Steve Blow, longtime metro columnist for The Dallas Morning News, sends an e-mail apologizing for having to turn down an interview request, citing company policy. He, too, is sorry for the delay, noting, "I was chasing down a hard-hitting column in Oklahoma City yesterday."
Blow is joking. The column he traveled to Oklahoma to write was about high school seniors who read aloud letters from their parents giving them advice before they go to college. The self-deprecating note about a "hard-hitting" column is a gentlemanly admission of what the readers of the Morning News have long known: Blow and his fellow city columnists don't write such columns. As a colleague notes, the only trial Blow would cover would be that of someone charged with "making a sunny day gray."
That's because the city columnists at the News--metro columnists Blow, Jacquielynn Floyd and James Ragland, as well as local political columnist Gromer Jeffers Jr.--write small feature stories rather than opinionated takes on the city they purport to cover. They favor the human-interest column, defined by Simpsons TV anchorman Kent Brockman as stories that "tug at the heart and fog the mind." Blow writes about traffic woes, Internet scams and his take on naughty words; Floyd, the best writer of the three city columnists, opines about folk trios, cloning her cat and how upsetting the hooters at Hooters are; Ragland, the most ambitious of a tepid lot, will at least comment on local issues but also finds time to explore stale topics such as how technology tracks our every move and how nice surprises are.
Not that there is anything inherently wrong with Seinfeld-ian takes on the things that make up daily life. (Full disclosure: I used to write a features-section column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram called "Hey Dad," in which my mundane family life became grist for 20 column inches of blather every week.) Occasionally, even I will be sucked into their world of one-sentence paragraphs and exclamation points, my tongue coated and my belly filled with the sweet sap they mine from the tree of life. Blow's column this past Sunday, for example, about a Richardson woman describing her granddaughter's death, was impossible not to empathize with, even if you do work for a godless alternative weekly.
The problems with this approach, though, are numerous. Most important, it ignores the responsibility inherent in the title of big-city columnist to be both its most aggressive reporter and its most independent voice. It also allows good writers like Floyd to coast on style. It encourages newcomers to the beat like Ragland and Jeffers to set the bar lower. It allows competitors like our own Jim Schutze to take hold of and shape debate on the big Dallas issues, because the daily's city columnists ignore them except to say on occasion, "Gosh, what's all the fuss about?!"
This abdication of columnar responsibility infuriates not only me but also many of the young, aggressive city reporters at the DMN. They rightfully ask, "Where is our ball-busting city columnist?" Where is that person who not only reports what the powers that be say but also steps back and tells readers, "Oh, yeah, and that bastard is lying"? And why hasn't new top-dog editor Bob Mong, supposedly an Agent of Change and a Force of Good, demanded that the columnists reach deep inside and rediscover their collective cojones?
Each of the four columnists mentioned here either declined to be interviewed, citing Morning News policy against cooperating with the Dallas Observer, or did not respond to messages. But the primary reason the city columnists are toothless has long been known. A newspaper editor who has worked for many big-city papers puts it plainly. "One key question," he says when asked why the DMN columnists suck, "is this: 'Are they delivering exactly what the Morning News wants?'"
There is some thought that the era of the streetwise big-city columnist is over. People don't want to read a hard-drinking old-school crank who calls bullshit when he sees it, the thinking goes. The days in which such columnists--most famously Mike Royko in Chicago, but also folks like Jimmy Breslin in New York, Mike Bonokoski in Toronto, Mike Barnicle in Boston, our esteemed Mayor Laura Miller at the Dallas Times Herald--wrote with anger and one-sided passion are over. Those folks are dinosaurs.
This is arguable. Some big cities such as Houston and San Francisco have the same problem in that most of their city columnists are more avuncular than cranky. But in New York and Denver and Boston and Chicago and Atlanta and San Antonio and Los Angeles and on and on, there are still regular examples of metro columnists railing against greed and corruption. At the least, most of these cities have columnists who will make an issue theirs, hammering a project or a proposal or a person as needed.