Sunday, May 25, 2008

MEDIA: The op-ed – a diminishing art?

Yesterday arvo, I attended a session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival during which three op-ed writers spoke about the role and influence of op-ed writing. Among them was John Gray.

No, not the American John Gray who wrote about dudes being from one planet and sheilas from another. I mean John Gray the liberal-thinking Pom who has quite usefully lashed out against Christopher Hitchens and other evangelical atheists.

The session was chaired and moderated by a dude who runs what sounds like a really cool place called the Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS. The chair reminded us all that the very first newspapers were just opinion pamphlets. He also said that the first Australian newspapers appearing in the 19th century had no shortage of libel and slander and would, if published today, be a defamation lawyer’s feast.

There were two other guys there whose names I can’t remember. One of them may have been David Reiff, who writes for the NYT and a few other papers. I was flat-out trying to write down what they were all saying and didn’t have time to write down their names.

Anyway, here are some gems from the session:

[01] We are living in a world today where there is much less consensus than during the Cold War era, especially in the US which is now far more evenly and bitterly divided.

[02] The web has become a knowledge-distorting opinion-making machine. Writing opinions has now become the intellectual equivalent to fast food.

[03] Broadcast and print media still have some influence over governments and policy-makers. Op-ed pieces don’t have as much influence.

[04] After 9/11, opinion-writers and columnists almost lost their critical faculties and became more like cheerleaders.

[05] For many columnists, writing an op-ed piece is more of a personal adventure. One’s goal is to be insightful and well as provocative. But one knows that the influence of an op-ed piece in the 24 hour news cycle won’t be very great.

[06] The post-9/11 American foreign policy has become the American Inquisition, in many ways like the Spanish Inquisition. It is a time when Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, torture, rendition etc have become normalised. Op-ed writers wishing to oppose this can do little more than snipe from the sidelines. They can’t hope to directly influence policy makers.

[07] Among the roles of the op-ed writer is to throw some light and bring out some history on an issue. That means showing how history might be repeated or repeating itself in present events. This means keeping alive historical memory.

[08] An op-ed might also play a useful role in recognising and questioning consensus where it exists.

More on this later.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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