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Column Me Irresponsible

One of the perks of being a presidential nominee is you’re spared some of life’s annoyances. Neighbors don’t needle you to find out who you’re voting for. It’s easy to get out of jury duty when you already have tickets for an Iraq photo op. And if you flash a credit card while buying a lapel pin at Flags R Us, they don’t ask to see ID.

But Sen. John McCain recently faced an exasperating reality that’s as true for a would-be POTUS as it is for a lowly scribe like me: Ain’t nobody exempt from editors.

The New York Times incensed McCain supporters last week by rejecting an op-ed piece submitted by the Republican candidate. The paper had just published an essay by Sen. Barack Obama called “My Plan for Iraq,” but refused to publish McCain’s counterpoint. In a scenario all too familiar to anyone who writes for a living, opinion page editor David Shipley kicked the article back to McCain, asking for a rewrite.

“The Obama piece worked for me because it offered new information,” Shipley explained, adding that a second draft should “articulate, in concrete terms, how Senator McCain defines victory in Iraq.”

Conservatives cried foul, accusing the Times of bias toward the Democratic nominee. They pointed out that Shipley was once a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and argued that — despite having run seven prior op-eds by McCain — the Times clearly has it out for the poor electoral underdog.

It’s possible the paper’s editors dislike McCain; polls show most of the nation does. But if you understand the value system at a serious newspaper — where a great read trumps a celebrity byline any day — you know there’s a simpler explanation for nixing the senator’s article: It was crap.

When did it become inconceivable that a newspaper would have standards for the stories it publishes?

McCain’s outrage at being denied column inches in one of the nation’s top news outlets speaks to a bigger and more vexing issue in our blog-logged society — the growing belief that anyone with a keyboard, an opinion, and a decent handle on punctuation has the right to be read.

Having been subject to some dreadfully crafted columns in local outlets lately, I’m grateful to the New York Times for insisting that their opinion writers make a point. And engage readers with specifics. And bring something new to a discussion rather than just rehashing stale rhetoric.

I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost expert on column writing. What I know about the craft I’ve learned by failing as much as by succeeding, by imitating writers who are better than me, and by listening carefully to editors who are smarter than me. I teach column writing to a few bright, brave students at Santa Barbara City College. What I preach at them as a professor — and what I beg of them as a reader — are the things I wish all bloggers, amateur columnists, and presidential candidates would consider before committing their musings to print:

  • Don’t rant. Being angry is not a skill; building a sharp argument or funny commentary around that anger is.
  • Do your homework. The rules of sound journalism apply to good column writing, so be fair. Be accurate. Find out what you don’t know. An opinion that’s not based in fact is bootless claptrap.
  • Get over the sound of your own voice. There’s nothing you can say that we wouldn’t rather hear in fewer words.
  • And always leave the reader with hope. Like this: In the upcoming election, as in the op-ed pages of the nation’s papers, here’s hoping the best writers prevail.
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