T.A. Frank has a piece in the Washington Monthly about Times columnist and overall badass Bob Herbert presumptuously titled “Why Is Bob Herbert Boring?” Before I start bashing Frank and calling him names, to his credit he gets the introduction exactly right. Here’s Frank:
The first thing you need to know about New York Times columnist Bob Herbert is that he’s always right. No, not in the way a drunk in a bar is always right—Herbert’s genuinely right, or at least close enough that it’d be petty to look for exceptions. When the majority loses its bearings, Herbert sticks with the sane minority.
It’s true. I can’t remember ever reading a Herbert column with which I disagreed. Even more importantly, I can’t remember reading one of his pieces and not thinking that I wished I’d thought/heard of it first (with the exception of his latest column about misogyny which I did think of, but that’s a different story). He consistently rejects frivolity in favor of serious columns about under-served but very deserving topics. He’s the anti-Dowd. He is exactly what a columnist should be and I’ve always held him as a model. The only problem being that no one reads his column. Here’s Frank again:
Take a look in LexisNexis and see how often various New York Times columnists have been mentioned (not syndicated) in other papers this year. Thomas Friedman gets more than 3,000 mentions, and David Brooks gets 2,650. Maureen Dowd gets 1,615; Paul Krugman, 1,179; Nicholas Kristof, 805. Bob Herbert gets 533. Web sites that shape national news coverage rarely link to him. ABC’s The Note, one of the most insidery of Washington publications, has in the past few years referred to Paul Krugman 146 times, David Brooks 129 times, and Maureen Dowd 84 times. Bob Herbert? Twice.
Frank goes through a bunch of reasons but more or less comes to the conclusion that Herbert writes to the issues instead of his audience and ends up being a bit, well, dull. Frank blames Herbert for a lack of extended metaphors and wordplay. Sorry all the injustice is getting in the way of your breakfast reading. David Brooks and Thomas Friedman both use a lot of metaphors and wordplay and both of them are lightweights whose columns’ only virtue comes through negative example of what not to think. I’d take Herbert over a hundred Brookses or Friedmans because Herbert adds constructively to public discourse and the other two pad their pockets while writing the Times equivalents of Dane Cook routines.
Yet I still don’t buy Frank’s explanation. Herbert isn’t any more boring than Paul Krugman and he has roughly the same ideology. Krugman writes about economics while Herbert writes about engaging human stories. Columnists aren’t doing 15 minutes at the Laff Factory, they are, at their best, working within a long tradition of social criticism. So why else would people ignore Herbert? Frank eludes to Herbert being black a couple of times, but purely in a biographical way. He faced discrimination in the military and throughout his adult life and that has informed his anti-racist critiques. Frank references James-fucking-Baldwin when describing Herbert but can’t bother to muse whether the fact that Herbert is the only columnist of color on the Times board might have something to do with his readership not looking like his white co-wokers’ . Not the good readers of the New. York. Times. Frank recognizes that Herbert’s race is connected to why his subjects are often young, black and/or poor, but can’t bring himself to connect Herbert’s race to his readership in a more direct way. Let me help him out. Herbert isn’t boring, he’s black. A lot of his columns are about other black people and the majority of Times readers are white. I don’t think they’re thinking “Oh god, don’t read the black one,” but on a more visceral level I think his race effects the way readers do or do not connect with Herbert. For Frank not to even raise this possibility isn’t colorblind, it’s just blind.