Fifth Columnist

New York Times columnist John Tierney brings libertarian ideas to America's big-government bible. A Reason interview

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Tierney: Anything that is construed as defending Bush really raises people's hackles. When I was at the Times Magazine I wrote a piece about recycling that set the record for hate mail. The mayor of Pittsburgh wrote an op-ed demanding that I apologize to the city after I wrote a column about the problems with eminent domain there that I'd seen. We just have very different views of eminent domain. I was concerned—I am from Pittsburgh and I love it, it's got great neighborhoods that haven't been touched by eminent domain—that people would think I didn't like Pittsburgh.

Criticizing Amtrak too—it was bizarre, I wrote a column criticizing Amtrak after the Acela had broken down again, and there's really a diehard group of people who really like Amtrak. Or just hate the idea of privatizing anything; there's a whole base of people who find the concept just repulsive. There's actually more privatization in a lot of areas going on in these traditionally liberal countries in Europe. But that word is just the devil to a lot of the left here. After defending private accounts for Social Security, I got a lot of: "How dare you, you're just trying to take away people's pensions. Social Security is all of us together and you're just an evil, selfish person."

Reason: What do you see yourself trying to do, if anything, with the column?

Tierney: I'd like to surprise people and expose them to different ways of looking at familiar problems, call attention to new ideas that are floating around. Enlighten, surprise, amuse... it all sounds very pompous, doesn't it?

Reason: But it does seem different from the relentless public policy focus you associate with op-ed pages.

Tierney: Well, I think columns have been changing. The traditional one was just a pundit sitting there, and it evolved so you got more reporting in columns—Bill Safire really did that—and I think there's been more expansion in economics columnists and columnists who are known for taking more of a light touch with things than doing serious public policy. There isn't one mold; I'm just trying to follow the advice that older columnists I admire gave me when I started writing columns in the 90s: Write about what you're interested in and what you feel passionately about. I think you have to pay attention to the market and see what people are interested in, but beyond that you just have to look around and ask, "What am I interested in?"

When I got my first column for the New York Times Magazine, "The Big City," I was on leave at the Freedom Forum, and Sig Gissler, who had recently been the editor at a Milwaukee paper and is now a professor at Columbia, was there. He said to me: "You know what they say about columns. Everyone is born with six columns; the trouble is the seventh." And sure, I don't have seven ideas right now. When I was writing twice a week as a metro columnist and wondering how I was going to fill the space, my consolation was that if you have three ideas, after a while you get a backlog. And thank God there are always things happening.

Reason: With blogs filtering and disseminating free opinion content from a huge variety of people with expertise in various topics, is the op-ed columnist an endangered species?

Tierney: I hope it's not an endangered species. What's impressed me about the Times, which I joined in 1990... I really resented the Times when I was a magazine writer, because I would spend all this time doing my own masterpiece on a topic, and some people would notice it. But then the Times would do a two-day story on it that got noticed. I know that there are all these media out there, and I'm delighted to see all this competition; let a thousand flowers bloom. But there is a need for a sort of bulletin board, a common thing for people to do that. It seems to me that during my career, it's gotten to be even more of a bulletin board as the national edition has grown. I hope it'll stay that way. You see this with global networks, where there are all these different things going on, but there is a tendency for capital cities to get bigger. I think it's called the agglomeration theory. People have been predicting for a long time that cities like New York would start to wither because people could go live in the Rockies and do their job from anywhere, yet these capital cities have kept growing. The more that people everywhere now have access to this information about the culture capitals, so that you can be anywhere and know what the movie grosses are and what the hot thing is, the more that everyone's interested in these topics from the capitals, the more there's a niche for some common ground there. You write a column, and there are all these blogs out there, but you see they're keying off the column to start the debate.

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