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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

In Defense of “Stale” Opinions

We NFL fans have just finished a weekend full of playoff excitement: It’s all on the line, the stakes are absolutely high, someone’s going to go on and someone’s gonna go home, there’s no tomorrow, you’ve gotta leave it all on the field, [insert your favourite bromide here], yadda yadda yadda.

When I was a kid, I used to marvel at the poise of professional football players being interviewed as they came off the field. Sweat (and sometimes blood) dripping off their faces, muscles bruised, energies depleted, adrenaline still surging, they somehow could listen to the often inane or and even vulgar questions of the reporters (“How did you feel about fumbling the ball and costing your team the game?” “Tell us what’s going through your mind right now as you think of your mother/brother/best friend who died this past week”) and give coherent replies. No stuttering, no staring off into the distance to find the right words, not even much shortness of breath.

Now I realize, of course, that they do the smart thing: they trade in clichés. They develop a repertoire of innocuous truisms and spout them on demand. That way, when their bodies and minds are surging with feelings that would make Demosthenes or Cicero have to think twice before speaking, they can just…talk. They don’t say anything interesting, of course, but they accomplish two crucial goals: (1) they reconfirm for the audience the ideals of the game they hold in common with that audience and (2) they don’t say something wrong.

The same is true, I’ve since noticed, with most columnists, bloggers, and other professional quick-draw rhetorical artists.

I used to wonder how in the world op-ed people could write and publish their pieces so fast. Long before I’d read enough to get a sense even of what was going on, these writers were telling me what they thought about it and what I should think about it, too. How could they possibly process the facts, the possible interpretations, the arguments pro and con, and the creative possibilities outside the usual range of interpretations?

Well, the truth is, of course, that they don’t do all that. Most professional opinion-mongers write fast because they have already made up their minds about the crucial issues at stake. They already have a settled view of the general matter, and simply have to find an interesting way in this particular instance to reiterate a view they have spent their careers relating on a hundred previous occasions.

There’s no time for second-guessing, for stroking the chin and thinking, “Hmm, maybe there’s something new here. In fact, maybe this situation might actually call into question at least one or two aspects of my settled interpretation of such things.” Instead, there is just barely time to think of a clever lede, fill in the empty fields in the ready-to-go template, and launch–hopefully in time to catch the wave of the news cycle and be read along with the news itself.

I’m increasingly becoming a “late adopter” of opinions. I love opinion-writing: reading it and making it. But I have spent too much of my career as a historian—a mode in which our subjects are usually conveniently dead, as we say, and upon which we have some useful analytical distance—to trust first-out-of-the-blocks interpreters.

Instead, I read the best accounts I can find of the news itself, recognizing, of course, that the accounts are also formulaic as hard-pressed reporters have to work with standard tropes to get their own stories filed as quickly as possible. (Mark Silk has been particularly helpful in analyzing journalism particularly on religion in this respect.)

Then I wait, usually at least a day or two, often much longer, suspending any serious opinion-making of my own until those pundits who are truly interested in seeing just what’s what in this particular case have had time to process it and formulate their take on it.

That’s why I devote quite a bit of time to opinion magazines and their blogs rather than to TV news (which I mostly stopped watching, actually, after reading Neil Postman tell us that the script of an entire newscast could be printed on a single sheet of newsprint, in Amusing Ourselves to Death). And it’s also why I don’t read most next-day columnists, bloggers, et al. There simply isn’t time for them to come up with something interpretively fresh, and instead I’ll just get reinforcement of their characteristic take on things—which I generally find myself not needing. No, I want to wait and see if someone will say something truly unusual to think about, and the truly unusual isn’t—it can’t be—the first thing someone, no matter how gifted, normally writes.

Clearly I, as an opinion-monger myself, sacrifice a certain kind and scope of readership on this blog because I take a while to respond to events and formulate opinions on them. I do have, after all, an actual job, family, and so on, and anything beyond those priorities usually takes a while to register on my leaden mind, let alone provoke me to anything approaching critical, creative reflection.

But I’m pretty sure that’s not so bad: Maybe a slow apprehension of what’s happening will produce opinions worth reading. I find that to be true when I read other people. I hope you find that to be true here.

So here’s to the afterthoughts, second thoughts, better-late-than-never thoughts that are often also better-late-then-early. And if you like what you read here, subscribe (just press that word “subscibe” over there to the left on the web page) and tell your discerning friends, won’t you?

Oh, and Happy New Year!



UPDATE: A friend of mine who has reason to know TV news well correctly wrote to chide me for scoring TV news in toto on its brevity and its very short time-to-market as those qualities necessitated it all being bad. His chiding is entirely deserved, and I repent. I have participated as a talking head so many times on TV that I know better than to indulge myself in such a brief (!), reflexive (!) generalization. I am glad to testify instead that sometimes I have been interviewed well (good questions with good set-up) and sometimes the stories I’ve been involved in have been powerful: poignant, persuasive, and pithy. (Yes, I try to use as many “p’s” as possible in TV interviews to see if I can get a rise out of the sound guy.) So I hereby bemoan my overstating the case against TV news and I hope the civic-minded editors, creative producers, and imaginative reporters out there will forgive me and get on with doing well what we need them to do.

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