Shock, horror: Columnist admits shortcomings

Congratulations Tracey Barnett, you have won this week’s Poolittzer for unexpected honesty in journalism. You can pick up your prize – a neatly string-tied bundle of fish and chip wrappings – from  out the back of any dairy in central Auckland.

All facetiousness aside, Tracey is one of the more readable columnists in the New Zealand Herald – it might be because she’s not from ’round here. From memory I think I heard an American accent the last time I spoke with her. Sorry, I’ll really put that facet aside now.

Whatever the reason – Tracey thinks it was a well-earned rest from reading the news over summer – today’s column All commentary, no analysis, all of the time should be a wake-up call to the rest of her colleagues.

The basic premise is that columnists are show ponies who are so caught up in the hype of the news cycle that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

My profession suck at what they do. Let me be very specific. Commentators, pundits, columnists, people like me who get their little heads put in a box on the left side of the story, are myopic sheep – on a good day.

Someone finds a way to start the news narrative and like clueless lemmings, we all jump into the same plotline to finish each other’s sentences, clinging to page one.

Yep, I reckon she’s right and there’s a PhD thesis in there for some enterprising postgraduate.

I suppose, in defence of columnists, we all know those we like and those we don’t, so there’s a prejudice built into our views of their worth. For example, I like Finlay Macdonald in the SST, but can’t stand Garth George in the Herald

In my case, its a simple two step process. Finlay is intelligent, Garth’s an idiot [step 1]; I mostly agree with Finlay’s political opinions, I never agree with Garth [step 2]. I’m sure there are some who take an absolutely opposite view. There’s probably even a small and strange number of souls  who find Mr Macdonald and Mr George both utterly delightful (or the opposite).

But, political perspectives aside, Tracey’s right about one thing: There is a bit of a pack mentality, particularly in political commentary. And, as Tracey argues in her column, the focus tends to be on winners and losers, short term blips on the popularity radar and so on, rather than longer term.

This is a generalisation of course, and I’m not suggesting that there’s no good political commentary at all in the New Zealand media. There is, but most of it is in blogs [albeit with the bias built-in and easy to recognise], or on the recently launched Werewolf.

Speaking of dog-like creatures, I love this line from Tracey, but I would have used a much more visceral noun in place of “poop”:

We have a huge luxury. Our job should be to pull back and describe the entire landscape, not just the dog poop on the corner.

Finally, Tracey asks her readers to think about any good columnists they read; those who don’t just sniff out the dark lumps on damp Thorndon or Grey Lynn  street corners.

[H]ow many commentators do you read that don’t chain themselves to the weekly news cycle and truly look above the parapet?

If you find them, let me know. Because that kind of bigger vision deserves everybody’s focus.

Yeah, I’m interested too. If you want to nominate your favourite and least favourite columnists, drop a note here and a link to a piece of their writing that you like or hate.

I would start my list of favourites with some of the writers at Vanity Fair, but unfortunately they don’t cover much of what happens around here.

2 Responses to Shock, horror: Columnist admits shortcomings

  1. […] The fun started when Tracey Barnett claimed most columnists were short-sighted egoists in the NZ Herald yesterday.Tracey’s lament was that columnists can’t see past the daily rush of ‘new’ and, when it comes to analysis, they tend to be pack-like in approach. We get so sucked into the vortex of the endlessly hungry daily news machine, we begin to think every story is about the fight, not the resolution. Suddenly our job becomes declaring momentary winners and losers. […]

  2. […] we had Tracey Barnett lamenting the lack of analysis and focus on the horse race aspects of politics – winners and losers, rather than policy […]

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