Generally speaking, newspaper column writing is today a moribund art form. Gone are the days when crusty reporters would ascend to the ranks of the thrice-weekly (or even daily) columnists only after years of dues paying, bringing with them the shoe-leather skills, wit, and wisdom of a career spent in the trenches. More and more often, a "columnist" is someone who never leaves his or her office, rarely actually picks up the phone, and ekes out 750 words a week. And if there is one particularly offensive category of modern columnist, it is the syndicated ideological hack -- the non-journalist, usually a political refugee of one kind or another, who spends his or her time lobbing propaganda grenades at the opposition.
In almost every way, shape, and form, The Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby is the apotheosis of the ideological hack. A lawyer by training and an angry conservative by temperament, Jacoby began his career with stints on a congressional campaign, as an assistant to Boston University president John Silber, and as a founding director of the Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based conservative think tank; in 1987, he landed at the Boston Herald, a New York Post-style conservative tabloid, as an editorial writer. Hired by the Globe in 1994 to balance out the paper's stable of liberal columnists, Jacoby duly began churning out weekly rewrites of Republican National Committee press releases.
But as it turned out -- and as conservatives are always warning us when it comes to affirmative action -- the Globe subordinated competency to politics. Like most bad columnists, Jacoby reads like Walter Lippman without the brilliance. Like other token conservatives on newspaper op-ed pages, Jacoby often favors a wounded, victimologic tone. And, like other ideological hacks untutored in the practice of journalism, Jacoby has turned out to be a lazy reporter. Last July, Jacoby was handed a four-month suspension for writing a column on the eve of Independence Day that closely resembled a chain letter that had been circulating around the internet for years.
This wasn't a particularly sordid mistake -- apparently, in an email to friends before the column's publication, Jacoby had mentioned that his inspiration came from the chain email -- but his constant complaining thereafter about the unfairness of his punishment gives a sense of how sorry he really was. And now, fresh from suspension, Jacoby is back with a column nearly as sloppy and intellectually dishonest as the one that got him suspended: a whiny collection of "liberal hate speech," all things that supposed liberals have supposedly spoken or written during the past year. The basic idea here is that "liberals" get to say things that "conservatives" would never get away with, and Jacoby's basic techniques -- ignore context, muddy crucial distinctions, quote selectively, and dredge up obviously non-credible provocateurs in order to present them as avatars of mainstream liberalism -- are nice illustrations of his unique approach to opinion journalism.
Some of the distortions are relatively minor. For instance, Jacoby argues that if Fox News' Bill O'Reilly ever put up a picture of Al Gore with the logo "Snipers Wanted," "he would be pilloried from coast to coast," but when Craig Kilborn, host of CBS's "Late Late Show" did just that, he was mostly ignored. Earth to Jeff: Bill O'Reilly hosts a political chat show on a cable news network. Craig Kilborn hosts a late-night comedy show -- and, last I checked, is not a spokesman for the Democratic Party or anything else remotely politics-related. (By comparison, Ann Coulter, who argued in her 1998 book High Crimes and Misdemeanors that the only necessary debate over Bill Clinton should be "whether to impeach or assassinate," remains a syndicated political columnist and much-sought-after television pundit.)
Jacoby also quotes filmmaker Michael Moore -- from an email? A published article? Jacoby doesn't say -- arguing that Republican efforts to deny a recount in Palm Beach county represented an abuse of the "tens of thousands of people who lived through [the Holocaust], escaped the ovens, and are now living out their final years in South Florida." Now, this isn't much of an argument, and clearly Moore is playing on readers' natural sympathy for Holocaust survivors to advance his own point. But Moore clearly isn't arguing that, as Jacoby claims, "conservatives are the moral equals of the men who ran Auschwitz." And even if he was, who on Earth actually listens to what Moore says? (Oh, right -- his legions of devoted admirers.) You might as well blame the Republican Party for some nut's post on FreeRepublic.com. But then Jacoby -- who apparently considers Alexander Cockburn, a Marxist, and Dan Savage, sex columnist, among his liberal sages -- isn't bothering with fairness. (Also, Savage, whom Jacoby rightly attacks for his Salon.com article last year about trying to infect Gary Bauer with the flu, was roundly criticized by nearly every editorial page that actually bothered to comment on the whole incident.)
But perhaps the most dishonest parts of Jacoby's column are the two lengthy quotes of Bill Clinton and Paul Begala. Jacoby writes that, "The platform of the Texas Republican Party, Bill Clinton sneered in June, 'was so bad that
you could get rid of every fascist tract in your library if you just had a copy' of it." Did Clinton say that? Well, no. The full quote, according to an editorial in the Tampa Tribune (which was criticizing Clinton), was this:
"[Clinton] said 'You don't see them passing out copies of that Texas Republican platform, do you? I was down in Texas the other day when that thing came out, with a bunch of my friends, and one of them said that it was so bad that you could get rid of every fascist tract in your library if you just had a copy of the Texas Republican platform.' Then he added, 'I say that in a good-natured way.'"
So Clinton was clearly paraphrasing someone else -- and attempting, anyway, to be ironic. Trust Jacoby to purposely misrepresent his source.
Jacoby also quotes a now-infamous column by Begala, in which Begala writes that, if one looks at an electoral map in which Bush states are red and Gore states blue,
You see the state where James Byrd was lynched -- dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart -- it's red. You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay -- it's red. You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees: red. The state where an Army private who was thought to be gay was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, and the state where neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African Americans because of their skin color, and the state where Bob Jones University spews its anti-Catholic bigotry: they're all red too.
Jacoby quotes this passage all by itself, complaining that it's "ugly, nasty stuff" and that "a conservative who talked this way about liberals would be lacerated." It is nasty stuff -- unless you read the rest of the column. What Jacoby doesn't mention is the context: Begala was himself responding to comments made by former Globesman Mike Barnicle on MSNBC, in which Barnicle looked at the same electoral map and concluded that the it divided America into two countries, "Wal-Mart versus Martha Stewart . . . Family values versus a sense of entitlement." Begala wrote in his column that, essentially, neither his interpretation nor Barnicle's presented an accurate picture of national politics; in other words, Begala trotted out his examples as an example of flawed political thinking.
Now, though this is sleazy journalism and more suited to, say, a right-leaning tabloid, none of Jacoby's offenses are necessarily impeachable. And plenty of reporters at legitimate newspapers have, over the years, been guilty of similar offenses, from simple sloppiness, to seemingly deliberate misquotation, to outright plagiarism. Of course, usually such slip-ups by a normal reporter merit disciplining -- if not dismissal.