Tina Brown's Must-Reads: The Columnist's Voice

Nov 23, 2011
Originally published on November 23, 2011 8:41 am

Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, tells us what she's been reading in a feature that Morning Edition likes to call Word of Mouth. This month, Brown has been considering the voice of the columnist through readings that provide new perspectives on political issues, moral issues and national events.

'A Caveman Won't Beat A Salesman'

First up is Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan's recent piece, "A Caveman Won't Beat A Salesman," which uses Walter Isaacson's recent biography of Steve Jobs to make a point about American politics.

Noonan opens her column with a comment Jobs once made about how great companies decline. She quotes Isaacson's book: "The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they're the ones who can move the needle on revenues."

In other words, Brown tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, the salesmen eventually take over — and that's not too different from what happens in American politics.

"Obama in [Noonan's] mind was also a salesman who really didn't understand ... the quality of the product — in [this] case, you know, America," Brown says. "She talks about how Herman Cain is also, therefore, an embarrassment to America because Herman Cain also kind of doesn't respect the product — in this case politics, the democracy, the way the body politic runs."

Noonan writes that Cain showed disrespect for the democratic process when, earlier this month, he had trouble answering questions about Libya during a meeting with the staff of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Brown says the incident demonstrates a misunderstanding of what it means to run for office; and, according to Noonan, that misunderstanding does a disservice to the GOP by making them look like they're intellectually unfit to govern. Republicans have a right to be skeptical of the powers of government, Noonan argues, but that's no reason to cheer the notion that politicians don't need to know what they're doing, as some candidates and voters have done.

"I think it's a terrific piece, and you'd never expect she would get there from the way she starts," Brown says. "[A] very interesting point of view."

'Let's All Feel Superior'

Brown's next pick is New York Times columnist David Brooks' recent op-ed, "Let's All Feel Superior," which takes a second look at public reaction to the Penn State scandal and the arrest of the school's now former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, on charges of sexual abuse.

Brooks writes, "The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in [former Penn State coach] Joe Paterno's shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary's shoes, they would have behaved better."

But in reality and in history, Brooks says, that rarely happens — just look at the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. He writes:

"Some people simply can't process the horror in front of them. Some people suffer from what the psychologists call normalcy bias. When they find themselves in some unsettling circumstance, they shut down and pretend everything is normal.

"Some people suffer from motivated blindness; they don't see what is not in their interest to see."

So while some may be critical of McQueary — the assistant coach who allegedly saw Sandusky abusing a child in the Penn State locker room — for not doing enough to stop the abuse, Brooks warns that no one can be sure of how they would react if put in his shoes.

"[Brooks] says [McQueary] could have suffered from the normalcy bias that he writes about, or motivated blindness," Brown says. "He also then talks about the bystander effect, and he says, 'So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the bystander effect. The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene.' "

'Deadline Artists'

Brown's last pick contains the voices of some of the country's most celebrated columnists, including Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin. Co-edited by Jesse Angelo, Errol Louis and Daily Beast columnist John Avlon, Deadline Artists is a collection of the best newspaper columns from important periods of American history.

The book's introduction reads,

"Columnists speak in a voice readers understand — their own, but just a bit better. It is the voice of the bar room, the locker room and the smoke-filled back room. It is a voice that comforts and confronts. A great column is both a witness and a work of art — helping people understand the world around them while making them feel a little less alone."

Angelo, Louis and Avlon write that in the era of fast Internet and punditry, the art of the reported column has become somewhat marginalized; their collection is a way to show the world the value of a good columnist.

"It's really about how they think and their ability to empathize in a unique and interpretive way, in a sense, both with their readers and the culture," Brown says. "You really want to feel that the writer is both absolutely in tune with what's happening in the culture but also has a kind of counterintuitive response to it."

For Brown, Pete Hamill is that writer. In 2001, Hamill wrote in vivid detail about his experience walking the streets of Manhattan on Sept. 11:

"I start running toward Broadway, through dust 2 inches deep. Park Row is white. City Hall Park is white. Sheets of paper are scattered everywhere, orders for stocks, waybills, purchase orders, the pulverized confetti of capitalism."

"I thought that was a brilliant way of describing it," Brown says. "And he wrote that on a dime. He was writing it in the mayhem of that day — that's what one has to remember."

Brown points out that at the time, there wouldn't have been time to look around at what other people were writing, or to marinate on the column for too long.

"It was simply what he wrote with a pure, pure vision and eyes and heart," she says, "and it reads that way to this day."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tina Brown joins us on this day before Thanksgiving. She comes to us regularly as the editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast with reading recommendations that we talk about. We call it Word of Mouth. We'll hear about some things we can read over this long holiday weekend. Hi Tina.

TINA BROWN: Good morning, Steve. How are you?

INSKEEP: I'm doing great, thank you very much. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

BROWN: And to you.

INSKEEP: And we're going to be talking about newspaper columnists here. And we're going to talk about some really interesting columns, present and past. And let's begin with the present and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan whose column here is headlined "A Caveman Won't Beat A Salesman." What does she mean?

BROWN: Well, what is great about Peggy Noonan is she has a brilliant way of being able to pivot off a conversational point of something that's she's heard and then work it out into an interesting and different kind of denumerable. And she starts by coming off the Steve Job's book by Walter Isaacson, where she notes that Steve makes a very interesting comment about why a decline happens at great companies.

And he says the company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. And he says that, you know, salesmen take over and the actual quality of the product kind of gets marginalized. You know, that's where the rot sets in.

And then he goes on to discuss the president, and he talks about how the president, he's very smart, but he can't explain to us reasons why things can't get done. And Peggy really pivots off of that and says, you know, Obama in her mind, was also a salesman who really didn't understand in a sense the quality of the product, in which case, you know, America.

And she goes even further and she talks about how Herman Cain is also, therefore, you know, an embarrassment to America, because Herman Cain also doesn't kind of respect the product - in this case politics, the democracy, the way that, you know, the body politic runs. Well, he just simply cannot answer a question about what he feels about what the president did in Libya. And literally, as she writes, you know, kind of gropes for his soundbite and can't find it. And that's why he's brain-freezed.

And she says that this disrespect for the democratic process, this misunderstanding of what politics is, in a sense, and what running for office means does an enormous disservice to the GOP because it makes people feel that the GOP runners are in fact, you know, disrespectful of the process; are in fact, you know, not able to do it intellectually, and have no ability to govern.

INSKEEP: She starts by criticizing President Obama, but ends up criticizing her own party. She says Republicans are skeptical of government. They're right to be skeptical of excessive power of government, but that their candidates and a lot of voters have ended up cheering the notion that you don't even need to know what you're doing.

BROWN: Exactly right. I think it's a terrific piece. And, you know, you'd never expect she'd get there from the way she starts. But a very interesting point of view, and, of course, you know, Cain did it again when he said, you know, that he thought the Taliban might take over in Libya. I mean, you know, this guy, it seems, doesn't even read the newspapers.

INSKEEP: So let's move on to another column here. This is by New York Times columnist David Brooks, and he is taking a second look at the way we have perceived the Penn State scandal, the arrest of a former assistant coach on sexual abuse charges and the related incidences.

BROWN: Yes, well he talks very, very interestingly, I think, about this whole case that's so fascinating to people. He says, you know, the vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that they had been in Paterno's shoes, or McQueary's shoes, they would have behaved better.

And he goes on to argue that actually, unfortunately, the evidence of history and of society is that that doesn't happen - of course, most classically during the holocaust. But he says some people can't process the horror in front of them. Some people suffer from what psychologists call normalcy bias when they find themselves in an unsettling circumstance - they shut down and they just pretend that everything is normal. Which, of course, you know, one sees a great deal.

But he also says that people suffer from motivated blindness when they don't see what's not in their interest to see. And of course, that has been shown, tremendously, in some of the fallout from this Paterno case.

INSKEEP: You mentioned McQueary. Of course you're talking about Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who discovered, allegedly, Jerry Sandusky abusing a child inside the Penn State locker room and either did nothing or did not do enough, depending on whose account you believe. This is the person classically that people say, well, if I was there of course I would have stopped it. Brooks says don't be so sure of yourself.

BROWN: That's right. He says not necessarily so. I mean they could have suffered from either the normalcy bias that he writes about, or motivated blindness. And he also then talks about the bystander effect, and he says, so many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes that psychologists have given it that name: the bystander effect. The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely, in fact, they are to intervene.

INSKEEP: You know, there's a line in this column, people are really good at self-deception. And your next reading, your next recommended reading here, is a book full of columnists who try to get us to take a second and clearer look at things.

BROWN: Yes, I love this book. It's called "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns," edited by John Avlon and Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis. And, you know, for a sort of newspaper, magazine, and online junkie like myself, to read these collective columns that they've taken, you know, over many, many years, you know, divided them into sections of humor and war and sports, hard times, crime - there's some wonderful bylines in here that weren't just as forgotten like Damon Runyon, some of the great columns of Mike Royko, of Pete Hamill, of the wonderful, wonderful Jimmy Breslin.

And they say in the introduction, that the columnist speaks in a voice that readers understand, their own, but just a bit better, a voice that comforts and confronts. A great column is both a witness and work of art, helping people understand the world around them and making them feel a little less alone.

And I think that's absolutely right. I mean I think that the best of these columns are really telling a little story. They're about reporting. They're about really telling, you know, human detail, let's fill the notebook.

And Avlon and his co-writers make the point that, you know, in the era of the kind of fast, sort of internet kind of punditry, in a sense, the art of the reported column where the writer actually goes out and tells a little vivid story that adds kind of moral dimension to the way we look at the world, is becoming some what kind of marginalized. And this is a way for us to look at these kinds of writings and say, you know, there's something here to compete with. There's something here we can really revive in our approach to newspaper columns, and indeed, internet columns.

INSKEEP: We should mention, John Avlon is the guy who works for you at The Daily Beast.

BROWN: Indeed he does.

INSKEEP: You, of course, have hired and perhaps fired a few columnists over the years at different publications. What quality of mind or what quality of writing do you see that makes a columnist last and stick in people's minds?

BROWN: I think it's really about how they think and their ability to empathize in a unique and interpretive way, in a sense, with both their readers and the culture. You know, you really want to feel that the writer is both absolutely in tune with what's happening in the culture, but also has a kind of counterintuitive response to it that goes against the grain, but at the same time is something that you can really, really identify with.

And I think Hamill, Pete Hamill is one of the great columnists actually. He wrote incredible material during 9/11 covering, in absolutely vivid detail, from a point of view of his own trek through the streets of Manhattan.

He said I start running toward Broadway, through dust two inches deep. Park Row is white. City Hall Park is white. Sheets of paper are scattered everywhere, orders for stocks, waybills, purchase orders, the pulverized confetti of capitalism.

I thought that was a brilliant way of describing it. And he wrote that on a dime. I mean, he was writing it in the mayhem of that day. That's what one has to remember. These columns were written in the mayhem of the day when there would have been no time to look at what other people were writing or think about it or marinate on it. And it was simply what he wrote with pure, pure vision and eyes and heart. And it reads that way to this day.

INSKEEP: Tina, it's always a pleasure talking with you.

BROWN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Word of Mouth from Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

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