Progressive NYT Columnist Bob Herbert Is Doing God's Work ...
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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.
In the late 1990s, when the rest of us were being entertained by news of Clintonian indiscretions, Herbert had his eye elsewhere: "A level of terror unimaginable to most Americans has been the rule in most of Afghanistan since the Taliban took power a few years ago."
After the election of 2000, when pundits were asserting that Bush would have to govern from the center, Herbert was warning that Bush was "the incredible shrinking front man of the G.O.P." and that the heart of the party could be found in "Tom DeLay and his crowd."
In 2002 and 2003, Herbert bitterly opposed the invasion of Iraq, warning that "entrenched economic and social problems are likely to undermine even basic stability for years to come." During Iraq's 2005 elections -- a short-lived triumph that led Herbert's colleagues to pronounce themselves "unreservedly happy about the outcome" (Thomas Friedman) or to suggest that Iraqis had acquired the "habits of self-regulating liberty, compromise, tolerance and power-sharing" (David Brooks) -- Herbert was hardly euphoric. "What we saw yesterday was an uncommonly brave electorate," he noted, but also "a recipe for more war."
All well and good, but -- you protest -- the man is basically just a predictable liberal softie. Well, if that's the case, then tell me if you expected that Bob Herbert would be an interventionist hawk on Somalia in 1993, Haiti in 1994, and Afghanistan in 2001. Or that he'd say this shortly after the execution in California of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, cofounder of the Crips, in 2005: "I noticed that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, Snoop Dogg and other 'leaders' and celebrities turned out in South Central Los Angeles on Tuesday for the funeral ... [That] tells you much of what you need to know about the current state of black leadership in the U.S."
And then there's Bob Herbert's main focus. He reports on the disadvantaged and disenfranchised of America, about whom he will tell you things you didn't expect. I doubt you knew that "nearly half of full-time private sector workers in the U.S. get no paid sick days. None." And have you ever been at a dinner where the tab came to more than $125 a person? According to Herbert, high school kids in Brooklyn can't believe this happens. "How much can you eat?" asked one. I know I experienced a salutary wince when I read that.
So let's recap: Bob Herbert is a sensible person who usually assesses things more accurately than his colleagues, regularly hits the streets to report on the world outside, shines a light on people and issues that deserve far more attention than they usually get, and tells you things you really ought to know but don't. But here's the catch: you don't read Bob Herbert. Or, if you say you do, I don't believe you.
The numbers are on my side. 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.
Even liberal blogs that bemoan how liberals get outgunned by the right seldom discuss Herbert. Search the archives of Atrios and you'll find eighty-seven references to Friedman but only fifteen to Herbert. On Talking Points Memo, a search for Dowd calls up twenty mentions. Brooks and Krugman each draw nineteen; Kristof, thirteen; and Friedman, eleven. Herbert gets three.
More telling for me is what I pick up from peers. I've spoken to a couple dozen journalists of the center-left variety, and most, after insisting on being off the record or unnamed, confess to reading Bob Herbert rarely, if ever. "I've literally never heard someone say, 'Hey, did you read Bob Herbert today?' Never in my entire life," said one reporter for a Washington political magazine. Said another: "I haven't read him in years." The New Republic may have captured it in a recent headline for a hit piece on John Tierney: "How could a New York Times columnist be more boring than Bob Herbert?"
This bothers me. Bob Herbert is the only national columnist at a major newspaper who consistently writes about the issues in our country that matter most yet seem to be covered least. Arthur Miller, one of Herbert's favorite authors, once said that "Americans in general live on the edge of a cliff; they're waiting for the other shoe to drop." Many opinion leaders don't get this; Herbert does. 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.
I focus on Herbert precisely because I wish he were genuinely influential. Herbert has one of the most powerful megaphones in the world with which to move elite opinion -- that of policymakers, journalists, entertainers, businesspeople, and the millions of middle-class readers of the New York Times -- and yet he doesn't move it. Twice a week, Herbert yells at them for their indifference. Twice a week, they slam the door and run out for a joyride with badboy David Brooks. If Herbert is a bridge between the problems that are neglected and the people who can fix them, then he should be closed for inspection.
Bob Herbert and his fans disagree with me, naturally. Herbert would say that he has helped shift public opinion on issues such as the suppression of black votes in Florida, the rendition of Maher Arar to Syria, and the death penalty. But what I see is that his most influential audience isn't usually paying attention. Maybe that's the fault of Bob Herbert, or maybe it's the fault of Beltway insularity, or maybe it's the fault of life itself. But anyone who wants to advance these crucial issues must figure out the answer to this question: Why is Bob Herbert boring?
Let's suppose it's Bob's fault. Canvassing journalists for what they considered Herbert's vulnerabilities, I compiled a list of criticisms: The column is predictable. It doesn't introduce unusual metaphors or conceits. It doesn't traffic in new ideas. It doesn't strive for humor. It will summarize a liberal think-tank report. It doesn't offer much reporting.
That's a tough list, but at least one criticism -- that Herbert doesn't do much reporting -- is untrue. Many of Herbert's columns are based on extensive reporting, some of it tenacious. In 1999, a rogue cop in Tulia, Texas, orchestrated a supposed sting that sent forty-six of the town's residents (thirty-nine of whom were black, about half of Tulia's black males) to prison on bogus charges. Herbert, tipped by journalists from the Texas Observer, traveled to Tulia in 2002 and penned ten columns on the subject, eventually helping to get most of the men released. In just the past few weeks, he's reported from Chicago, Boston, Newark, and Las Vegas.
As for the rest of the charges, let's take a closer look. Okay, let's not -- I concede that they've got some legitimacy. Herbert's writings do sometimes fail to surprise. Here's a selection of recent tag lines: "All children need health coverage, not just the well-to-do." "It is long past time for the harassment of ethnic minorities by the police to cease." "There are consequences to neglecting the nation's infrastructure." Contrast these with one from David Brooks: "A thing as seemingly superficial as a name can influence, even if slightly, the course of a whole life." Which piece are you going to read?
Herbert also has a few quirks that lend themselves to parody. Recently, in Slate, Christopher Hitchens mocked columnists "like (say) Bob Herbert" who try to be "both 'relevant' and 'contemporary' while still manifesting their self-evident superiority." Hitchens added, "Thus -- I paraphrase only slightly -- 'Even as we all obsess about Paris Hilton, the people of Darfur continue to die.' "Bob Herbert, five weeks later: "You've probably heard more than you wanted to about David Beckham and Posh Spice in recent days, but not a lot about the deaths of these children and teenagers in Chicago."
But here's the thing. Even if one grants these critics their points, the mystery doesn't vanish. William Kristol and Fred Barnes are predictable, uninterested in clever twists, flat in affect, and reliably free of humor. Nevertheless, many of us read them closely. That's because we know they're in tight with the Bush administration and get listened to by the vast conservative movement.
The same goes for the eminent New York Times columnists of yore, who evinced far less brio than Herbert does. Regard veteran foreign correspondent C. L. Sulzberger in 1976: "The Lebanese civil war is as pointless as it is dangerous." Or observe New York Times legend James Reston describe the Ford administration as "a little like the Washington Redskins professional football team. It has won a few games with its old pros, but is being overwhelmed by the challenge of younger men and newer problems." Readers surely weren't riveted by such insights, but they knew that the authors were playing footsie with Pompidou (or similar) and worth keeping an eye on.
The point is that some columnists are influential because they're interesting, while others are interesting because they're influential. If Herbert were having weekly lunches with, say, President John Edwards, he'd probably be one of the most closely read columnists in the country. Power can spruce up many things. That also means that, while Herbert's column might be more interesting if it tried to be jazzier, this isn't a sufficient diagnosis in itself.
That leaves another branch to be explored: that Beltway insularity is to blame. Never have I felt more inclined to resort to this explanation than when I met Bob Herbert, whom I wound up liking just as much as I feared I would. He makes a pretty good case for the idea that it is cocooned Washington types like me who are the problem.
Not that I would entirely mind trading cocoons with Herbert: he lives comfortably with his wife on the fifth floor of one of the Trump Place condominiums on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The main area of the apartment is a spacious living room with a wall of windows overlooking the West Side highway, the Hudson River, and New Jersey.
On the day I visited, Herbert was preparing to fly to Chicago to report on the killings of schoolchildren. His traveling attire was crisply casual: jeans, a striped blue shirt (two buttons open), and white socks and sneakers. Herbert is sixty-two, but he could easily pass for someone ten or fifteen years younger.
To talk with Herbert is to have that pleasing experience that James Baldwin describes of arguing "with people who do not disagree with me too profoundly." We discussed disappointment with the Clintons, ambivalence about LBJ, inequities in criminal justice, and the proper way to intervene in foreign countries. Easygoing, decent, and concerned about exactly the right things, Herbert reflects carefully on his words. He projects a winning sort of outrage somehow devoid of bile.
Throughout his life, Herbert has navigated between the privileged and the underprivileged, never quite on either side of the divide. He was born in Brooklyn in 1945 but raised in Montclair, New Jersey, where his family owned an upholstery shop. He describes his upbringing as "a working-class family with a middle-class sensibility." Herbert was spared much of the racial prejudice and unrest stirring through the country in the 1950s and early '60s -- Montclair was a "surprisingly integrated town," and he attended a mostly white parochial school. Although he did well academically, he never enrolled full-time in college. (He completed a degree in 1988, receiving a BS in journalism from SUNY Empire State College.)
One of his least privileged periods began in 1965, when he was drafted into the Army and encountered racism of the rawest sort. In Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he trained for several weeks, recruits from southern states would call him "nigger" or show him pictures of family members wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits. "That was completely new, completely traumatic," he said. In addition to the emotional ordeal, the physical environment was grim: temperatures during marches were so cold that soldiers' eyelids would freeze shut.
The greatest menace Herbert faced was a possible stint in Vietnam, but instead he was sent to Korea, in 1966. The surroundings were desolate, but he escaped the jungles. Many of his acquaintances didn't. One of Herbert's most affecting columns recounts the Vietnam experiences of two of his friends, Paul Conover and Michael Farmer. Both made it home from combat safely -- at first.
Then the unthinkable happened. Farmer, who had enlisted for four years and was still in the service, got orders to go back to Vietnam. We told him not to go. Call your congressman, we said. Fight this thing. But Farmer didn't know how.
It's not hard to guess what happened. Farmer's second tour lasted only a few months. I was in the back of my father's upholstery shop one afternoon when Conover walked in.
"Farmer didn't make it," he said. And then he started crying.
A year passed ... Conover got married. Other buddies got killed in the war, which began to look like it might go on forever. My sister's boyfriend got shot.
I didn't realize it, but Conover's struggle was winding down. He wouldn't make it, either. I never got the story straight. All I know is that he got his hands on a gun, and one night he waited in a car outside his house for his wife to come home. When she showed up he shot her dead. Then he killed himself ...
A couple of years ago I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. I found Farmer's name, and then, not thinking, looked for Conover's. Of course, it wasn't there.
After getting out of the Army and working in the upholstery business, Herbert decided to pursue a career in writing. Since he had no obvious ins, he telephoned the Newark Star-Ledger to ask for advice. The paper offered him a job. It was 1970. In 1976, Herbert was hired by the New York Daily News, where he rose to become the city hall bureau chief and then a columnist. He was writing the column and working as a national correspondent for NBC News when Howell Raines hired him for the Times op-ed page in 1993.
I asked Herbert why he thinks his columns draw less attention in blogs and other media outlets than those of his colleagues. "The media tends to be drawn like a magnet to power," Herbert said. "Stories about power will generate more chatter." He added: "I think people who are in privileged positions either don't think a lot about people who are not, or don't care about them."
A number of journalists agree with him. One is Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation. "There's a segmentation in our society that may lead some readers not to care about many of the issues Bob Herbert writes about," she says. "They may be more interested in style than substance." Columnist E. J. Dionne Jr., who praises Herbert as "kind of a prophet," has a similar stance. "Bob resists the temptation to be glitzy," Dionne says. "People don't always want to face up to the things he writes about."
All fair enough. Nevertheless, many of my sources who criticized Herbert's column underscored their admiration for the work of writers like Jason DeParle and Katherine Boo, who also illuminate the lives of the poor. Granted, these writers operate outside of the column format -- in longer articles and books -- but their ability to generate interest in Herbert's chosen subjects suggests that elite readers aren't incontrovertibly apathetic about the lives of those less fortunate.
Since I've examined two theories of blame -- it's Bob's fault; it's Washington's fault -- and found both to be partly wanting, that leaves another possibility: it's the world's fault. Or, at least, it's the fault of human nature. Sadly, history and science make a compelling case that most of us are, indeed, hard-pressed to give a damn.
In the 1960s, the economist Thomas Schelling performed research demonstrating that people are more likely to be moved by single victims than by statistics. In 2005, the psychologists Deborah A. Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic found the limits of human compassion to be even more irrational and constrained. In their study, students at a university in Pennsylvania were paid five dollars to complete questionnaires on technology. Enclosed with the questionnaire was a seemingly unrelated letter soliciting donations to a hunger relief organization in Africa.
The study's first conclusion was what the researchers had expected: people are more compassionate when they are told about a specific victim. When respondents were asked to donate money to help feed a seven-year-old African girl named Rokia, they contributed more than twice what they did when just confronted with general statistics on hunger.
But then things got surprising. When Rokia was presented with the statistics, the donations fell by nearly half. Worse still, when the authors asked one set of subjects to perform mathematical calculations and the other set of subjects to describe their feelings when they heard the word "baby," the subjects who'd done math gave only about half as much to Rokia as the ones who'd thought about babies. Apparently, just thinking analytically makes us stingier. The authors of the study concluded that "calculative thought lessens the appeal of an identifiable victim."
That's bad news for Herbert, who's fond of specific tales paired with statistics. Penetrating the sympathy barrier of readers is possible, but it generally requires a lot of words and time, and a columnist is restricted to 700 words twice a week. Even worse, op-ed pages are by nature tilted toward argument. Surrounded by analysis, a column that seeks our compassion is already in unfriendly soil.
Some experts suggest that human nature also just resists bad news. Dan Heath, coauthor of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, observed in an e-mail to me that columnists who inflict hard truths on readers
have to make deposits along with the withdrawals. Otherwise, if they cause us hurt twice a week, we instinctively look away, like smokers who don't want to look at blackened-lung photos. Conversely, if Dave Barry took a stand on health care, I think it'd be fixed overnight ... he's made so many deposits and so few withdrawals that millions feel like they owe him something.
Clearly, then, Bob Herbert is at a disadvantage before he even puts pen to paper. Poor people plus statistics equals boring -- we've got the science to prove it. But this explanation, too, is only partial. Otherwise, we'd have to conclude that all columnists with Herbert's convictions and interests are irremediably uninteresting. And surely nothing, except maybe Mort Kondracke, is irremediably uninteresting.
This whodunit will not have an ending worthy of Agatha Christie. But it will, at least, have a resolution: Bobdunit. It's true that elites don't care enough about the world of the working class or the poor. It's true that human nature is inherently biased against Herbert-style entreaties. These obstacles make his job very, very hard. But they are constants. A columnist must use the only variable, his column, to surmount them. Instead, Bob Herbert disregards them. His underlying problem turns out to be simple: he doesn't write with his audience in mind.
When I asked Herbert who he envisions his readers to be, he laughed. "I don't picture readers," he said. "I picture issues and the people that I'm covering." Likewise, when I inquired in an earlier conversation which journalists he considered to be role models, he demurred. "If I can, I'd like to take a pass on that. One, I don't want to talk about current journalists. And the second part is, I didn't model myself on journalists. There were politicians that were more influential to my thinking." He named Harry Truman as one.
Of course, appealing directly to the masses worked for Harry Truman. Bob Herbert, though, writes for a publication that, like it or not, reaches a different audience. Move that audience and, for better or worse, you move the country. "There's what Malcolm Gladwell calls the tipping point of the discourse," says media critic Eric Alterman. "If you don't address yourself to that, nobody will argue with you, and maybe people will feel better for having their views reinforced, but the issue itself won't be advanced."
Certainly, when Herbert focuses his column on specific, local cases of injustice, he can be very effective -- when the New York Times is on your back, you have to deal with it. On national issues, however, Herbert doesn't write as if he knows that his readers are informed, jaded, and hard to hook.
This is why, for example, 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, which started with a deliberately specious case for abolishing public schools. Krugman's effort, which made the Times Web site's top-25-most-e-mailed-articles list, wasn't necessarily revelatory, but it did try to weave in a provocative analogy rather than simply restate established liberal opinion.
My editors wanted to know if, at the end of this article, I'd fire Bob Herbert. Please. As I've said, he's on my team. Besides, if I could fire Times columnists, who knows where I'd stop? Herbert has a combination of skill and experience that most of us could only hope to match. If he'd overcome his indifference to "chatter" and elite opinion and instead try to attract and coopt it -- in other words, think about who his audience is and what he wants it to do -- he could be one of the most powerful liberal voices in the country.
But I also think that the Times op-ed page could use more than just one writer on Herbert's beat.the New York Times (or any other major paper that professes to care about America's dispossessed) owes it to readers to find the sort of columnists who can wed the sentiments of Bob Herbert to the influence of William Kristol. And maybe, better still, it will find a conservative columnist who weds the sentiments of William Kristol to the influence of Bob Herbert. It wouldn't be a terrible world if we could read a conservative columnist in the Times and say, for a change, "Man, why is he so boring?"
T. A. Frank is an editor of the Washington Monthly.