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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Hot takes, trash columns

by Philip Martin | May 8, 2022 at 1:56 a.m.

I know this is Mother's Day, and I love my mother and reserve the right to write about her at some point in the future. But the last thing we need is another sappy Mother's Day column.

What frightens me most is not the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned, but the realization that our Supreme Court is just another political body where first principles and sacred charges are publicly invoked and privately ignored.

I don't care about who is or isn't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; aspiring to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ought to disqualify you from getting in.

It is sad that so many of us are blind to the obvious life-expanding benefits of a genuinely broad-minded and open-hearted education designed to do more than increase the revenue-generating power of its students.

It's also sad that we still cannot expect people in positions of public trust to always tell the truth when faced with embarrassing and inconvenient circumstances.

And, no, Topgolf is not real golf.

I don't feel compelled to lean on every hot button that presents itself. Which sometimes is a problem for my friend, who wants me to write about X.

"Somebody needs to hold them accountable," he says.

I point out there have been stories in the newspaper about the situation he's so upset about.

"They're being held accountable," I say. And they are--or will be. We have reporters who are requesting documents and asking questions. They hear the same gossip we hear. They are working on telling the story. At some point it will be told, and there will be a complement of facts to work with.

I tell my friend that, knowing what I know, which is no more than he knows, that it looks like someone isn't being as transparent as they should be, and that there's more to this particular story than press releases will admit.

But I don't see what good it would do to wade in armed with only feelings and instinct. I could write a speculative rant; I could loudly ask the same questions that other people are asking. But I don't want to.

I'd rather reserve judgment, wait and see how things play out. I'm not on a television shout show or a podcast where I'm expected to have five hot takes per episode. I have the luxury of not having to offer an opinion on the issue that has my friend outraged, and I'm willing to hold off unloading my imperfectly informed opinion until I am comfortable that it's sorted in my mind.

"But isn't it your job to have opinions?" he asks.

It is a good question. He's right, but there is a quality control component to my job. Not just any opinion should make the cut. Even in this digital age, this real estate is pretty valuable; some people would pay for the privilege of publishing 1,000 or so words in the Sunday Perspective section of this newspaper.

So by my reckoning, if I write a trash column, I've wasted not only readers' time but my boss' money. And not just the money he's paying me, but the money he's forgoing by not allowing someone else to use this space to try to sell you something.

So I try to avoid writing trash columns.

It's not always possible--everyone writes a trash column every now and then--and most days I worry about whether what I've produced is good enough. Some days you just have to take the shot, even if you know it's not a high percentage one. (What's really bad about trash columns is it usually takes just as long or longer to write them.)

The least you owe your editors and anyone who might happen to read you is an honest effort.

There is no one way to do this job obviously. Many years ago I got in trouble with a group of columnists when I said that one of the few bright-line rules in this business is that you shouldn't make stuff up.

I was wrong about that; there are ways to use exaggeration, speculation and fabulation to make salient points. Just look at Dave Barry, or John Brummett's occasional conversations with Bubba. We had a dead cat writing for this newspaper for years. My dog Paris is waiting for her next movie review assignment.

They had a point. So I've amended my position. You can make stuff up, but you can't lie.

Or you can, but if you do, it will catch up to you. (At least I hope it does.)

Still, I try to avoid writing about stuff that I don't know, which is both limiting and liberating. If you stick to what you know, you might be useful to people--you might be able to edify and/or enlighten them. Maybe some will start to trust you on some subjects. But you have to keep in mind that there's always someone who knows more than you do on certain subjects. And when you get things wrong, these people will let you know.

And that's OK, so long as you're honest about what you know and what you don't. I go off on history jags sometimes and am generally pretty good, but not above confusing Revolutionary War figures like British General Thomas Gage and American General Horatio Gates. Of course I got corrected, as I should have been. I like to think the corrections were as gentle as they were because my column generally makes sense to history professors who caught my error.

What you don't want to do is to pretend to knowledge you don't have. Don't be pretentious, which is a word a lot of people misuse to denigrate anything they don't like or think is fancy. But what it really means is to stake a claim to authority you don't possess.

Which is exactly what I'd be doing if I chose, at this point, to hold forth on a situation I genuinely don't understand. There's no rule that you have to say something about everything all the time.

There is a certain authority that's conveyed by the little drawings by your name in this section, and while the presumption isn't as strong as it once was, there are probably people out there who believe that you must know what you're talking about; otherwise they wouldn't have given you a column in the newspaper.

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