Media Criticism

Look Back in Rancor: The Worst Op-eds of 2014

Here's to 2015

|

Some people make New Year's resolutions; I prefer New Year's recriminations. For five years running, I've made an annual tradition of looking back in rancor at the worst opeds produced during the 12 months previous.   

"Pick up a newspaper anywhere in the United States, and you will be addressed by insistent strangers known generically as columnists," Karl Meyer writes in the introduction to Oxford University Press's  Pundits, Poets, and Wits: an Omnibus of American Newspaper ColumnsWho are these busybodies, and what have we done to deserve this? How did it happen?

We have one Herbert Bayard Swope to thank for the delights of the modern opinion piece, Meyer explains. In 1921, as editor of the New York Evening World, Swope wondered why the page facing the house editorials had become a dumping ground for "book reviews, society boilerplate, and obituaries." "It occurred to me," Swope wrote, "that nothing is more interesting than opinions"—everybody has one, after all—so he "devised a method of cleaning off the page opposite the editorial, which became the most important in America… thereon I decided to print opinions, ignoring facts."

The printed newspaper may be going the way of the 8-track cassette, but whether in paper or digital form, the op-ed remains true to its fact-snubbing origins. In picking the worst of 2014's worst, I've favored those that privilege feelings over evidence, exhibiting bad arguments, bad writing, and bad faith, with extra points awarded for warped values. It's an idiosyncratic list, reflecting my own ideological biases, so feel free to make your own nominations in the comments. Given the sprawling pundit-industrial complex spawned by Swope's folly, there's a richness of embarrassment to choose from.

yooperann/flickr

It's time for an "American jihad"

Dr. Keith Ablow, FoxNews.com, October 28, 2014

"We need the spirit of an American jihad" insists psychiatrist and Fox News commentator Dr. Keith Ablow—not, he hastens to add, the behead-the-infidel kind. Instead, he means "jihad" in the sense of "a 'war or struggle against unbelievers'"—those scoundrels, at home and abroad, who doubt the self-evident truth that "We the People of the United States are good and we are right." As Kenny Powers, the tubby, loudmouthed ex-baseball star from the HBO comedy "Eastbound and Down," once put it: "I honestly just feel that America is the best country and the other countries aren't as good. That used to be called patriotism."

At home, Dr. Keith's jihad would institutionalize the notion that "our Constitution is a sacred document" and establish self-worship as our national civic religion. "An American jihad would make every teacher of American history not only a public servant, but a servant of the Truth," he writes.

Abroad, star-spangled holy warriors would "spread around the world our love of individual freedom and insist on its reflection in every government," working to ensure that "every nation on earth" is eventually "governed by freely elected leaders and our Constitution." Achieving that dream will likely require "an international mercenary force for good," "boots on the ground in many places in the world,"  and "no quarter" for evil-doers.

For other countries, however, we may opt for a lighter touch. Instead of Americanizing them at gunpoint, we'll just ship them our unemployed politicians: "We would urge our leaders, after their service in the U.S. Senate and Congress, to seek dual citizenship in other nations, like France and Italy and Sweden and Argentina and Brazil and Germany, and work to influence those nations to adopt laws very much like our own." "We might even fund our leaders' campaigns for office in these other nations," Dr. K enthuses.

Picture Michele Bachmann moving to Norway to eat pickled herring, kiss babies, and hector the Norskies about American exceptionalism. As a goodwill-promotion strategy, I suppose it's better than airstrikes. But it seems unlikely to work, and somewhat in tension with Dr. K's notion that "an American jihad would make every tax dollar a tithing and the squandering of those dollars a sin."

'Dark Winter' of Ebola terrorism?

Marc Thiessen, Washington Post, October 20, 2014

At the height of last fall's Ebola freakout, while apparently free-associating from Fox's frantic newscrawler, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen had an epiphany: "The world is experiencing virulent outbreaks of Ebola and Islamist radicalism," he mused, "What if the two threats converge into one?" Two great scares that scare great together: it was such a perfect, of-the-moment combination of all that unnerves us that I'm still amazed it didn't take off like Sharknado or Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

Thiessen's just spitballing here, but hear him out: "In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers infected with Ebola could blow themselves up in a crowded place — say, shopping malls in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta — spreading infected tissue and bodily fluids."

Contra Thiessen, it seems to me that "a perfect bioweapon" would have a much higher transmission rate than Ebola, nor would it be as easily contained by Western health systems. But even though Thiessen's "nightmare scenario" would be unlikely to cause mass casualties, he's surely right that it would induce mass panic.

Which is why I'm so confused about what he's up to here. Normally, Thiessen is vigilant to a fault about threats to the home front. After the Snowden leaks, he warned us that just letting Americans know that the federal government was secretly Hoovering up their phone records was"incredibly damaging to national security." So, if Thiessen thinks Jihadebolabombing is a viable plan, what's he doing spelling it out for the terrorists on one of the nation's top op-ed pages? Isn't mass panic a bad thing?

War Is Being Waged on Our Homeland

Bernie Kerik, Time, December 22, 2014

As if the war on terror wasn't alarming enough, there's another "war being waged on our homeland," says former NYPD commissioner Bernie Kerik: "It is a war on cops who live to protect those they serve," and it's "as dangerous as any global enemy we face." Criticism of police misconduct "has caused protests and riots all over this nation… and horribly, two New York City police officers to be assassinated." If unchecked, it could "cause damage far worse than any attack on our country, including that on 9/11/2001."

Stylistically, Kerik's jeremiad shares a lot with conspiratorial chain emails: "It's a lie!"; "America will look more like a wasteland than the greatest country in the world in just a few short years…"; "THAT IS THE TRUTH!" Too many exclamation marks spoil the prose: they should be used sparingly, as when you're quoting somebody who's screaming or writing a friendly letter to a Russian. Moreover, any writer who whipsaws the reader from "Michael Brown committed a strong armed robbery, attacked and assaulted a uniformed policeman, attempted to take the officer's gun… and he did not have his hands up!" to "Eric Garner was selling cigarettes illegally…" really needs to work on his transitions.

In terms of substance, the actions of a lone madman who also killed his girlfriend hardly discredit legitimate criticism of police militarization. Thankfully, there's no war on police in this country, even if they're dressed for one. In fact, there's "never been a safer time to be a cop." But if Kerik's view is representative of how America's law enforcement leadership feels, then they've really turned their backs on rational argument.

Department of Defense

"Only America Can Prevent a Disaster in Iraq"

L. Paul Bremer, Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2014

When the ramshackle Iraqi state started collapsing (again) last summer, the bright boys who got us into this mess in the first place were inescapable on cable news and the oped pages. This piece by Dick and Liz Cheney stood out for its deadpan brazenness: "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many," the Cheneys write.  

But there's a special place in my gallbladder for this column by L. Paul Bremer. Bremer, you may recall, was head of Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, widely regarded as having helped stoke a civil war by summarily disbanding the Iraqi army. And yet, here he is, 10 years later, lecturing everyone about how to build a stable and democratic Iraq.   

Some years ago, after his tour in Iraq, Bremer kept a lower public profile, only showing up in places like the Post's Food section, where he proudly displayed his "Fontainbeau, garnished with pomegranate molasses." As Francie Bremer commented on her husband's cooking: "when Jerry goes at something 100 percent, you just have to stand back."

"The Spiritual Recession,"

David Brooks, New York Times, June 26, 2014

In this column, perennial "Worst Opeds" favorite (and last year's prizewinner) David Brooks gives us a "kinder, gentler" version of Dr. Ablow's call for an "American Jihad"—or maybe it's a neocon take on Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech. Either way, Brooks is sorely disappointed in you, the reader, and the American people as a whole.

There was a time, he says, when Americans believed heartily in grand national crusades, like the promotion of the "democratic gospel" abroad. Now that "vibrant faith" has waned, and our ambitions are contemptibly prosaic: instead of perfecting the world, we'd rather go on with our lives. But "without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with," Brooks laments. And then you're stuck with small leaders, who won't go around lighting fires in the minds of men and "ending tyranny in our world."

Brooks just can't see any point to an America that minds its own business at home and abroad: "if America isn't a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for?" he sputters. "We have slid into a debauched libertarianism. Nobody envisions the large sweep of events; we just go our own separate ways making individual choices."

Jefferson called that "the pursuit of happiness"; apparently, it's David Brooks's vision of Hell.

***

In his historical survey of the American newspaper column, Karl Meyer concedes that oped-writing is "at best an uneven popular art," but maintains that "in the voice of the columnists one can hear, if at times discordantly, the joyful noise of a free people." In a year when so many American "Thought Leaders" used their platforms to stoke morbid alarmism and the war mentality, you really had to strain.

Advertisement

NEXT: The Internet Makes Trusting Total Strangers Possible, and That's Good for Business

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “print opinions, ignoring facts”

    Is that not stenciled over the doors at the NYT and Vox?

    1. In the legacy media’s stylebook, it’s Rule 1.

      1. “Rule Numbah Two?!

        NO POOFTAHS!

        Rule Numbah Three?!

        I don’t wanna catch anybody NOT drinking!

        Rule Numbah Four?!

        NO POOFTAHS!”

    2. Seems like the could just condense all of Jounalism school down to just that and then spend the rest of their college years on a four year bender.

    3. Im sure its on the homepage for Salon too.

  2. ‘Abroad, star-spangled holy warriors would “spread around the world our love of individual freedom and insist on its reflection in every government,” working to ensure that “every nation on earth” is eventually “governed by freely elected leaders and our Constitution.” Achieving that dream will likely require “an international mercenary force for good,” “boots on the ground in many places in the world,” and “no quarter” for evil-doers.’

    It seems to me that enforcing our Constitution on every corner of the globe would actually be unConstitutional since the Constitution specifies that would be states have to ratify it. Therefore, imposing it by force is unconstitutional.

    This guy is therefore pretty stupid.

    1. It’s also sound better if the Constitution was enforced here, first.

    2. Im pretty sure he is just stole that speech from Comstock in Bioshock:Infinite.

      1. Edit: scratch that “is” my grammer bad sometimes.

  3. “We have slid into a debauched libertarianism. Nobody envisions the large sweep of events; we just go our own separate ways making individual choices.”

    Fuck you Brooks. Not only are you wrong on our achieving libertarian goals in any sense or form, you’re a proponent of velvet-gloved authoritarian rule. I have nothing but contempt for you.

    1. “We have slid into a debauched libertarianism.”

      Hurrah!

    2. “Fuck you Brooks”

      This cannot be said enough.

  4. Wow, only the Kerik and Brooks editorials angered me – the rest are just fluff I hadn’t even heard of before (I hadn’t heard of the Brooks one, either, so thanks for that, I guess).

    1. The Bremer one was pretty damned galling. He should be in prison right next to Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.

  5. Those don’t strike me as the worst editorials I read last year. Maybe the worst editorials written by conservatives (using the term loosely when referring to David Brooks).

    I’m astonished the author could ignore some of the absolutely stunning editorials from the Left in 2014.

    For example:

    The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment

    John Paul Stevens served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010.

    That anomalous result can be avoided by adding five words to the text of the Second Amendment to make it unambiguously conform to the original intent of its draftsmen. As so amended, it would read:

    “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/…..story.html

    Or:

    “Senator Harry Reid

    The Kochs’ bid for a hostile takeover of American democracy is calculated to make themselves even richer.

    I urge my colleagues to support this constitutional amendment ? to rally behind our democracy. I understand what we Senate Democrats are proposing is no small thing ? amending our Constitution is not something we take lightly. “

    1. “Senator Harry Reid
      The Kochs’ bid for a hostile takeover of American democracy is calculated to make themselves even richer.”
      ———————-
      Darn guys! Who could even imagine such duplicity?

      “Billionaire activist Tom Steyer has invested millions of dollars to argue that climate change is “the defining issue of our time” and that blocking construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is pivotal to the nation’s environmental health and future.”
      http://www.sfchronicle.com/pol…..404908.php

      “Steyer’s investment firm holds stock in the leading photovoltaic solar panel supplier in California, Yingli Green Energy Holding Company of China.”
      http://www.breitbart.com/big-g…..l-and-oil/

      Why, just a self-righteous greeny twit, that’s who!

    2. to make it unambiguously conform to the original intent of its draftsmen

      Never mind all the statements by the draftsmen that show they meant no such thing.

    3. What would Harry Reid know about someone using American democracy to make himself richer?

    4. While reading your own “worst” submission, I stumbled across a few other turdpiles of words @ the WaPo, including
      =

      A cop in Ukraine said he was detaining me because I was black. I appreciated it
      Being a black man in Ukraine showed me everything that’s wrong with race in the U.S.

      Writer discovers what real racism is = decides what’s wrong with America is how much we subvert and hide it

  6. Nothing from Feministing or Jezebel?

    I am disappoint.

    1. Duh, who listens to girls??

  7. Was Tom Friedman in a coma all year or something?

      1. Once the Tom Friedman Random Op-Ed Generator is perfected, normal service will be resumed

    1. He tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and was therefore disqualified.

  8. Ablow, Thiessen, Kerik, Bremer, Brooks

    This isn’t so much a ‘worst’ *editorial*, now, is it?

    … so much as it is a very specific type of character?

    I would be shocked if they *didn’t* write this sort of stuff.

  9. I got Lancia after having made $8688 this month and more than ten-k last-month . this is really the easiest work I’ve ever had . I started this 3 months ago and right away earned more than $84 per/hour .
    Go to this website ?????? http://www.jobsfish.com

  10. I have recently discovered that the WaPo has an entire Blog-channel devoted to ‘Upworthy’-level posts, where each story struggles to be more Socially-Justastic than the previous

    – Stock market is up! UH OH SOMEONE SOMEWHERE IS RICH NAO? (paraphrase)

    – This year, let’s stop telling women to stay safe. Let’s tell men not to assault us. (NOT A PARAPHRASE)

    – America’s best New Year’s Eve parties happened in 1865 (ending Slavery was so the tops!!!)

    – How the rise of commercial surrogacy is turning babies into commodities (also babies are sexist!)

    – Hey Ferguson protesters: Police brutality is not the problem (Whut? – oh, COP SAYS: INEQUALITY, DUH?!)

    …….

    Holy fuck, that’s less than a MONTH of posts. This is the same source of retarded that gave us the Zerlina Maxwell greatest-hit = “We Should Automatically Believe Rape Claims

    I am starting to realize that a “Most Retarded” contest is something I don’t want to be the judge of.

    1. This year, let’s stop telling women to stay safe. Let’s tell men not to assault us. (NOT A PARAPHRASE)

      This year, let’s stop telling homeowners to lock their doors. Let’s tell potential burglars not to burgle.

  11. Lucy . you think George `s storry is impossible, on sunday I got a brand new Saab 99 Turbo after having made $8551 this past four weeks and just over ten-k last month . it’s by-far the most comfortable job I have ever had . I started this five months/ago and almost straight away began to bring home over $75… per-hour .
    CHECK FREELY … MAKE FREELY … http://WWW.MONEYKIN.COM

  12. Very funny, Gene, but couldn’t you find even one liberal to make fun of? Is Cato getting soft on Paul Krugman?

    1. I think the Zerlina Maxwell piece (linked above) about how we’re *too critical of rape claims*….

      …written specifically in the wake of the Rolling Stone hoax… arguing that “being falsely accused of rape has very little cost” ?? =

      “We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.

      The accused would have a rough period. He might be suspended from his job; friends might defriend him on Facebook. In the case of Bill Cosby, we might have to stop watching his shows, consuming his books or buying tickets to his traveling stand-up routine. But false accusations are exceedingly rare, and errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused…”

      …was possibly the dumbest fucking thing put to print in 2014.

  13. thereon I decided to print opinions, ignoring facts.

    Paul Krugman, right?

    What did I win?

  14. my neighbor’s step-aunt makes $80 an hour on the internet . She has been laid off for five months but last month her payment was $12901 just working on the internet for a few hours.
    website here……..
    ???????? http://www.paygazette.com

  15. Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman were ineligible this year in order to give others a chance.

  16. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for 74 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail
    ————— http://www.paygazette.com

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.