For columnists, April 18th is the day the music died

    I feel a little silly about this.
    The National Association of Newspaper Columnists suggests all its members write a special piece on April 18th to commemorate National Columnists Day. Even for people possessed of sufficient hubris to choose a profession based on the foundation that their opinion is worth reading, the idea of a designated day seems a bit much.
    Frankly, I’d have an easier time writing about September 14th, which has been designated National Cream-filled Donut Day. If people had to choose between donuts or columnists, well, let’s just say there would be a bull market for big man’s and plus-sized clothing.
    On the other hand, for columnists, April 18th is for singing dirges in the dark. It is the Day the Music Died. In 1945, World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, considered the greatest columnist ever, was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper on a tiny island near Okinawa.
    Any journalist driving his Chevy to the levee of inspiration and finding it dry should forget about  whiskey and rye and turn instead to a copy of Pyle’s "Here Is Your War." Nobody could bring home the essence of an event better than this guy. An awful lot of modern-day columnists are kind of like a gabby, hat-wearing woman sitting in front of you at the movies: Not only is her big head blocking your view, but she keeps yakking about what it is you are going to see. And she’s usually wrong.
    So I think it’s fine to have a day for Ernie Pyle, especially since most Americans could probably tell you more about Gomer Pyle. But I’m still not so sure columnists should get their own celebration. There are far too many of them who refuse to let not having anything to say get in their way. The thing about Ernie Pyle’s writing that was so terrific and unfortunately, so unique, was that he knew that World War II was about the G.I.s and not the generals. The big picture is really a lot of little ones.
    My beef with the national, syndicated columnists is that they all write about the same thing. This week it’s "all Elian all the time." Maybe there is some drama in the little waif‘s story, but in the four months we’ve been reading about Elian the Alien, stuff happened to other six-year-olds, too.
    In the last 120 days, 77 American six-year-olds died in car accidents. 82 in other types of mishaps. 86 succumbed to some sort of illness. 15 were traced in the chalk outline of a homicide. 177 more were lost to a variety of other causes.
    Somewhere in those numbers you would think would be a tale more worth telling than whether or not Elian Gonzalez spends his next birthday at Disneyworld or wearing an "I Love Fidel" T-shirt. The big-name inkslingers seem to think all we want to hear about is Elian, George W., Monica, Microsoft or whatever the flavor of the week happens to be.
    And because they follow each other like lemmings, perspective often gets obscured. After the Columbine shootings, it was de rigeur for everyone to write about it. If you only read opinion, you would never know that school shootings are down, not up, in the past five years.
    Local columnists remind of the Mae West remark: "When I'm good I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better," except when they are bad, they are downright awful. A good local writer makes a newspaper worth buying. Sports Illustrated could send twenty writers to cover the UConn women’s basketball championship, but all of them put together couldn’t describe what the team means to the state as well as Randy Smith.
    Some local scribblers are too busy grinding their Paul Bunyan-sized axes to investigate or re-evaluate their positions. There are newspaper writers who just like to bash the cops, welfare reform, drug policy or Governor Rowland no matter what. Real life is usually more complicated than that.
    Most of the time, I think people like to read what they want to hear and that’s how they choose their favorite columnists. But every once in a while, I get a letter or an e-mail from someone who says something I wrote made them stop and think.
    And that’s why columnists write columns.  But while we’re coming up with ways to make other people pause for thought, it wouldn’t hurt to do a little more of it ourselves.

April 18th, 2000