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September 18, 2007

Bob Herbert Can't Get No Respect

T.A Frank writes:

In a sea of plugged-in, powerful pundits, Herbert is the lone unplugged spokesman for America's little guy. He's the delegate of the deprived. I could not admire his efforts more.

But, honestly, I don't read him either. I'll devour a Maureen Dowd column in which David Geffen trash-talks the Clintons. But I'll skip the next day's Herbert column counseling me to pay less attention to Anna Nicole Smith and more to, for instance, rebuilding New Orleans.

I feel lousy about saying this. Bob Herbert's on my team. By contrast, I could easily name ten other columnists who seem to make it their mission to find new, untested forms of destruction to bring upon us. If you told me that, say, Charles Krauthammer's articles were ghostwritten by Skeletor, I doubt I'd blink.

Franks goes on to explore a couple explanations for why Herbert is relatively less-read than other liberal columnists: It's his fault, it's our fault, it's the media's fault, it's our brain's fault, etc. All have some explanatory power. None are quite sufficient. My hunch, though, is that speaking about the marginalized doesn't have much of an audience. Frank notes that "Herbert's column in August decrying conservative attempts to block the expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program as 'cruel' was read less than Paul Krugman's column one day earlier on the same topic." In general, Herbert is likely to write that column with an eye towards the children who'll be hurt, while Krugman will write that column with an eye towards the Republicans who need to be flayed. And flaying your enemies is always more popular than shining light on the invisible.

September 18, 2007 | Permalink


sensisionalism sells. i don't understand why you don't get that. its easier to talk about OJ than Osama.

Posted by: akaison | Sep 18, 2007 11:20:52 AM

Strangely, I find that when I write posts as a relentless scold, telling people to act responsibly even if it requires doing uncomfortable things, they don't get linked much.

Posted by: Megan | Sep 18, 2007 11:52:55 AM

Trouble with progressive NYT readers is that they are upscale progressive readers: they have little practical empathy for life on the poor side of town: they are not "black" enough. As a poor white I am "black" enough -- I go to Herbert's column first (or will again after Wednesday when Times Select ends).

If Krugman and progressive friends were a little "blacker" the thing they would push the hardest would be raising the federal poverty line from three times the price of an emergency diet ("emergency" meaning that you may not buy a can of beans -- only dried beans) to six times the price of an emergency diet; the realistic 2007 measure.

Imagine how the mass realization that 25% (not 12.6%) of Americans live below the poverty line (or would without food stamps, etc.) would change the dynamic of the economic discussion in this country. But, here Krugman and progressive friends fail Krugman's own "flat world-test". The federal government says the world is flat (the poverty line is half what it should be) and progressives not only report it as a realistic position -- but use the half-off line as their own criteria! Just not "black" enough.

Posted by: Denis Drew | Sep 18, 2007 11:54:01 AM

And flaying your enemies is always more popular than shining light on the invisible.

well put, ezra.

Posted by: harry near indy | Sep 18, 2007 12:29:55 PM

Well, I read Bob Herbert when I can because he writes about stuff that matters.

Maybe it partly depends on how much of this stuff you've read. After 20 or 30 years of watching the rabble not get particularly aroused, the rabble rousing articles and posts start to sound like a not very good 60s rock station played like background music in the supermarket.

Right now I'm reading Ernie Pyle. Most people today probably don't know that Ernie was a columnist before he was a war correspondent, and he wrote a book, Home Country. There was nothing flashy about Ernie's writing but it was real popular before the war.

Ernie would have been the first to tell you there were lots of correspondents who were better than he was, but I'll bet his is the only name you might recognize.

Posted by: serial catowner | Sep 18, 2007 1:09:39 PM

"Well, I read Bob Herbert when I can because he writes about stuff that matters"

I agree. I read Bob Herbert. I don't bother with Mo Dowd - she's like the NYTimes version of TMZ and Brooks is usually out to lunch.
Herbert is actually more of a reporter or a real journalist, reporting facts along with his POV.

Posted by: CParis | Sep 18, 2007 2:42:51 PM

How is his prose though? There are some people like Wolcott who can talk about soybeans and make you swoon over his turns of phrase.

If Herbert is writing turgid, bureaucratic memos from the underclass, well it may not be the subject matter that should take the blame.

Posted by: stm177 | Sep 18, 2007 3:08:27 PM

"turgid, bureaucratic memos from the underclass"? I think not.

"Barely-restrained outrage" is more like it.

Posted by: Captain Goto | Sep 18, 2007 3:44:42 PM

I've felt guilty about not liking Herbert more too, since he is defintely a good guy and on the right side. I think your flaying the enemy thesis has some truth -- there tends to not be much in the way of pyrotechnics in Herbert's writing, whereas Krugman and Rich take people apart piece by piece. Part of it is possibly my own masochism -- I read MoDo and Brooks to see the travesty de jeur, so I can rail about the waste of valuable op-ed space and so forth. This is not true just of Herbert -- I probably read Kraphammer more than I do EJ Dionne and Novak more than Kinsley. When Broder was bland and inoffensive I tended to barely skim him -- now that he has become the most irritating pundit in America I read him with relish.

I nurture my sense of outrage like a precious child.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Sep 18, 2007 5:32:13 PM

When my fiancee's daughter was an infant, I read to her Bobo Brooks' columns (with appropriately funny voices) and she was quite entertained. Now that she is a toddler, she's oughtgrown Bobo.

Posted by: DAS | Sep 18, 2007 5:39:43 PM

Well, I must be boring too, because I read Herbert regularly; in fact, he and Krugman are the only NYT columnists I read regularly; I occasionally read Kristof, and can't stand any of the others. One unpleasant explanation that the Frank article didn't mention: he writes mostly about the problems of blacks, which may not be of much interest to his mostly-white readership. Krugman is definitely better with the skewer, but if it weren't for Herbert, all those Tulia victims would still be in jail for the rest of their lives. Something tells me them and their families don't find him "boring."

Posted by: beckya57 | Sep 18, 2007 7:57:21 PM

I think Becky's on to something.

In the meantime: Go, Bob, go!

Posted by: Caps | Sep 18, 2007 9:37:55 PM

If you told me that, say, Charles Krauthammer's articles were ghostwritten by Skeletor, I doubt I'd blink.

Now that is a bridge too f'en far. He owes an apology to Skeletor.

Posted by: Fledermaus | Sep 18, 2007 11:28:16 PM

I actually like reading Herbert's columns because he's the only guy on that page who writes about issues affecting blacks, the working class, and things in New York besides the Upper East side...sure he doesn't turn a phrase the way Dowd or others do but that's because he's more the old school, "just the facts," type of writer.

Posted by: Winnie | Sep 19, 2007 9:31:59 AM

I think there's a lot to be said for the article's argument that few people want to read so much about depressing things. I used to like Kristof a lot more, but then he started writing constantly about miserable people in the third world.

The Washington Post's Colbert King covers much the same beat as Bob Herbert, but is a lot less boring.

Posted by: Ragout | Sep 20, 2007 5:55:31 AM

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