The Day Michael Miner Killed Commentary

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(Graphic: Shot through the notepad and he’s to blame, last week Michael Miner gave reporting a bad name.)

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The following is cross-posted on my Huffington Post Chicago byline.

Last week, the Chicago Reader‘s Michael Miner committed a despicable act unworthy of a journalist. In an article entitled “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Columnists,” Miner told newspaper commentators that their opinion-bearing work was expendable. He suggested dying papers like the Chicago Sun-Times could save themselves by “refocusing” columnists as news analysts, jettisoning social commentary in favor of playing the angles of hard news items reported by journalists. In Miner’s diatribe against commentary, he even went so far as to call out some local columnists by name, essentially inferring their work to be inferior to the work of journalists.

That’s unacceptable.

On Monday, in an analysis of the Sun-Times‘ ongoing buyout controversy published to my Chicagosphere byline, I noted the stupidity of Miner suggesting that the cash cows of the news business–opinion bearers with the star power to sell newspapers–be forced to produce output other than the commentary at the heart of their profession, not to mention at the heart of their fan bases. You can click through to read that argument in detail. Suffice it to say here, as Newspaper Death Watch noted last week, news is a commodity, anyone can provide it. Newspapers are bought–and TV news programs watched and blogs read–for the added meaning they provide to people’s lives. Much of that meaning comes from the work of columnists.

My aim here, however, is not to re-address Miner’s argument. Instead, I have a few choice words to say about Miner’s act. Besides the aforementioned despicable and unacceptable, a couple of other key adjectives deserve to be at the forefront of discussion today.

In my above-noted commentary from Monday, I suggested that some journalists in Chicago and elsewhere, rather than truly caring about the future of American reporting, are instead myopic, self-interested, and increasingly desperate individuals, prone to point the finger of blame for the failure of the the print news industry at everyone and anyone other than journalists and journalism, themselves. My words sparked a heated comment debate about the future of local reporting and generated several private thank-yous from industry insiders, including one email from a newspaper editor who told me my words rang true–but that being too close to the issue, no local journalist would likely have had the guts to write them.

Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean local journalists are faint-hearted. It takes a lot of chutzpah to stand up in front of your local colleagues and declare dozens of them to be feckless, as Miner did in last week’s Reader. But I wouldn’t call that courage. Far from it. Instead, Miner’s less than well-meaning suggestion to dispense with commentary and turn columnists into service-oriented seat-warmers for journalists was nothing short of cowardly.

How fearful of change and desperate to return to a defunct status quo of healthy print readership does one reporter have to be to declare that the furtherance of his profession may depend on–or in fact, even deserve–the decimation of another profession? I could go on at length about the societal worth of good columneering, but this being Chicago, I think I can nail all that in two words: Mike Royko. Would Michael Miner call the patron saint of American commentary feckless, too?

Of course not. And he doesn’t deserve a pass on calling the rest of this town’s commentators expendable, either. For far too long in morning newspapers, on the evening news, in virtual flame wars, and at real-life media conferences, Chicagoans have been treated to a persistent, plaintive moan from local reporters crying out for the way things used to be. I felt sympathy at first. Change is never easy, especially when that change involves your livelihood.

Miner ended that sympathy for me, however. His article made me realize how tightly circled the local journalistic wagons have become. He actually thought it was okay to demand that a cornerstone profession of the American news industry be dismantled in order to try and turn back the clock for his own–and worse, many reporters opining on his column thought his suggestion was okay, too. What’s going to be the next desperate proposal to emerge from the pens of scared journalists? Refocus the sports writers? Request a federal bailout? Kill the bloggers?

This wretched culture of blame that seems to infect Chicago journalists, causing some of them to lose all sense of objective responsibility for their own occupational futures, is unworthy of journalism. On behalf of commentators everywhere, I’m here to cry foul. My ability and that of my columneering colleagues to analyze a situation strategically, recognize significance, and write words infused with meaning that elicit understanding from third parties is in no way subsidiary to the work of journalists–no matter how deeply ingrained the belief is among some journalists that theirs are the only voices that matter in American media.

If that were the case–and patently it is not–how come after the seeming daily quota of finger-pointing is fulfilled, the best that some reporters can come up with is a feeble plea of, “Save me”? Occasionally whimpered, as was the cast last week with Michael Miner, with a gun in their hands.

Enough, already. The public petulance is wearing thin. Being career investigators, it’s about time reporters dug deep for another argument. Get a new act. Get a life. Get a clue. And if all else fails–like, for example, your newspaper–get a job.

Not mine.

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