Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jack Shafer

Reading Roger Cohen’s Mind Is Easier Than Reading His Columns

Back in November of 2007, not long after Roger Cohen joined the roster of op-ed pundits at the New York Times, Jack Shafer, the media critic at Slate, took the columnist apart in a piece in which he skewered him for his laziness, lame clichés, and generally bad writing. Cohen’s predilection for tired journalistic tropes prompted Shafer to wonder whether he was paying the Scotty Reston estate royalties for using the same pompous copy the ancient Times institution employed in its pages decades ago.

Since then, Cohen has at least showed some creativity. After all, no ordinary mediocrity would have the chutzpah to spend weeks in Iran and then claim that interviews with some of the intimidated remnants of that country’s Jewish community (conducted in the presence of government minders and translators) proved that the Islamist tyranny wasn’t so bad after all. Whitewashing an anti-Semitic regime may have been despicable and hearkened back to the worst sort of propaganda journalism in the tradition of Stalin apologist Walter Duranty — but it did require some effort.

But, alas, after his exertions in Iran last year and a steady stream of convoluted columns blasting Israel and his critics, Cohen is back to the same sort of lazy, stupid writing that struck Shafer as evidence of his utter incompetence. Today, he returns to what Shafer aptly called the “threadbare cliché of constructing [a] piece as a faux conversation or speech” in which he presents a fake monologue titled “Reading Sarkozy’s Mind” from inside the head of French President Nicholas Sarkozy. This sort of shtick was stale twenty years ago when William Safire regularly employed it in the Times but at least that able wordsmith usually managed to execute such columns with a modicum of wit. The genre was further degraded by the wise-aleck versions of this cliché written by Thomas Friedman. Those were bad enough. But get a load of the following prose from Cohen, purporting to be the thoughts of Sarkozy:

“And Iran. Ooh la la! All these advisers telling me Khamenei is not Ahmadinejad and Ahmadinejad is not Larijani. C’est du baloney! Du pur baloney!”

or

“So I tell Barack to be firm. And he says, Nicolas, we need the Chinese. The Chinese! I’m a trained lawyer and I tell him, Barack, I could bill you beaucoup hours while you wait for the Middle Kingdom! Barack’s a good guy. He’s learning. The press portrays us as two fighting cocks! C’est du twaddle!”

Does Cohen really think this is funny? Insightful? It’s not a matter of him being right or wrong about Sarkozy or Obama but rather that he is floundering around trying desperately to pound out a column no matter how bad it might be. There’s no point trying to parse such pieces for the value of Cohen’s opinions, as all they are is evidence that the columnist has run out of ideas. In such cases, it’s not just that the internal editor that every writer must have is absent, but that the actual editors at the Times who are responsible for publishing such trash are also missing in action. As Shafer wrote in 2007, there ought to be a law against such bad writing.

Back in November of 2007, not long after Roger Cohen joined the roster of op-ed pundits at the New York Times, Jack Shafer, the media critic at Slate, took the columnist apart in a piece in which he skewered him for his laziness, lame clichés, and generally bad writing. Cohen’s predilection for tired journalistic tropes prompted Shafer to wonder whether he was paying the Scotty Reston estate royalties for using the same pompous copy the ancient Times institution employed in its pages decades ago.

Since then, Cohen has at least showed some creativity. After all, no ordinary mediocrity would have the chutzpah to spend weeks in Iran and then claim that interviews with some of the intimidated remnants of that country’s Jewish community (conducted in the presence of government minders and translators) proved that the Islamist tyranny wasn’t so bad after all. Whitewashing an anti-Semitic regime may have been despicable and hearkened back to the worst sort of propaganda journalism in the tradition of Stalin apologist Walter Duranty — but it did require some effort.

But, alas, after his exertions in Iran last year and a steady stream of convoluted columns blasting Israel and his critics, Cohen is back to the same sort of lazy, stupid writing that struck Shafer as evidence of his utter incompetence. Today, he returns to what Shafer aptly called the “threadbare cliché of constructing [a] piece as a faux conversation or speech” in which he presents a fake monologue titled “Reading Sarkozy’s Mind” from inside the head of French President Nicholas Sarkozy. This sort of shtick was stale twenty years ago when William Safire regularly employed it in the Times but at least that able wordsmith usually managed to execute such columns with a modicum of wit. The genre was further degraded by the wise-aleck versions of this cliché written by Thomas Friedman. Those were bad enough. But get a load of the following prose from Cohen, purporting to be the thoughts of Sarkozy:

“And Iran. Ooh la la! All these advisers telling me Khamenei is not Ahmadinejad and Ahmadinejad is not Larijani. C’est du baloney! Du pur baloney!”

or

“So I tell Barack to be firm. And he says, Nicolas, we need the Chinese. The Chinese! I’m a trained lawyer and I tell him, Barack, I could bill you beaucoup hours while you wait for the Middle Kingdom! Barack’s a good guy. He’s learning. The press portrays us as two fighting cocks! C’est du twaddle!”

Does Cohen really think this is funny? Insightful? It’s not a matter of him being right or wrong about Sarkozy or Obama but rather that he is floundering around trying desperately to pound out a column no matter how bad it might be. There’s no point trying to parse such pieces for the value of Cohen’s opinions, as all they are is evidence that the columnist has run out of ideas. In such cases, it’s not just that the internal editor that every writer must have is absent, but that the actual editors at the Times who are responsible for publishing such trash are also missing in action. As Shafer wrote in 2007, there ought to be a law against such bad writing.

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