Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

Career part of global shakeup

October 8, 2001

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— The life of every American was shaken on Sept. 11. For those of us fortunate to have lost no loved ones, the unsettlement has played out in countless lesser ways, from wakeful nights to a deeper appreciation of new mornings and loving hearts. One result for me and I know for many others has been a decision to change my work life: This is my final syndicated column.

Three years ago, I began this column with my hopes high and my head full of policies I thought needed promulgating. I vowed to write a column that didn't sneer, that wasn't ideologically rutted, that had more substance than attitude.

I wrote to Meg Greenfield, bless her soul the now deceased editor of the editorial pages of The Washington Post that I would "read hungrily and report thoroughly and think hard about the column. I want to see problems solved, and I believe that first they must be well understood." Meg, along with Alan Shearer, the editorial director of The Washington Post Writers Group, gave me the opportunity to try my hand at it. I am grateful.

Along the way, I did come up against some disappointing realizations. I learned that "attitude" is very highly valued by America's opinion-page editors more, I think, than by readers. (And here I am quitting, just when everybody's saying the age of irony is dead!)

I learned that many of America's op-ed pages have a fairly narrow, conventional view of the world. One example: In preparing commentary for National Public Radio, I found that, during the week after the terrorist attacks, The New York Times and The Washington Post perhaps the two dailies most read by policy-makers had 65 signed opinion pieces. Four were by women.

But I've been lucky. Many a paper across the country has used my column. And the rewards for me have been inspiriting.

I've had a Southern Baptist minister write to tell me why he supports reparations for African Americans and that he told his congregation so, after reading my work. I've had a single mother, working two jobs, tell me she cried when she read a column on income inequity because she "didn't think anybody in Washington" could ever come close to understanding her life.

It was the most personal columns that seemed to reach people most powerfully. Columns like the one I wrote upon turning 50, about how lovely it is to be a woman at midlife in America. Columns like the one I wrote as my youngest child began her last school year at home, about how heartbreaking I find the prospect of her imminent departure and how I can hardly wait.

I like to think, though, that some of the more substantial columns I've written have also had their impact, however modest. I'm thinking of columns on issues I feel passionately about, such as the woeful wastefulness of our love affair with mammoth SUVs. Or the wrong-headedness of our obsession with a national missile defense in the face of threats much likelier and more easily carried out. Or the deeply unAmerican income gap that divides, ever more dramatically, the very rich from the very poor.

But more and more I have found myself wanting to write about and spend my time on my greatest professional passion: journalism, and what is happening to newspapers as economic demands on them increase and readership patterns change.

This is the arena I care most about, know most about and I hope the one in which I can make the greatest contribution. I'm blessed to have a perch from which to try: an endowed chair with the University of Missouri School of Journalism's Washington program. That and, I hope, online and on the radio and television and occasionally back in the newspaper is where you will be able to find me from now on.

Another newspaper columnist, lamenting the unrelentingness of this work, told a friend that all he could see for himself was a row of columns between now and eternity. Now I see something else, and I like the view. So, to all you wonderfully wise and witty and thoughtful and engaged (and loud-mouthed) readers, 300 thank-yous (that's one for each column I've written) and all the best. I'm heartened, just knowing you're out there.

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