My Life, and Death, as a Columnist

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By: William O’Rourke

For nearly five years I was a weekly columnist for the Chicago Sun- Times. My beat was national politics. For the last three years of that run, I appeared in the Sunday paper, the token liberal in the Commentary section, there to offer some imperfect balance to a decidedly conservative shipload of pundits.

In early September, 2005, my column was rather unceremoniously
dropped — by means of a short e-mail. The Sun-Times was “rethinking” its editorial section and I was the change it was making. During the summer, the newspaper had redesigned its Sunday editorial package. It moved the Commentary section from inside the tabloid to a new broadsheet insert christened “Controversy,” which also incorporated the book section. To make “Controversy” substantial enough to be a stand-alone, a front page feature with colorful graphics was created, along with a couple of pages of wire copy and snippets from the Web inside. Carol Marin, who had been hired the year before as a city columnist to replace the dearly missed Steve Neal, was moved to the new section.

The change was unfortunate for my column; there would be three pages of copy by many hands and then two pages of the regular columnists. My hole was the upper right hand column, without the usual news photo and a hundred words shorter, 550 rather than 650. The change deflated my status — visually and literally. The token liberal was less important if the wire and Internet copy could supply bits of liberal rants.

I was, more or less, a creation of Steve Huntley, the Sun-Times’s editorial page editor. I served at his pleasure. It was Steve who had elevated my status as an irregular contributor to a smoke and mirrors
version of a permanent fixture.

My connection to the world of journalism has always been tangential, in so far as I have never worked for any company in the business. I have been a freelancer, one of the ugliest words in the language. I did have a “journalism” background, though: My first book, “The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left,” was considered by many a high form of it when it appeared in 1972. And I was once a writing “coach” at the Columbus Dispatch, part of my duties as the first James Thurber Writer. Over the years I wrote sporadically for a variety of publications, short pieces, book reviews, commentary, in between publishing four novels.

Then, in 1997 I published “Campaign America ’96: The View From the Couch.” My book was about how the quadrennial exercise was consumed, not produced. It was a pre-blog blog, highly literate, everything I thought about the political scene and how it was unfolding, almost day by day. When the Washington Post reviewed it in the fall of ’97, the reviewer, James Ledbetter, concluded with the remark that for the 2000 campaign someone should give me a “national weekly column.”

I don’t know if Huntley saw that review, but as we came closer to the 2000 election I wrote irregular columns and he continued to run them. The next year I became a weekly columnist. Having a weekly column, however, quickly became an example of Look Out When You Get What You Wish For.

Freelance is an odd designation. By the start of our new century, though, it had become a synonym for outsourcing. At the Sun-Times, I was a version of a guy in Bangalore, solving problems for customers in Fargo, N.D.

I was, also, a symptom of the unfortunate decline of newspapers generally, the shrinking of permanent staffs, the reduction of union labor, those saddled ith all the so-called costly benefits and annoying rights. The Sun-Times, over the years I wrote, had two rounds of union contract negotiations, two possible strike threats. If the writers for the paper had struck, I’d strike too — or so I told myself. In both cases I was spared the choice.

After a couple of years I was moved to Sunday. I presumed someone noticed that on Tuesday the paper ran a column by Jesse Jackson — I’m not sure who actually writes those — and that made two liberals that day. So, I was moved to Sunday, where there were no regular liberals. On Tuesdays I was replaced by Bill O’Reilly. It is no longer novelists invading daily journalism, it’s TV personalities invading now.

Steve Huntley made moving to Sunday sound like a promotion, so I asked if a raise accompanied the move. No. Most everyone had taken cuts following the last round of sour union negotiations. But, I wasn’t doing this for the money. By definition I was Samuel Johnson’s blockhead and that made me a fool. I still hadn’t lost the young writer’s need to be read, even though I was far from young.

Basically, there are three types of columnists: the first sort is the player, usually someone who has worked in government, an insider who becomes an outsider, a former shill turned semi-journalist. William Safire was the chief example of this sort.

The second sort is a reporter who also writes commentary. The New York Times has a number of this sort, currently Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof are examples — they go places, interview people, talk to sources. Robert Novak at the Sun-Times would be put in this group.

The third is writers with opinions. I was one of them. This, too, has variations — research is the most common kind of silent reporting. Years ago I.F. Stone, with his own small, but influential weekly (the original proto-Web site) was an example of that kind of informed opinion. But it remains the most vulnerable of the three: if all you have is opinions, despite your facts, there isn’t much underpinning there.

Staff journalists get their power from the high capital enterprises standing behind them. Indeed, Bob Woodward has kept his job at the Washington Post for years, despite being financially secure, to retain the clout attached to a being a part of a powerful corporate entity.

It’s hard to overestimate the low esteem freelancing inspires in the regularly employed. It’s a version of: If you’re so smart, why hasn’t some corporation hired you? Given my freelance status, no Chicago media writers had ever acknowledged my existence when I was writing, so it wasn’t surprising they didn’t take note of my absence.

I presume dumping me was a combination of money and ideology — or change for the sake of change. The question, “Why are we paying him to attack the president each week?” might have entered the top editors heads with some force at last.

Wire copy, by definition, is for mass consumption — as well as being an example of mass production. Though freelance, I wrote for the Sun- Times; it was paying for craft work, fashioned for its pages. But content is homogenized as media corporations look to improve their balance sheets by cutting staff and using modular text.

My column space — valuable territory it was while I held it — has been filled with syndicated columnists and local scribes of the Public Relations or Lobbyist variety. Nothing like my columns, nothing at all.

My experience as a columnist is the mirror of my career as a book author. You need an editor who is willing — and able — to publish what you write. Without him or her, you’re only the guy who points at himself and yells PAY ATTENTION, the loon in the park dragging around a literal soapbox. Given the seismic corporate changes affecting newsrooms everywhere, my case is small change: One less liberal voice. Indeed, for better or worse, my disappearance isn’t even tabulated in the woeful statistics of decline.

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