The Opinion Oligopoly

Bob Woodward (of Watergate reportorial fame) once called Richard Cohen the Washington Post‘s best regular columnist. But on Jan. 31, Cohen wrote a regular column in the (Sunday) Post Magazine that is noteworthy for other reasons. Cohen fired himself from his Sunday column.

Cohen’s explanation for abandoning his Sunday column (he still writes a column for the newspaper’s op-ed page) marks him as unique among his colleagues. “I felt some time ago that I was out of ideas,” he wrote. “Write this or that, people would say. I already wrote it, I would reply. I did it 10 or 15 years ago. I didn’t want to repeat myself.”

If only the Opinion Oligopoly of columnists and television pundits in Washington, D.C., would follow Cohen’s lead. Week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, they cling to their ever more redundant opinions.

Can readers learn much more from George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Anthony Lewis, the McLaughlin crowd, the Gordon Peterson circle, Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, William Kristol, or George Stephanopoulos?

Why is the Opinion Oligopoly so stagnant? First, its members arrive at their positions based on their superiors’ need to categorize them as conservative or liberal. They are pigoenholed by the publications that employ them. Then they’re forced to feed their own stereotypes. Even if they bounce their ideas off the news of the day, their columns often become tiring. Richard Cohen told me that his editors around the country demanded that his syndicated column address the big headline stories of the day. This inhibited him from investigating new subjects that the news pages were largely ignoring.

A similar situation confronted Gordon Peterson — a first-rate television-reporting talent — who has been reduced to working as a “rip and read” anchor on a local television news program. What’s most frightening about Peterson’s situation is that the “rip and read” is issued not by the Associated Press or another wire service, but by station management, whose formulaic routines turn the advertising-saturated evening news into a contrived, depressing event.

The abundance of narrow opinions in American newspapers shocks many foreign journalists. Questions about corporate crime are rarer than hen’s teeth. Opinions contrary to the corporate state and its autocratic governance of trade agreements are almost never heard of. The Opinion Oligopoly sits heavily to the right of a very narrow divide while the tepid liberals shudder and adjust defensively. The conventional prattle of these journalists crowds out a rich diversity of opinion and experience in a city like Washington, D.C.

The Opinion Oligopoly needs to take a sabbatical, preferably a long one, and allow the public other frames of reference, so we can uncover important new opinions, voices, and stories that have too long remained unknown.

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