When U.S. newspaper columnists analyze and make judgments about people, issues and events, the job rarely, if ever, entails dodging bullets or the state authorities, or being threatened with the loss of a job. So what does courage look like in our line of work? Is it courageous when we wage crusades on issues of importance that are largely neglected by those who should shoulder responsibility and by the rest of the press? Or is it part of what we do in taking unpopular stands on controversial issues? Or can it be found in the work we do in holding the powerful accountable? Certainly, a measure of courage is sometimes evident but, since this work is what columnists do, doing it doesn’t necessarily make any of us courageous.
Columnists show courage when — based on reporting and judgment — they write what they know will alienate them from the people and environments that usually sustain them. Writing such words can put columnists at odds with people who have, until now, shared similar political beliefs. Or it can fracture connections with the members of their racial or ethnic group, or with their colleagues and social acquaintances. Judgments a columnist reaches and writes about can sometimes, too, put her in deep conflict with religious and moral values on which she was raised and possibly risk the severing of family ties.
In their expression of opinion, columns are propelled by ego and personality. Paid to stand above the fray, we hurl observations and judgments at the public, presumably for their edification. Regarded often as people who think ourselves wiser than those we write about — and better informed that those who disagree with us — we appear thick-skinned and impervious to criticism. Not so, since like everyone else, most of us, at least, want respect, with a little affection mixed in. Usually we get this respect and affection from those who believe in what we espouse. So when we risk taking positions that we have pretty good reason to know will earn us disapproval from these people, one word comes to mind for the decision to push ahead. That word is courage.
What follows are a few courageous moments that stand out:
In the aftermath of 9/11: After 9/11, a columnist disputed the need for Americans to know the reason for the attacks. The terrorists’ motives didn’t interest him, he declared. All he cared about was that the people responsible were hunted down and punished. His column reflected the mood of the nation. But columnists needed to ask the question, "Why do they hate us?" and to offer more than President Bush’s glib answer, "They hate us because we love freedom." It was important for Americans, filled as they were with grief and anger, to try to understand — without excusing the attacks — how some of our country’s policies have given people from other cultures a reason to despise us. Refusal to confront this dynamic could result in future attacks. The few columnists who raised questions of this kind were branded unpatriotic by the administration, a charge echoed by their readers. It was a difficult time to endure such a backlash.
In the walk-up to the Iraq War: When columnists questioned the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States prior to the invasion — as I did in columns I wrote at Newsday — outraged e-mails and letters arrived in bulk, even as a few readers agreed. My naivete was questioned by many, including a former congressman and mayor whom I respected. My view about the impending war ran contrary to that held by many of my friends and colleagues, some of whom became apoplectic as I wrote and argued this perspective. For columnists, words we speak among friends only get amplified when we publish them, too. Questioning the reasons for the war meant not only going against the President’s policy but against the beliefs of many people I knew and respected.
When black columnists reject "black" arguments: Black journalists often approach their work believing they have an obligation to "think and write black." This expectation is shared by many in the black community. But this means embracing a philosophy of blacks as victims that blames white people and institutionalized racism for most social and economic problems facing our community. Most black columnists I know routinely acknowledge the impact that racism has on African Americans, but we are characterized as "not being black" and criticized as "blaming the victim" when we go on to suggest that aspects of black culture play a role in impeding progress when we write about insufficient respect for education, the glorification of street culture, entrenched sexism, or attitudes about sex and reproduction. Rejecting the "black line" by acknowledging that many solutions can be controlled by us represents courage.
By supporting highly unpopular, but worthy causes: Inspired by some tragic cases in New York and New Mexico, I wrote several columns urging more compassionate treatment by the criminal justice system of domestic violence victims — women and children — who kill their batterers after enduring years of horrendous and traumatic abuse. In other columns I criticized state prison systems for charging inmates excessive rates to make phone calls to their families. And I took on the highly inflammatory press coverage given to some high-profile murder cases in which suspects were essentially tried and convicted in the press. Media overkill, aided by police leaks, could lead to serious miscarriages of justice, I argued, while at the same time acknowledging that these were unsympathetic defendants who might well have committed horrible crimes. With virtually no public sympathy for these issues (sometimes only outright hostility) and probably little likelihood that words like mine will make any difference, to write them requires a very thick skin, if not courage.
In questioning one’s core values: Columnist Jimmy Breslin comes to mind. Raised an Irish Catholic, he used his New York columns to criticize the Catholic Church for its practices — its insistence that priests remain celibate, its edicts against birth control, and the institutional arrogance and insularity that allowed sex abuse by priests to go unchecked for decades. His sizeable ego probably anesthetizes him against the approbation of his fellow church members, but in his willingness to challenge the validity of the moral precepts of his religion, he’s been a courageous role model for me and, I suspect, other columnists. When I argued that "under God" could be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance without destroying the moral underpinnings of the country, my column was reprinted in my hometown newspaper. My deeply religious mother read it, we quarreled, and then didn’t speak to each other for months. She didn’t see the columns I’ve written supporting abortion rights and criticizing the church’s wrong-headed push for abstinence-only education for teenagers. I’m grateful for that, though I would have written what I wrote even if I’d known she would.
These small, daily moments of courage cannot be compared with the life-threatening risks that journalists face in countries where reporting and opinion-writing can result in them being fired from their job, jailed, beaten, murdered or forced into exile. But they do pose risks to many of the relationships we value most. In their willingness to take such risks — as many columnists do — our courage gets measured.
Sheryl McCarthy, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, is a former columnist for Newsday.