New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal announced the appointment of Frank Bruni to the august position of op-ed page columnist this week. The selling point for Bruni, whose last job was as the paper's restaurant critic, is that he is the paper's first openly gay op-ed columnist. Otherwise, neither Rosenthal nor Bruni appears to be able to explain the rationale for the choice. Rosenthal told New York Magazine that he expected "a sharp, opinionated look at a big event of the last week, from a different or unexpected angle, or a small event that was really important but everyone seems to have missed, or something entirely different." Bruni told Women's Wear Daily, "the Sunday column should be very clearly keyed to, and should very obviously stem from, something that occurred in the previous six days." The fact that the above descriptions could apply pretty much to just about any columnist writing about almost anything indicates that neither one appears to have given the matter of Bruni's subject matter much thought.
If I might be so bold as to offer a suggestion -- or perhaps a caution -- I would respectfully propose that Bruni stay the heck away from politics. During the period he covered the Bush presidential campaign and the early years of that administration, Bruni demonstrated almost perfectly how not to cover a presidential race and a new presidential administration. Indeed, if I were teaching a course on political coverage, one could use Bruni's Times coverage of George W. Bush -- together with his campaign memoir -- as examples of what every young reporter should take heed to avoid.
Shortly after the 2000 election, Richard Wolffe, then a reporter for the Financial Times, summed up what went wrong in the coverage. "The Gore press corps is about how they didn't like Gore, didn't trust him. ... over here, [on the Bush press plane], we were writing only about the trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off us." The New York Times's Frank Bruni, however, did not think he or his colleagues were to blame. Rather, the trivial nature of his work was apparently the fault of the voters. "Modern politics wasn't just superficial because the politicians made it so," he argued. "It was superficial because the voters let it be."
For starters, in his 2001 campaign book, Ambling Through History, Bruni described the first presidential debate between Bush and Gore as a dispiriting debacle for Bush. He wrote:
By any objective analysis, Bush was at best mediocre in the first debate, in Boston. ... in all of [the debates], he was vague. A stutter sometimes crept into his voice. An eerie blankness occasionally spread across his features. He made a few ridiculous statements. ... I remember watching the first debate from one of the seats inside the auditorium and thinking that Bush was in the process of losing the presidency.
Funny, but the guy who covered that very same debate for the New York Times -- a fellow by the name of "Frank Bruni"--wrote it up rather differently. Nothing at all appeared in his coverage about Bush's "ridiculous statements." Instead, Times readers got the following:
It was not enough for Vice President Al Gore to venture a crisp pronunciation of Milosevic, as in Slobodan, the Yugoslav president who refuses to be pried from power. ... Mr. Gore had to go a step further, volunteering the name of Mr. Milosevic's challenger, Vojislav Kostunica. Then he had to go a step beyond that, noting that Serbia plus Montenegro equals Yugoslavia. ... and as Mr. Gore loped effortlessly through the Balkans, barely able to suppress his self-satisfied grin, it became ever clearer that the point of all the thickets of consonants and proper nouns was not a geopolitical lesson. ... it was more like oratorical intimidation, an unwavering effort to upstage and unnerve an opponent whose mind and mouth have never behaved in a similarly encyclopedic fashion.
So the problem with Al Gore was the fact that he could remember and correctly pronounce the names of world leaders with whom the United States had just been involved in war. This apparently offended Bruni and he thought his readers should share his offense--at least until he wrote a book about it.
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