Richard Cohen of The Washington Post may not have written anything interesting in the last 20 years or so, but yesterday he found a way to achieve some momentary relevance, by writing an execrable column defending racial profiling. For the first time in forever, lots of people were talking about something Cohen wrote (read Ta-Nehisi Coates' incisive discussion of what makes Cohen's column so vile). But this leads to a question I'm sure more than a few people are asking: Why does this guy still have a column in one of the nation's most important newspapers?
After all, it's hard to imagine that Cohen has some kind of large and fervent fan base. There are other columnists who are awful in various ways, but you can understand why they're still around. For instance, Charles Krauthammer's work is a festering cauldron of venom and absurd hyperbole, but conservatives think he's a genius, so they'd be heartbroken if he lost his perch at the Post. In terms of prestige, the Post's opinion page is second only to that of The New York Times, and yet it carries an unusual number of columnists who have been writing for decades and never, ever have anything interesting to say.11 To be clear, the Post publishes some great people, too. Like our own Harold Meyerson! When was the last time you glanced at a Robert Samuelson column and said, "Oo, that looks fascinating!"?
The Times has obviously struggled to publish new voices while retaining its popular existing columnists; the problem is that if you're going to bring on someone new for a twice-weekly gig, you'd have to bump one of your existing columnists, and at the Times, they all have large fan bases. It may be hard to understand just who loves to read Maureen Dowd after all this time, but a lot of people still do. Paul Krugman, David Brooks, and Tom Friedman each have an area they've carved out and are extremely popular with readers. The Times has tried to bring on younger writers, hiring Ross Douthat and recruiting Ta-Nehisi Coates (who turned them down). But even with their legacy columnists, you can understand why they're there. For instance, Friedman may be ridiculous,11 "On my way from the Bangalore airport yesterday, my cab driver said something that changed how I look at the global economy and the world our children will live in. 'The world is a pomegranate,' he said, 'and this city is one of the seeds. There's some tasty juice there, but it's a real pain to get at it.' Mark my words: you'll be hearing a lot about pomegranates in the next decade. And I don't mean the fruit." but his books sell zillions of copies and people regard him as a sage, so he's a valuable asset to the paper. You may not like most of their writers, but they're each there for a reason.
Some people have suggested that there ought to be term limits for columnists. I don't think that's necessary; after all, it's certainly possible to still be a dynamic and interesting writer after doing it for 30 years, even if most of them aren't. But the papers ought to be a little more ruthless about it. Every tired, dull column by the likes of Richard Cohen is a lost opportunity to publish something eloquent or insightful or challenging by somebody else.
My guess is that the editors worry that if they drop somebody like Cohen, they'll get a bunch of angry letters from little old ladies in Bethesda who think he's terrific. There may be only a couple dozen of them, but they're enough to strike fear in the hearts of a fundamentally risk-averse institution.