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Newspaper Columnists Owe Readers Better Than Trolling
WaPo's Kathleen Parker offers an edgy "at least he made the trains run on time"-type argument in a piece about John Fetterman's shorts.
Hey everyone. Parker here. I hope you’re all having a good day.
Last week, I decided against writing a piece about David Brooks’s tweet about how *gasp* food is expensive at the airport. Sure, there’s a lot of dunking on it that could be (and has been) done. And sure, it’s funny for a guy who once wrote about taking a $120,000 vacation to whine about spending $78 on whiskey with a side of hamburger and fries. But it feels like the moment has passed.
And while today’s newsletter will be Brooks-free (minus the above paragraph), it is about newspaper columnists. But first… the obligatory ask that you subscribe to the newsletter if you’re not already signed up.
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Let’s talk about “Dressing down for the Senate is just bad manners,” a Washington Post column published on Saturday by Kathleen Parker.
The tl;dr of the piece is that the Senate hasn’t been enforcing its dress code, and Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) has been showing up to work wearing hoodies and shorts. This is bad and worthy of obsessive coverage, according to Very Serious Pundit People. Parker’s take is that while Trump is bad, at least he “knows how to dress,” a very “At least he made the trains run on time” type of point.
The piece is meant to troll readers, as evidenced by the Post’s choice of pull quote:
“As little as I have loved Republicans the past few years, coinciding with the rise of our own little autocrat, at least Donald Trump knows how to dress.”
It’s meant to make people angry and upset. It’s meant to give Parker and the people at the Post’s opinion section a chance to go, “OMG, why are you upset?” even though causing upset is the purpose of the piece.
It’s extremely hacky, too. Just as Mussolini didn’t actually “make the trains run on time,” Donald Trump doesn’t actually know how to dress. Long ties with tape on them, weird-fitting suits, and his dumb red hat. This is not a stylish man. A good editor would have asked Parker to take another swing at this.1 Alas, she is a Pulitzer Prize-winning (yes, seriously) columnist who likely just churns out whatever she feels like.
You may know Parker from the time she wrote, right before the 2016 election, “Calm down. We’ll be fine no matter who wins.”
And then, as Trump elevated Brett Kavanaugh to replace the retiring Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, chided people for being worried that Kavanaugh would be a GOP rubber-stamp in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade and gutting other legal protections. “Calm down. Roe v. Wade isn’t going anywhere.”
In a just world, publishing such confidently incorrect pieces in an actual newspaper would result in the author’s career in opinion journalism coming to an end soon after. This is not a just world. The Post, a real newspaper that people read to learn about the important issues of the day, doesn’t seem to care if their columnists know what they’re talking about.
And it’s not just incorrect predictions, either. There’s a general laziness that goes into her work that’s really frustrating as a reader.
For instance, in July, Parker wrote about the backlash Bud Light received from people on the far right after the company paid Dylan Mulvaney to promote the beer on her Instagram (just as the company has partnered with hundreds of others). The way Parker explains the situation is odd, not quite accurate, and frees her up to make a pretty scary argument that outright endorses exiling trans people from public life. From Evan Urquhart’s write-up over at his Assigned Media site:
Parker admits that there’s no conservative case that Mulvaney is an inappropriate person for Bud Light to have worked with, except that she is trans. That is the beginning, middle, and end of their issue. Conservatives do not want trans people to be treated like other people, for instance by leveraging their popularity into brand sponsorships. They believe that brands should be targeted with bomb threats, and trans people hounded out of the country, if any executive VP dares to treat trans people normally, like a demographic of people to sell beer to.
This central fact is being continually left out of every mainstream article which calls this a “controversy” or a “backlash.” The subject of the controversial backlash is Mulvaney’s existence, and they object to her existence because they object to the existence of trans people in public.
Now, this of course is what trans people have been saying is the case for quite some time. But Parker’s essay stands out because it isn’t hidden or sugar coated: Parker says, in the pages of the Washington Post, that trans people pose a nebulous, unspecified danger to children. Not by actually harming children, but by existing. She uses very ugly language to describe this, an idea which is the epitome of what’s meant by the term “transphobia," describing longstanding, evidence-based treatments for gender dysphoria as alien “chemical and surgical alteration.” Parker goes so far as to accuse the entire trans community of perpetrating crimes against innocence, merely by existing.
Go read the whole thing, which cites specific lines from Parker’s lazy, reactionary piece that shrugs off the fact that trans people are people who have just as much a right to participate in society as anyone else. I’m glad Urquhart wrote it because stuff like that just takes too much energy out of me these days.
Bud Light Threw Dylan Mulvaney Under the Bus and the New York Times Offers a Novel Student Debt Relief Strategy
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that newspaper columnists not deliberately troll readers.
Opinion pages can be great; they just tend not to be. Opinion pages can be a place where a columnist combines original reporting and their own personal views about a hot topic in society. They can be a place where outside experts get brought in to share their expert opinions on specific current events. They usually aren’t, though. No, newspapers often end up being places where columnists who should have retired a decade ago get their every waking thought published in the paper, and editors seek out reactionary opinions designed to generate hate-clicks.
It’s all very… Well, here, watch this 2018 video from The Break with Michelle Wolf:
That’s it for me today. Thanks for reading. I hope everyone’s having a good start to their week.
If I were editing that piece, I would have suggested a slightly different framing to make a similar point. Something along the lines of, “Hey, look, we all know that DC media can’t help but obsess over things like dress codes/tan suits/latte salutes/[insert-mini-scandal-of-the-day-here]. We all understand that this doesn’t matter, but Fetterman would be doing himself and his fellow Democrats a favor by falling into line and tossing on a suit and tie when he has to go to the floor. Otherwise, this will become another drawn-out