At last I am at liberty to vouchsafe to you the dozen rules in reading a political column.
1. Beware the pundit’s device of using a quotation from a liberal opposition figure to make a conservative case, and vice versa. Righties love to quote John F. Kennedy on life’s unfairness; lefties love to quote Ronald Reagan. Don’t fall for gilding by association.
2. Never look for the story in the lede. Reporters are required to put what’s happened up top, but the practiced pundit places a nugget of news, even a startling insight, halfway down the column, directed at the politiscenti. When pressed for time, the savvy reader starts there.
3. Do not be taken in by “insiderisms.” Fledgling columnists, eager to impress readers with their grasp of journalistic jargon, are drawn to such arcane spellings as “lede.” Where they lede, do not follow.
4. When infuriated by an outrageous column, do not be suckered into responding with an abusive e-mail. Pundits so targeted thumb through these red-faced electronic missives with delight, saying “Hah! Got to ’em.”
5. Don’t fall for the “snapper” device. To give an aimless harangue the illusion of shapeliness, some of us begin (forget “lede”) with a historical allusion or revealing anecdote, then wander around for 600 words before concluding by harking back to an event or quotation in the opening graph. This stylistic circularity gives the reader a snappy sense of completion when the pundit has not figured out his argument’s conclusion.
6. Be wary of admissions of minor error. One vituperator wrote recently that the Constitution’s requirement for a president to be “natural born” would have barred Alexander Hamilton. Nitpickers pointed out that the Founders exempted themselves. And there were 16, not 20, second inaugural speeches. In piously making these corrections before departing, the pundit gets credit for accuracy while getting away with misjudgments too whopping to admit.
(Note: you are now halfway down the column. Start here.)
7. Watch for repayment of favors. Stewart Alsop jocularly advised a novice columnist: “Never compromise your journalistic integrity – except for a revealing anecdote.” Example: a Nixon speechwriter told columnists that the president, at Camp David, boasted “I just shot 120,” to which Henry Kissinger said brightly “Your golf game is improving, Mr. President,” causing Nixon to growl “I was bowling, Henry.” After columnists gobbled that up, the manipulative writer collected in the coin of friendlier treatment.
8. Cast aside any column about two subjects. It means the pundit chickened out on the hard decision about what to write about that day. When the two-topic writer strains to tie together chalk and cheese, turn instead to a pudding with a theme. (Three subjects, however, can give an essay the stability of an oaken barstool. Two’s a crowd, but three’s a gestalt.)
9. Cherchez la source. Ingest no column (or opinionated reporting labeled “analysis”) without asking: Cui bono? And whenever you see the word “respected” in front of a name, narrow your eyes. You have never read “According to the disrespected (whomever).”
10. Resist swaydo-intellectual writing. Only the hifalutin trap themselves into “whomever” and only the tort bar uses the Latin for “who benefits?” Columnists who show off should surely shove off. (And avoid all asinine alliteration.)
11. Do not be suckered by the unexpected. Pundits sometimes slip a knuckleball into their series of curveballs: for variety’s sake, they turn on comrades in ideological arms, inducing apostasy-admirers to gush “Ooh, that’s so unpredictable.” Such pushmi-pullyu advocacy is permissible for Clintonian liberals or libertarian conservatives but is too often the mark of the too-cute contrarian.
12. Scorn personal exchanges between columnists. Observers presuming to be participants in debate remove the reader from the reality of controversy; theirs is merely a photo of a painting of a statue, or a towel-throwing contest between fight managers. Insist on columns taking on only the truly powerful, and then only kicking ’em when they’re up.
In bidding Catullus’s ave atque vale to readers of this progenitor of all op-ed pages (see rule 10), is it fair for one who has enjoyed its freedom for three decades to spill its secrets? Of course it’s unfair to reveal the Code. But punditry is as vibrant as political life itself, and as J.F.K. said, “life is unfair.” (Rules 1 and 5.)
William Safire, New York Times
Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/24/opinion/24safire1.html