Thomas: How to write about politics (without really trying)
Last week marked the first time that I felt the compulsion to write a column for the opinion section of a newspaper in 12 years. Last week I promised not to write too much about politics — despite the slot I inherited. (Last week, I actually intended to promise not to write about politics twice, then begin the next column by repeating that promise twice and then dedicate that column to politics: Take advantage of the opportunity to plan when you’re not writing on deadline.)
The news seems to have become inherently political. Beyond what’s strictly in the news section, in the realm of “Commentary,” the Vail Daily has orchestrated a balance between regular commentators that doesn’t quite work out to one “conservative” voice for every “liberal.”
My weekly column has inherited a spot that one of the Daily’s “conservative” columnists vacated. When I made my pitch to the boss, I offered the caveat that there was little I could do to change my politics, much less my gender, to occupy the same slot philosophically.
My focus, though, is on my experiences in Vail 20 years ago and the newspapers and ski towns I’ve inhabited in the years between, not politics. Since I’m familiar with editing and laying out columns, though, I could promise Nate reliably clean copy to fill that hole, perhaps until another “conservative” columnist comes along.
It’s pointless to pretend that newspaper people don’t have beliefs or biases, but their origins and rationales aren’t always obvious. Since we worked together in Aspen, Nate and I have shared an appreciation for Chuck Klosterman, the Midwestern ex-journo who elevates trash culture to something approaching formal philosophy.
In a piece he reran in “IV,” his collection of essays from about a decade ago, Klosterman laid out a likely scenario for biased writing: A journalist gets up from his desk to grab the Dr. Pepper he’s been craving just in time to miss the call from the source he’s been waiting for to balance out his story. It’s not only goofy, but it’s spot-on.
I’m certainly not as funny as Klosterman, but I imagine I’ve spent more nights in newsrooms, including a dozen years on a half-dozen of this company’s copy desks, and I can tell you that the opinion that occupies the best spot on the page goes not to the most agreeable opinion or best writer but often what fits. (Give me two beers and a copy of the Daily, and I’ll explain “lead space” to you.)
Dave Barry, another journo who’s not famous for trenchant political commentary, also arrived at an accurately gimlet-eyed view of the way newsrooms work in his debut novel, “Big Trouble.” But Barry was prescient about our increasingly uncivil red-blue divide back in the ’80s, when he skewered the idea of another Civil War: One side would have most of the guns and 4WD pickups while the other possessed all the good graphic-design software, so it would be over in minutes.
It’s hard to conceal or even understand one’s own biases, but as a writer, I can point to one potentially valid reason: Your P.J. O’Rourkes notwithstanding, it seems like most good writing, and command of the English language, lies predominately on one side. I read a lot of half-formed and ill-informed garbage — for various reasons, including enjoyment — and I find that bad grammar and dodgy spelling don’t inspire confidence in verbal reasoning ability or the opinions it engenders. Maybe Make America Write Again.
(On the other hand, have you ever noticed how often we use the first-person singular subjective pronoun: “I think,” “I believe,” “I care” and most of all, “I feel”? Sometimes I feel like counting all the I’s in opinion pieces. I find it obnoxious: Make America Grate Again.)
In fact, there are many very fine diatribes, polemics and screeds on both sides — just not a lot of nuanced, persuasive writing, nothing that’s going to change a mind already made up or counteract confirmation bias. It’s occurred to me that these revered documents that pundits cite — the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, the Bible — might remain so influential and popular because they’re well-written.
So while I can’t pretend not to be partisan (a word that evokes for me “Romeo and Juliet” more than any other political writing) most “persuasive” pieces either way always bring to mind another line, from my favorite Shakespeare play: “You cram these words into mine ears against the stomach of my sense.”
Traveling from “The Tempest” to the teapot, then, politics is part of my purview pushing pages and slopping copy five nights a week at the Daily. So here’s a quick primer on writing political commentary — or at least my opinion on it:
If I were a writer, political or otherwise, I’d think about words — what they mean, what they say. I’d use words I knew, look up the ones I didn’t and incorporate them into good, plain English sentences.
If I wanted to express my opinion in a column or letter to the editor, I would read the newspaper in some form. If I were concerned with its appearance in print, I’d read that version or the e-edition. If I were channeling another political thinker, I might make like Thomas Hobbes and keep it nasty, brutish and short.
If I were a columnist, political or otherwise, and I wanted to try to engineer my placement in a print newspaper, I’d think hard about words — not only what they mean, what they say but size and space, and try to think of hypothetical headlines that fit into the space I wanted to occupy.
I might feel the compulsion to do more than one of these things more than once.
I’d have one plan at least, if not a backup, and get my piece in early lest it end up on the spike. This is not writing on deadline, and they’re different things — or at least that’s my opinion.
Dan Thomas is the copy desk chief at the Vail Daily, a former sportswriter for the Vail Trail and a master’s degree candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Denver. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.