Yes, but listen, columnists are now also starting to complain that there are too many columns in the newspaper? In quick succession I read three articles – two columns and an opinion piece – about what you might call ‘columnitis’, the explosion of columns and opinions in the media. A proliferation many times faster than that of nuclear weapons – and harder to contain with summits in Iceland.
The first salvo came from writer Philip Huff, a long-time Filipino against “white, moderately well-to-do” columnists who despise “younger generations” who criticize “the current system.” In their voice of reason Huff (1984) mostly heard spoiled tut-tut hum from boomers.
He was a bit shot with the bottle ageism: these were columnists who “have the most years of life behind them”. Unfortunately, a formula of decreasing opinion yield compared to calendar years lived was not included. But Huff had a point: politics and ideology can also be heard in ‘sobriety’.
Four days later, Media chief and columnist Karel Smouter broke the staff about the media’s “infatuation” with anyone “young, articulate and preferably contrarian”. Like the political ghost driver Thierry Baudet, once NRCcolumnist, and the fallen mask magnate Sywert van Lienden. What does that excited attention do to “the psyche of a young man,” gloated Smouter.
And then columnist Aylin Bilic had yet to come, who bluntly – and at the same time disarmingly – said it like: too many uncooked opinions are whizzing through the media. In her youth, the newspaper was a revelation because it brought “knowledge, insight, and thus reasonableness.” Now it was a carnival of columnists “throwing their opinions into the world in a few hundred words every day.” Often full of activist jargon about ‘white privilege’ or ‘intersectional feminism’. She also had a point: why does the newspaper not explain better those activist-academic concepts, which also include a view of people and the world? Readers would be grateful for it, I think, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be in an extra 16-page section.
Well – all interesting opinions. Although it did get me even more confused than usual during office hours. Because does the department of geriatrics (Huff), the exalted youth (Smouter) or postcolonial activism for all ages (Bilic) rule in Opinionland? In any case, good to underline: the palette of columnists is at NRC have become a lot more diverse (and younger) in recent years. It was about time and it was a win – although the successor to the respected JL Heldring has not yet been found.
But all in all there are many, yes. No wonder, our ‘life in media’ (Mark Deuze) has become a daily hurdle past dozens of talking commentators in their own booth (I’m one too). Despite the pious intention of the previous editor-in-chief of this newspaper to prune that garden (albeit mainly the left-wing bed), only ornamental plants have been added since then.
This has also changed. While columns were once primarily a platform for expert outsiders, they are increasingly being written by their own journalists. That’s fine, as long as it doesn’t mean that someone who has a golden pin will eventually be trapped in a golden cage. Also reporting may well shine verbally (NRC editors with a column also do ‘regular’ journalistic work).
Is the sprawl bad? The complaint itself a media cliché become. At many regular tables, the opinion that there are too many opinions is the most commonly heard opinion. In 2011, Bas Heijne formulated it accurately about the Wilders fixation on journalism: “There are too many talking heads, too many opinions, too many television channels and yes, too many columnists. So many Jorissen – and only one dragon.”
Now you could say that the dragon population has increased considerably since then, but even then the question is whether more Jorissen is the best answer. After a few years, columnist Lamyae Aharouay became so tired of the opinion machine that she – exceptionally – gave up her column of her own accord to go into the field as a reporter – and with success.
The specter of the eternal columnist as the chatty regular in a neighborhood bar regularly arises. You slide down next to him on a stool, ask casually if there is any news and yes, the Beehive monkey starts to drum angrily. Soon you’ll be lurking for the exit.
But hate and love go together as often. In the reading figures of NRC (some) columnists score very high. Readers are enraged when their favorite is changed after years. The shift of columnist Carolina Trujillo from Saturday to Thursday has already led to roaring letters: is that possible? In short, readers attach themselves to columnists – and that is the intention.
The fear that you will no longer see the forest of facts through all those trees of opinion has a kernel of truth, but it also misunderstands the importance of opinion and debate. In the recent bundle Opinion notice wedding-journalist Leonie Breebaart rightly points out that no new ‘fact’ about Zwarte Piet has changed the opinion of many Dutch people about this colonial stereotype. Such shifts in moral sensibility are more about collective honor and shame, argued philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (The Honor Code, 2010).
Speaking of which, why should columns only contain opinions, outpourings or rhetorical feats? They can also bring to light new facts or bring new shine to old ones. Pieter Omtzigt’s Maarten Luther memorandum refers three times to Tom-Jan Meeus’ NRC column. Apparently it was news, folks. But an insight, association or reasoning can also be instructive, a subtly articulated experience, a forgotten book, an underused report or – who knows – an unarchived memo. In short: something you didn’t know or hadn’t seen put into words before.
Columns therefore remain a vital genre. But the bar must be set high. In that bundle Opinion (I’m looking forward to part two, opiwellis) gives Breebaart a nice definition of a bad column. Usually these are not bad “because you could not settle the discussion with facts, but because you took too little account of the objections of others.” That’s how it is. A good columnist does not give himself a free head start or dispensation from doubt.
Breebaart therefore advocates three virtues: modesty, courage and sincerity (there is enough cabaret already). That seems like good advice to me. You can expect more from columns – and fortunately they often offer more – than a friendly standard table confirmation, dogmas nailed to the door or the short-lived kick of an opinion in capitals.
That you learn something from it, especially.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 19 June 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 19, 2021