Twilight of the Good, Bad Columnists
There's this Guardian columnist who occasionally pops up in my timeline named Adrian Chiles. I do not know much about him, other than that he used to work at the BBC and possesses the archetypical author's photo of a wealthy, senescent Londoner. (My dad is English, I know the type well.) But unlike his sour contemporaries — Piers Morgan, Richard Littlejohn, take your pick — Chiles doesn't go viral for spouting the usual aggrieved, gutless takes about political correctness or Cardi B music videos. No, instead whenever I see Chiles' byline, he's writing 350 words about a clumsy attempt to offer a delivery driver use of his toilet.
That article was published on February 24, 2022, the same day mortar shells started falling in Kiev. It appeared on the front page of The Guardian, paneled against headlines restlessly documenting the emerging humanitarian crisis on the Dnieper. “[I've] taken items from countless delivery people. Invariably, they seem stressed out, behind schedule and, I now realize, are quite possibly dying for a wee," writes Chiles. "How sad, when every delivery they make is to a property with at least one toilet." Reader, there are a million more columns just like this: Chiles wonders why he owns so many ties; Chiles realizes that he loves to stack firewood; Chiles fell over in the bath and now he feels old. Every post clocks in at around four paragraphs, and all are rhapsodically disconnected from even the faintest whiff of pertinent discourse. Chiles has enjoyed a long enough career in the media that he has transcended the precepts of newsworthiness. The world ponders nuclear armageddon, Chiles has an awkward interaction at the supermarket and decides to write about it in the newspaper.
I should say right now that I've come to adore Adrian Chiles. There is a version of this essay that moans about the lax standards afforded to the calcified Columnist Elite — who've somehow been able to leverage their Facebook spiels into rich retainer contracts while a cadre of reporters file 5,000 word features for, like, the sort of salary you could earn by managing a Foot Locker. Chiles certainly belongs to that overripe gentry, but I can't hate him for it. In fact, I think he represents a bit of a dying breed. We are running dangerously low on old, befuddled columnists, and we must refill the stock before it's too late.
I think my first brush with the Chiles phenotype came with my family's weekly 60 Minutes viewings, each of which were ceremonially capped off by a cosmically irrelevant Andy Rooney segment. (If you know you know.) Like Chiles, Rooney was the quintessential media emeritus — the man was literally covering World War II — and he stuck around the network-TV ecosystem deep into his 80s, long enough to surrender any grasp he had on The Things People Seem To Be Concerned About Right Now. Rooney appeared on screen and spent five minutes wondering why shelled pistachios cost more than de-shelled pistachios before retiring to his Connecticut estate. 60 Minutes never filled the seat after Rooney died in 2011, likely because CBS understood that the Rooney character could not be replicated in the superheated social texture of the 2010s. He was grandfathered in by a different era of the press; ideating pickled Local Boomer Rants that were mercifully detached from politics, culture, and all other tragedies that were usually contained within the 60 Minutes runtime. Rooney's schtick simply didn't work anymore when guys like Chris Cuomo were becoming primetime stars, which is also why Larry King spent the last few years of his career broadcasting out of increasingly remote outfits. (Did you know Larry King hosted a show called Larry King Now on Russian state television? Sorry to bum you out.)
For generations, a huge portion of the news media was composed of Rooney facsimiles. The Opinions Page churned out oafish, innately masculine tirades every day — men angry about the new speed bumps in their neighborhood, men angry about the very concept of a "plant-based hamburger," men angry about something their wife and/or daughter purchased at the mall. You could become genuinely famous this way, at least in the way your local weatherman might become famous enough to appear in a sub shop commercial. Unfortunately this precious institution was destroyed during the Trump administration, which brainwashed the Resident Crank Contingency into permanent service of the culture war. The worst thing that happened to bad columnists was the introduction of the Newsmax vocabulary: "snowflake," "safe space," "cancel culture," and so on. It transformed their banal grievances into something much more insidious and unreadable. If I pick up a local paper now I will immediately be accosted with the whole gamut of DeSantis-tinged carnage; tedious in ways that are no longer funny. My own personal safe space — leafing through the San Diego Union-Tribune and reading an 800-word take from some sunburnt dad who's annoyed and confused about new ice cream flavors — has been left in ruins. I'll never forgive them for what they did.
This trend has just as much to do with the grim state of the media industry as it does with tenuous polarities in American politics. FastCompany noted that as the overhead withers away at local newspapers, editors have to rely more on syndicated national columnists who are more than happy to keep cashing the partisan checks indefinitely. They don't have any skin in the game, which is to say that they don't live in Norman, Oklahoma despite writing for The Norman Transcript, and are therefore unaware that Bird scooters have been introduced to the city. (This would be red meat for a bad columnist in a happier time.) There's no solution to this problem, either. In 2022, young journalists are far too web-sensitive to wash up as a graceless op-ed creatures, and the needy, saccharine, millennial version of this sacred craft — think a Bustle article called like, "Yep, That's Me, I Like Pineapple On Pizza" — should be punishable by death. So I'll keep savoring every Chiles column I get, because I never know when the well will run dry for good.
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VARIATIONS ON A THEME