Essay: The Columnist’s Responsibility

Over the weekend, I found out that a column I’d written a while back had upset a reader. But in this case, it was a reader whom I knew personally, and whom I held in high esteem. The debate that followed was lively and affectionate, and we parted with our friendship still intact–the specifics are not critical. But the incident got me thinking, in a more general way, about what a columnist does, and what his responsibilities are.

There seems to me a growing sense that if a columnist hurts people’s feelings, he’s failed at his task. You hear this notion implied most often when columnists are interviewed by hostile cable news hosts. First, the host will read aloud the offending snippet, then follow up with, “How do you think [whoever the columnist is criticizing] will feel reading those words?”

The correct answer (again, it seems to me) is: That’s none of my business.

I’ve never written a column with the intention of hurting my readers’ feelings, but I have, on many occasions, written columns knowing that readers’ feelings would likely be hurt. The way I see it, my primary job in column-writing is to know what I’m talking about: I research a topic, derive a thesis, present an argument in as cutting and memorable a way as possible, and then I’m done. Whatever happens afterwards is the reader’s affair, not mine. He always has the option not to read what I write in the future.

I quote no less a sage than Ice-T in this regard: “I can’t put any cut on the product.”