Editing Political Opinion at CNN or NYT

Intel9 is a specialized blog. I was tempted to do a series on the process of editing  political opinion. I collected mediocre examples to dissect. I ultimately concluded it would cost readership. You don’t read Intel9 for politics.

This reticence may have resulted in a missed opportunity. It does allow me to expose without fear how my approach to the political editorial would differ from the norm. There are two basic choices: Show how one would fix badly written examples, or, with a well written piece, explore what is wrong with the genre, and how to fix it. A genre example follows.

In narrative reporting, a news team attempts to integrate many separate sources, separated by time, space, and perspective,  into a coherent story: who, what, when, where, why. Too often, the result falls short, but it would fall much shorter without this propulsion.

The op/ed is something entirely different, in which the author is encouraged to frame an opinion, with an implied story, in a few hundred standalone words. For any issue of real-world complexity, this is impossible. What results is either juvenile simplification, or the single facet of the deep-diving specialist. Both make it into print. With rare exception, the political op/ed makes the splash of a pebble thrown into a pond, ripples quickly disappearing from view.

In On New Year’s Eve, Goodbye to the Future; Politics Part 3, I wrote,

Of ancient origin, neoteric political thought, disconnected from material conditions, excluding time itself,  has the result of ingrown political literature. We will explore this.

For  fixing the genre, the example is a very well written piece, (CNN) The LBJ delusion about Biden. My apologies to author

  • Who thought Biden could be the next LBJ? Not me.
  • The audience for this is those to be disabused of the illusion, and those who are interested in the deluded.
  • The deluded are left wing Dems. I knew they were deluded. Do I need this article to tell me?
  • The infrastructure fight has been so well covered, I don’t need to see it again. It is nevertheless required by the format of this op/ed.
  • Am I interested in left wing Dems? They were marginalized before publication of this piece.
  • LBJ was both the product (see 1948 United States Senate election in Texas) and  practitioner of machine politics. Biden is neither, and there isn’t enough money for pork barrel.
  • The Dem hold on the south, dating to post-Reconstruction, was recharged in the 60’s by disproportionate flows of federal money. Loyalty lasted until the 1994 Republican Revolution.

I reread the article. It offers no insights new to me, but it is a rich seed bed. Though these strands are not the outline of a single follow-on op/ed, each is the seed of a  single facet deep-dive piece by the author who can bring the most to that facet. And so a story develops, spanning multiple, connected opinion pieces. The story may have a meaningful conclusion, or it may become part of the national debate.

I continue to think on the title question. In an idle moment, vote bank flashes into my head. Though I’ve never seen it used for U.S. politics, the politics of India is full of it. A vote bank is a block of votes that can be reliably delivered. Indistinguishable from a political machine, it is too soiled a notion to be useful for punditry. Yet in the 60’s, for which we may have misplaced nostalgia, vote banks existed.

They were called Big Labor. In the 60’s, the blue collar work experience was still heavy, hard, and hazardous, with a real blue/white collar class divide. Big Labor was a Dem vote bank, yet Big Labor was culturally conservative; think Archie Bunker. The Democratic Party was far to the right of where  it is today.

In my tentative, editorial fashion, I speculate that the close cultural convergence of the Democratic and Republican parties may be at the root of the LBJ phenomenon. Re-convergence is not personally an attractive idea.. Big Labor comes with some nasty memories of paralyzing strikes and stagflation. Are there other models of stable, collaborative two-party systems?

I would supplement the amnesiac format of the standalone op/ed, to  explore these and other questions in depth. This is a new editorial model, the conversational, in which pieces chain together in a careful balance of referential and novel.

CNN or NYT, now you have the program. Hire me.






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