Linden Atelsek

Farewell column: Opining shouldn't be a job

This is my final column for The Daily Gamecock.

I’ve been writing columns for six semesters now, and I’ve been opinion editor for four of those. I’ve racked up around 1,000 hours of time in the newsroom. This is my 80th column, which means our copy editors have had to read more than 60,000 words of my blathering — enough to fill a small novel, or 132 pages on Microsoft Word. I’ve met (and argued with) most of my best college friends here. It would be impossible to quantify in list form everything I’ve learned here.

So I’ll focus on one: Opinion writing — and opining in general — is a skill, but it shouldn’t be a job offered by media companies.

I’ll back up for a moment, because there’s a little bit of hypocrisy inherent in this thesis. After all, I’ve gotten paid for four semesters while writing down my opinion. But I think there’s a salient difference here between our paper and professional media. First, because I’m not really getting paid for my opinions — and neither are most of our paid staffers being paid for their writing, regardless of their section. I’m getting paid for showing up for work, putting in the hours and getting other people’s opinions from their heads onto our printed pages and our website. Opinion editors at The Daily Gamecock are getting paid to organize and lead, not to have opinions.

Second, because a college newspaper exists at least partially to teach skills. Expressing an opinion cogently and supporting it well are definitely skills that everyone should have, but that not everyone actually does. There is no better way to learn those things than by doing a stint as an opinion writer — I highly recommend having a go at it if you’re a dedicated malcontent like me. So to sum up my point, essentially, this isn’t the kind of job I’m talking about when I say opining shouldn’t be a career path in the media.

No, I’m talking about the Hannitys. And the Bret Stephenses and the David Brookses, and so on. The career commentators. That’s not to say that no one with these jobs is smart or a good writer — that’s clearly not true — but they don’t serve a valuable purpose as members of the media. It’s also not to say that opinion writing and commentary should never be published or aired by the media. Op-eds are extremely valuable when they’re written by people whose opinions and experiences we should care about — say, by a legislator considering a piece of legislation, or a lawyer giving their expert opinion on a legal issue, or a person who’s been a victim of injustice speaking out about it.

But I think we don’t ask ourselves enough why we care about the opinions of professional opinion writers and TV personalities. Why, really, is Sean Hannity any more qualified than any other person in the world to have an opinion about the news? He’s been a commentator his entire career. He’s made a living out of being opinionated and not much else. And he’s not the only one — go look into the backgrounds of a lot of famous opinion-havers. The Paul Krugmans are few and far between, the Bret Stephenses are many.  I’m not saying that you need a Nobel Prize in something to have an opinion about it — you are welcome to have all the opinions you want and to voice them on the largest tree stump that will carry your weight — but it’s worth questioning why major media companies employ stables of people whose only qualification for their job is that they have an opinion.

As someone who’s done it (albeit on a much smaller scale), I can tell you that there’s really nothing about my job as a columnist that any person on this campus with rational opinions couldn’t do if they had the same crack team of copy editors I have at my back. I am an expert in very few things, possibly none. My opinions are not special or unique. Many other people have had them before me, and many others will come by them organically, without ever having read my work or the work of anyone who agrees with me. Of course, it’s true that some people are worse writers than I am — but equally, many are better. That same principle holds true for the pros. Being on TV or having a syndicated column doesn’t make you right, or even smart.

You might be thinking that opinion columns shed light on niche issues, or that they’re intended to convince people, and that those things make them valuable. You would be right about the first two of those things, but I don’t believe that makes them a necessary part of a newsroom. For starters, high-quality reporting also shines light on niche issues, and provides a much more comprehensive view of them to boot. When I’m writing my opinion pieces, I rely on the much more valuable, much more reliable work done by journalists and academics, as well as the testimonies of people who’ve experienced the issues I’m talking about. All of those things deserve paper space much more than what I think about them.

As far as convincing people goes, I have to think that that’s infrequent at best. Most people, if the contents of our comments section and long-standing psychological principles are anything to go on, either hate-read columns they know they won’t agree with or read columns that conform to their existing beliefs. My political opinions come from a place of personal ethics informed by my experiences and supported by research I’ve done on my own time. Other people’s opinions influenced their inception (thanks, Mom and Dad) but I’ve read at least ten columns every week for three years, and while some of them have definitely made me think or made me do more research, none of them have fundamentally changed my feelings. I doubt I’m particularly stubborn — the truth is, on things like politics, which are deeply personal, the argument of someone you don’t know is probably not going to produce a change of heart.

I’m going to miss The Daily Gamecock and the people I met here more than almost anything else in South Carolina. I hope that people have enjoyed reading my work, and if I’ve ever convinced anyone of anything, that might just be the proudest achievement of my college career.

But I’m a realistic person, and in the immortal words of one of our commenters, “Hey, Linden, no one cares what you think.”

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