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Why Joel Stein’s Column Irritates Me

As a columnist I enjoy reading other columnists, especially those off my beat covering entertainment.

Just perusing the New York Times, I admire the way David Brooks constructs an argument (even when I disagree with them) and how cleverly Gail Collins turns a phrase. Nobody hammers a public figure quite like Frank Rich (though his targets are a trifle predictable), and on the days when she’s good (which unfortunately occur with less and less frequency), no one is better than Maureen Dowd. Nicholas Kristof spurs feelings of inferiority, mostly because he has no fear of going places that appear to be dangerous hellholes.

By contrast, I’m frequently irked by those who seem to have no memory of what they’ve written before. That’s one reason I won’t miss WIlliam Kristol (whose shortcomings at the Times were well documented by Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell) and can’t stand LA Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke.

Closer to home both geographically and in terms of subject matter, for some time now I’ve been annoyed by Joel Stein’s column in the Los Angeles Times. But I didn’t really understand the intensity of my reaction until I started writing this blog and was forced to differentiate between blog-worthy and column-worthy material.

Stein can occasionally be funny, even if the whole horny-married-guy, please-please-please-hire-me-to-write-for-a-sitcom shtick quickly wears thin. But what really bothers me about his work is that none of the ideas seem to have the weight to sustain a column. They’re more like random musings str-et-ch-ed to column length.

Stein has a sort of loose theme — our celebrity-obsessed culture — but he goes at it in the most banal way possible. Let’s goof on Ashton Kutcher for being a movie star. Let’s goof on actors by auditioning for a sitcom. His latest gem is perfectly emblematic of the problem — seeking to feebly approach the current financial crisis by filtering our economic woes through the easiest of cultural targets, a rapper named Plies, who gaudily throws cash around.

Somehow every column keeps cycling back to Stein’s favorite subject — Joel Stein, and finding employment opportunities for Joel Stein. Yet the Times’ opinion editors are apparently so out of touch they view this as hip and edgy.

Granted, there are all kinds of columnists, and not all of them have to be serious and weighty. (I like to think of myself as weighty in the literal sense — or maybe just big-boned — but only occasionally serious.) Some will doubtless assume I’m picking a fight with another sort-of journalist to drive traffic, and while I’m probably not above that, that’s honestly not the motivation. I just hate to see prime newspaper real estate (yes, I’m naive enough to assume there is still such a thing) squandered. And maybe I’m a little more sensitive because with so many former colleagues out of work, it’s harder to justify the print equivalent of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.”

Besides, I have this blog now, and it needs to be fed — even with this kind of passing thought, which does not, by any means, merit a column.

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