Ranking the New York Times Columnists

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The editorial page of the New York Times is arguably the most influential in the world. Lately, I’ve begun to feel that the page has grown a little stale. In an attempt to understand why, I decided to rank the columnists who regularly appear there. This ranking system is presented beginning with the worst columnist (#11) and continues to the best (#1), and is measured on a purely subjective qualitative scale.

So, without further ado:

11. Irving Kristol’s son. This smug, lizard-faced, son-of-privilege delights in writing columns that he believes tweak the noses of the Times liberal readership. This is, as far as I can tell, his only goal. When he signed on, he was already way overexposed writing and editing for the Weekly Standard, appearing on Fox News, etc. It still remains a mystery why the NY Times felt this “useful idiot” needed another platform. A disastrous addition, expect him to be gone in one year.

10. Thomas Friedman. This self-important Iraq War supporter is responsible for foisting the worst metaphor in the history of metaphors upon an unsuspecting public with “The World is Flat.” A globalist lapdog, he is beloved by a middle-brow audience for his “Aftab Meets the Future” columns and equivocal analyses of complex situations. Rarely worth the read (now he’s going green, ugh), somehow he’s the star of the paper. He’ll be there for as long as he wants.

9. Roger Cohen. The Parisian Partisan. Combines a love of France with oddly unsexy writing. He is a longtime foreign correspondent who originally appeared as a columnist in the International Herald Tribune. His opinions reflect a bien-pensant benignity that would be right at home during cocktails at Bernard Kouchner’s. His columns are eminently skippable. Seems like a decent fellow, though.

8. Nicholas Kristof. In a word? Borrrrring. He bleeds for the world and wants you to bleed, too. Darfur, sex trafficking, the occasional toe dipped into the Middle East. Somehow he makes these topics seem even more wonkishly mind-numbing than they actually are. I appreciate the effort, I really do, but I don’t read him very often. If I’m ever feeling too pleased with life, I’ll give him a shot, but otherwise I’d sooner read the letters to the editor.

7. Charles Blow. Haven’t the faintest idea who this is. He’s listed on the website as publishing every other Saturday. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read anything he’s written.

6. David Brooks. Brooks is still capable of a broad social insight and a truly thought-provoking piece, but he might be overtaxed by the demands of the paper. He seems to want to come up with a fresh idea for every column and some of them are hurting (did you read that weird, dorky one about the magic of the Middle Ages?). That said, Brooks is a good writer and a smart guy and he should stay. Maybe just one column a week?

5. Paul Krugman. It pains me to put him here because he was, easily, the best columnist they had during the Bush years. His scalding attacks left you breathless with their intelligence, research, and evocative writing. But Krugman might be like Churchill; without a war, he’s just an irritating eccentric. Now that Bush is winding down, Krugman’s political columns have become flat and, often, misguided. Despite that, he’s got to stay, if only for his brilliant and clear writing on economics and related topics.

4. Bob Herbert. Even when he’s writing about something dull or obvious, which is fairly often, Herbert draws me in. His prose style makes convincing points without unnecessary flair and he’s capable of tugging on the heart strings. When Herbert writes about sex trafficking, you read it. He is a powerful, populist force on a sometimes sadly removed opinion page. He’s there to stay.

3. Maureen Dowd. The paper’s other big star, she’s clever as all hell and loves to show it. Plus, she’s kind of hot for an older broad. I don’t have much to complain about with Dowd, except that she’s a little bitter about men. She’s got a bead on Washington and a sense of fairness and common sense backed up by a wicked vocabulary and the tools to wield it like a knife.

2. Gail Collins. I’m surprised by this one myself. Collins used to run the page and now writes on Mondays and Thursdays. I’ve been reading her columns on the campaign and they are laugh-out-loud funny. I swear I’m on the subway snorting into my shirt. She happily deflates any political pretension and serves up a serious dose of real world perspective. She has quickly supplanted Dowd as the best (Irish-American?) woman on the page.

And, the winner is:

1. Frank Rich. Rich is always on-point, always ahead of the game, always capable of a new, interesting idea or a startling insight. His prose is accessible, but nuanced. He brings gravity and seriousness to his columns while sacrificing nothing in terms of, yes, pleasure in reading. Rich writes once a week on Sundays and this is a good perch for him. His column is the first one I check in the Week in Review.

So there you have it. My suggestion is that Andrew Rosenthal gets rid of the last five (or keep Blow, but give him real shot) and adds some fresh blood to the page. Here, as an added bonus, are my suggestions for the additions:

To fill the foreign policy hole: Tony Judt and Fareed Zakaria

To supplement internally: Michiko Kakutani (with guns blazing), Natalie Angier (they definitely need more science writing on the editorial page), Gretchen Morgenson (and good business writing too), and, if she isn’t taking a buyout and retiring forever, Linda Greenhouse.

To add a little youthful point-counterpoint: Matt Taibbi and Jonah Goldberg.

That’s it.

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