Columnists attempt to stimulate thought

Readers who have come to expect columnist Dan Maruska to seriously address an important national issue on the Friday opinions page were undoubtedly shocked to see Matthew Brophy’s unabashedly irreverent Feb. 1 column, “3-D porn event teases student body.” But they shouldn’t have been.
Humor, although many would argue that Brophy went too far, is as acceptable as serious political commentary on this page — as is everything in between. Columnists may use most any literary weapon to inform, entertain or persuade readers. Personal anecdotes relating to broader issues, well-researched articles uncovering obscure but relevant information and one-sided reactions to a news item are acceptable. Lists describing how to improve study habits, open letters to University administrators suggesting campus improvements and unnerving stories about pet ownership: As long as it’s thought-provoking, all are acceptable.
Many newspapers hire experts to write columns and fill a specific niche. A cavalcade of professors, professionals and pundits write about business, auto maintenance, education, relationships, etc., every week in the daily papers. The Daily, lacking bona fide experts, does not do this — with the exception of Dr. Date and readers’ representative Erik Ugland.
The rest of us write general-interest columns. Opinions editor Brian Close gives us a lot of latitude and trusts us to choose appropriate topics. Nobody asked Brophy to “cover” the 3-D movie. Columns are assigned only under exceptional circumstances, such as special editions. For the orientation issue, columnists were asked to stick with the general theme of helping new students. Had there been space in the Extra edition about the basketball sanctions, managing editor Joe Carlson might have requested a scandal-related column.
Content issues arise when a topic gets so hot, such as Monica Lewinsky, the millennium or a major holiday, that everyone wants to get their two cents in. Even though each columnist has a distinct style and some pet topics, our articles might overlap a bit because we do not know what anyone else will write until it is published.
Nonetheless, criticism about too much fluff or too many liberal columns is legitimate, because a columnist’s role is to add to or advance discussion of a topic; we must stay current on the debate we are about to enter and change our stories accordingly. For example, I made substantial changes to my Thursday column after choosing a topic. First, I changed the focus of the article because I read the exact same argument in the Minneapolis Star Tribune over the weekend. Then, in the wake of Brophy’s humor column, I removed some sarcastic references, such as the comment that “legislators are getting their undies in a bunch over Gov. Ventura’s recommendations.”
Now I’d like to clear up a couple of misconceptions. For the most part, the opinions page operates independently of the newsroom. Opinions editor Brian Close is responsible for its content and works under the general guidelines of equal time — balancing a liberal column with a conservative wire story on the same topic — and common sense — not printing blatant lies or libelous material.
Although Daily reporters cannot write regular columns, for obvious reasons, they may occasionally write guest commentaries. When staff reporter Travis Reed, who covers environment and transit, wrote a guest column in January about Generation Y, it was acceptable because it was definitely not related to his beat. Although beat-related columns are not strictly forbidden, reporters must use their best judgment. For example, Reed writing about a bizarre bus trip falls into a gray area, depending on his approach. But Kristin Gustafson, who covers the administration, would certainly lose credibility and objectivity as a reporter if she wrote a column poking fun at University President Mark Yudof.
Reporters can remain objective and still play an important role on this page by supplying columnists with essential background information and facts to ensure accuracy. Because columns are generally based on current events, even the humorous ones, and not complete fabrications borne of a writer’s psychoses, credible information is essential.
If we are doing our job right, no one should like everything they read on this page. Heck, every reader should actually hate at least one columnist. Like T.J. Maxx, the opinions page should never, ever be the same place twice, so stay tuned.
Coming up next week: a 1,000 word essay on the virtues of vomit or 10 easy steps to end racism.
Ed Day’s column appears on alternate Thursdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]