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JEFF JACOBY

The value of preaching to the unconverted

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My late colleague David Nyhan, a gifted Boston Globe journalist for more than three decades, told me two things on the day my first column appeared on this page.

“Your readers will find you, and you’ll find your readers,” he promised me. “And no matter what you write, it almost always looks better in print.”

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Nyhan was a passionate liberal; I’m an avid conservative. We saw things very differently on any number of issues. But his words of reassurance back when I was the Globe’s newest columnist proved spot-on. For those of us in the punditry line, so many things have changed in the years since my debut: above all, the Internet tsunami. But one thing I have never had to wonder about is whether anybody would read my pearls of wisdom. They might not heed them (they usually don’t, come to think of it, which helps explain why the world is still a mess). But as Nyhan knew, the readers would come. And many would keep coming back, column after column, year after year.

Even as I mark my 20th anniversary here, I still marvel at the alchemy of publication and the sense of durability and authority it conveys. Writing has never come easy to me. I’ve always felt like Red Smith, the legendary sports columnist, who was asked by an interviewer whether it was difficult to write his newspaper column. “Why, no,” he replied with a straight face. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Many a time I’ve filed a column, and spent hours afterward fretting that it didn’t really gel, or I didn’t find the right words, or the argument didn’t work. Then I see it in the paper the next day, and am relieved — well, usually — at how much better it reads than I remembered.

Columnizing wasn’t originally my chosen profession. At age 6, I announced at a school assembly that I was going to be a judge when I grew up. In time I did earn a law degree and even worked for a few months in a major law firm. I never got close to donning a judicial robe, wielding a gavel, or dealing with lawyers’ frivolous objections. (“Overruled!”) Yet the 6-year-old me wasn’t totally wrong: I do make my living handing down opinions. Alas, they don’t carry the force of law. And however much I might wish to, I can’t declare anyone in contempt for defying my authority.

Which is just as well, since the only authority I have — the only authority any columnist has — is the moral authority that can be earned by making a convincing argument. An argument isn’t just contradiction, or heaping insults on the target du jour. And it’s hardly convincing if all you bother to do is assure your ideological teammates that they are obviously correct, and that the other team is filled with crooks and liars.

Preaching to the converted has its merits and rewards. But 20 years into the Internet Age it has become easier than ever for readers to envelop themselves in partisan cocoons of like-minded pundits venting opinions they already know they’ll agree with. As ever more news and opinion flows to consumers through the ideological gatekeepers that proliferate on the web, is it any wonder that American political rhetoric has grown so polarized and harsh?

The advice I’d offer any new or aspiring newspaper columnist is not to forget that there is great value in preaching to the unconverted, and to relish the opportunity a mainstream-media pulpit provides to appeal to readers who tend to see the world through a very different prism. The reader I write for — the archetype I try to have in mind as I bleed at the typewriter — isn’t someone who sings from the same hymnal I do. It’s a reader who may or may not buy my argument or share my outlook, but who’s at least willing to hear me out.

Just about every column I’ve written has triggered a barrage of responses, and, human nature being what it is, the rotten eggs and tomatoes tend to outweigh the candy and flowers. But interspersed among the predictable reactions are the ones that make it all worthwhile: The feedback from readers who say, “I rarely agree with the positions you take, but your columns make me think.” I’m grateful to all my readers, but to them most of all.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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