Throughout the world people show tremendous loyalty to newspaper columnists and find they identify with them rather than the newspaper itself. They turn the pages of their favorite read to see their take on things. A columnist’s opinion tends to reflect readers mood; they are often controversial or at least enlightening. This empathy with the readership transfers intense loyalty to the newspaper they write for. The title is apt for, like Saint Simeon Stylites of Syria, who in the 5th Century harangued the populace from his column, newspaper columnists also wield enormous power.
Just as Norman Rockwell once epitomized the United States with his paintbrush, the nation’s columnists carried out the same task with their typewriters. Their names live on; in the U.S. Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Walter Winchell, H.L Mencken: In the UK Cassandra, Lynda Lee-Potter, Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail. The list is endless. They shape opinions, they become household names.
The Power of Three Senators
The Washington columnist Marquis Childs guessed that James Reston of the New York Times had roughly the power of three U.S. Senators. Their influence is such that presidents and prime ministers tirelessly court them; none more so than U.S President Lyndon B. Johnson who was a Walter Lippmann sycophant. He knew that such an influential columnist could make or break him while the electorate were still in bed.
Lippmann’s ‘Today and Tomorrow’ column appeared three times a week in more than 200 newspapers. He had drafted President Wilson’s famous 14 Points and was later wined, dined and courted by Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Lippmman played a leading part in bringing the Vietnam War to an end; a war which his formidable rival, columnist Joseph Alsop helped to start. As he ordered 50,000 more troops to Vietnam Lyndon Johnson was heard to murmur: “There; that should keep Joe Alsop quiet for a while.”
Mightier Than the Sword
No fewer than 800 American newspapers carried Walter Winchell’s daily column. Little did his adoring readership know that Herman Klurfield, for twenty-nine years, served as Winchell’s ghost writer. Many columns are written by a group effort and appear under a pseudonym; in effect a brand name.
In the United States alone feature syndicates and major newspapers carry the opinionated daily debates of over 200 columnists. To these can be added local commentators covering everything from gardening to sportswriters, political pundits and social gossip columnists. Across the U.S. it is estimated that 26,000 periodicals are provided for by 15,000 mostly freelance writers. This number can at least be doubled if the UK and European Union are included.
Such is the influence offered by a barrel-thumping columnist that the calling has attracted the most illustrious figures in history. Both U.S. President Roosevelts’ were newspaper columnists, as were President Ronald Reagan and presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater.
A columnist’s value to an editor cannot be understated. Controversy moves newsprint like no other. His challenging wordsmith gets away with expressing opinions the editor daren’t utter; it is the columnist not the newspaper that attracts the flak. The column is space accounted for and so is someone else’s problem. Most important of all there is neither news nor sport feature that can draw and keep as many readers as can the columnist.
Cynics may write them off as people who scribble on the backs of advertisements. There are very few of those that carry as much influence as the challenging publish and be damned columnist. They wish.