March 2011 has been a cruel month for America’s progressives and liberals. Two of their best known voices, Frank Rich and Bob Herbert, quit their columns on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times.
Readers will miss them. Right-wingers will praise them as worthy opponents and chuckle. Does their absence from our most prestigious newspaper mean anything more significant for the progressive agenda or for journalism?
Rich and Herbert exposed and lamented our country’s march toward two-tiered Banana Republicanism, toward a society of the few haves, a multitude of have-nots with a shrinking middle class in between. Rich wrote a nostalgic piece about the disappearing American Dream of the 1950s called “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” Herbert, in his farewell column, predicted that the current downward mobility among thousands in the middle class is an “ever-shortening fuse leading to profound consequences.”
Plenty of Americans agree, especially those who have already experienced the slide into lower-class despair. But is anyone in the corridors of political, corporate or financial power paying attention? Did columns in our leading papers ever affect what Senators or CEOs thought or did? Is it conceivable that the CEO of a company that moved its factory out of Ohio to Brazil or China, upon reading Herbert’s farewell, would decide that the welfare of citizens in an American community rated higher among company priorities than shareholder returns? Or, would the Congressmen who supported the offshore move with generous tax breaks? “Are you nuts?” would be the polite version of the correct answer.
Did powerful people ever listen to columnists from our leading papers? Well, yes they did, once upon a time when the world of Washington insiders talked to the likes of Walter Lippman or James (“Scotty”) Reston and when presidents considered some of them advisers. It was a tight, clubby world of white men, taking seriously the concerns expressed by their ilk in serious columns in the right papers. Their readers did too, as the woman in the James Thurber cartoon who looks up from the paper and says to her husband: “Lippman scares me this morning.”
But that was then, eighty or sixty years ago. Today, columns reinforce one niche among the fragments of public opinion, primarily in the world of shouted sound bites by pundits and experts. What do those unfamiliar with the world of Lippman and Reston make of the thoughtful pieces on our socio-economic decline by the likes of Herbert? “Why Is Bob Herbert Boring?” asked T. A. Frank in the Washington Monthly in 2007. After all, he admitted, Herbert “shines light on people and issues that deserve far more attention than they usually get.”
But who can stand such boring and discomforting stuff? Not the ambitious and affluent professionals in the NYT home base. How can Herbert and Rich compete for their attention with the Style Section or the Style Magazine or the special supplements on Wealth Management? Feeding upscale tastes will trump interest in downward mobility on the Upper East and West Sides most of the time.
Rich and Herbert became anachronisms in society and in journalism, journalism that follows the values and visions of society’s establishment but no longer has the will to shape them.
George Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as Sr. Editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to The Washington Post and The American Conservative.