Does anybody procure the New York Times for its news coverage? Nah.
For its cutting-edge coverage of the culture industry? Probably not. OK, you go looking for David Carr on Mondays, you wonder what A. O. Scott or Manohla Dargis will make of a movie you want to see, you’re pretty sure that Neil Genzlinger and Alessandra Stanley will say something interesting about the TV programs you don’t want to watch. Until Dwight Garner decided Katie Roiphe was a great writer, you’d read his book reviews all the way through, to make up for the fact that you never got past the first two paragraphs of Michiko Kakutani’s fussy pronouncements.
Still, “Arts & Leisure” is not why you subscribe.
Let’s be honest. Whether you’re holding the hard copy or noodling with the iPad, the first thing you do as a sentient, caffeine-driven being is go to the Opinion pages. But the op-eds are mostly homework, things you have to read just to feel like you know what’s happening at the middlebrow level of intellectual controversy—they’re abridged editions of essays you’d read at The Atlantic or The New Republic or The American Prospect.
In short, you can’t expect anything from the op-eds because they’re about everything. So you start at the back of the front section to see what the regular columnists are up to.
And now, among these, who’s the smartest dude—the one you turn to first and last? The one you can count on to say something that will (a) enrich or amplify what you have only surmised, (b) change the way you think, or (c) move you to inspect your premises? I don’t mean that this columnist has to bring you a weekly conversion experience. I mean that he or she is more or less than predictable. He or she makes a habit of violating your expectations—making it new from week to week.
Nominations are now open. In order of preference determined by these criteria, my choices are: Ross Douthat, Thomas Byrne Edsall, Stanly Fish, Mark Bittman, and Paul Krugman.
Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins don’t qualify because both are reaching for the title of snarkiest kid on the block, the former by imitating the alliterative idiocies of William Safire and following Leon Wieselthier’s lead on everything, the latter by alerting us to the provincialisms of state politics in what she styles as a kinder, gentler mood than the locus classicus, H. L. Mencken.
Thomas Friedman and David Brooks don’t qualify because each has charged himself with the impossible task of deciphering the future by means of personal anecdote, anthropological energy, and the current state of social science. They’ll grasp at any straw if it lets them suck a sound bite out of what their research assistants pour into their liquefied brains. Friedman will say anything that comes into his head about globalization, no matter how inane. Brooks will say anything that comes into his head. And yet you’re never surprised by what they say.
Charles Blow doesn’t qualify because he’s there to fill the shoes of Bob Thomas—to remind us that race matters. He’s brilliant on the question of public opinion (how to measure it, how to interpret it), but his columns typically function as a kind of retort to criticism, from both Left and Right, of Obama’s policies and sensibilities.
As for Nicholas Kristof, Joe Nocera, Frank Bruni, and usually at the remove of the website, Timothy Egan. Has any one of them ever written something that made you think harder, or differently? Have they articulated anything apart from liberal pieties? Nah.
OK, so why Douthat, Edsall, Fish, Bittman, Krugman, again in that order? Range of interest, depth of perception, to begin with. None of them is satisfied with the corporate liberal order as it’s presently constituted, and each is equipped to criticize it in fundamental ways, by examining the assumptions that legitimate it rather than remaining at the level of this or that policy. Bittman and Krugman are the most confined in these terms—they walk a beat, whereas the other three have slipped into plain clothes—but they, too, have become more and more radical in their criticisms of business as usual.
I’ll leave it at this for now. Let the argument begin.