of one generation but an amalgamation. Opinion commentary is designed to help a community frame and resolve problems within a cultural context. We can’t resolve problems if we exclude certain segments of the society—old, young, poor, immigrants.”

Many print publications and online news outlets have worked hard to bring greater diversity to their readers by adding more women writers—there’s still a long way to go for there to be equal numbers of women and men in the world of commentary writing, as well as writers of various ethnicities and backgrounds. But one area that’s lacking and could use some beefing up in op-ed writing is in economic diversity—writing that comes from those who either aren’t in the middle or upper class, or who didn’t grow up there.

Opinion commentary in the 21st century isn’t reserved just for old white dudes at traditional newspapers anymore. In looking at whether a better cross-section of voices are being represented in the world of opinion journalism, it’s just as important to look at the myriad online outlets like Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, and The Huffington Post, that have younger writers and younger readers. And, as Schultz points out, the world of opinion journalism still has too few women writers who get paid to do what she does, and she’s more concerned with that than she is with the age of those women.

So am I “old as hell”? I certainly don’t think so, nor do I feel it (you know they say “50 is the new 30”). But I do get the point that Gawker made in terms of those who write opinion commentary for a living, even if it was made in a clumsy “go get on your ice floe” sort of way. But author Sarah Hedgecock doesn’t have to worry: I won’t hold her youth against her.

Joanne Bamberger is an independent journalist who is also the author of the book Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America. She is also the publisher of the The Broad Side. You can find her on Twitter at @jlcbamberger.

 Image via iStockphoto

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