A columnist's objective

by Sarah Jersild
September 28, 2002

Was Bob Greene's objectivity compromised when he used his column as a dating service? That depends on if you think columnists have any objectivity to begin with.

So Bob Greene has been outted as a dirty old man and a hypocrite. This is, apparently, a firing offence. If you've missed the brouhaha, here are the (sketchy) facts: Bob Greene, after Mike Royko and Ann Landers died, was the Chicago Tribune's most popular columnist. He "resignation was accepted" after it came out that he had “had sexual relations” with a high-school girl -- 10 years or so ago -- about whom he had written. The weird (well, weirder) part of the story is that the chick apparently called Greene a couple of times this year, and then got a call from the FBI saying she "may be posing a threat to the columnist." Soon after that, the Trib got an anonymous e-mail saying something to the effect of "Oh my god, an unnamed mawkish columnist who's obsessed with abused children had an affair with a high school chick about 10 years ago. The horror!" Now, there's all sorts of things wrong with the preceding. First, the fact that Bob Greene was a popular columnist makes my skin crawl. As far as I could tell, he had all of three topics that he beat into the ground:
  • "Abusing children is baaaaaad, and so I'm going to write about this poor kid's abuse horror story over and over and over again in almost fetishistic detail. Because I'm outraged! That's it."
  • "The 60s were soooooo cool, and anyone who didn't live then is missing out, because that was the best time to come of age, which I will write about at length and without point."
  • "The Midwest is full of great, simple, salt-of-the-earth, real people. And did I mention that Michael Jordan is a friend of mine?"
Second, that someone slept with him. Voluntarily. What the...Bob Greene? Is that his real hair? Good lord, woman, I know you were young, but what were you thinking? There's plenty to be creeped out about -- I, for one, never needed a mental image of Bob Greene getting it on with anyone. But should Greene have lost his job? It's hard to say, because there is so much we don't know. Tribune management is saying he "used his column for personal gain." What does that mean? Did he write about her as a quid pro quo, and did she benefit from it? Did he write about her to get her into bed? When she called 10 years later, did he use his status as a public figure to get a quick response from the FBI? Any of these would constitute an abuse of his position. Whether any one is a serious enough abuse to merit firing (yes, technically Greene resigned, but no one believes that resignation was all that voluntary) is another question.

But we don't know if any of that happened. As far as we know, Greene just wrote about her in one of his interminable "Decent People of the Midwest" pieces. Then, after the column was published, he hit on her. This was apparently his habit. Is it a repellent habit? Sure. Is it a violation of journalistic ethics? No, I don't think it was.

In theory, the Trib wasn't shocked that he'd with a teenager, but that he slept with a source. This, they said, compromises his objectivity. Folks, he's a columnist. Have you read his stuff? He has no objectivity. He doesn't even pretend to have any objectivity. That's the beauty of a columnist gig -- you get to spout your opinion, your take on the news, and your readers can take it or leave it.

He does, however, paint himself as a moral arbiter. He wags his finger and makes tsk-tsk noises at abusive adults. The whole screwing a teenager part doesn't fit well into that image, I guess.

But a columnist isn't someone who has a keener moral sense than lesser mortals. A columnist is just someone who can, theoretically, string a sentence together in such a way that you feel compelled to read what he or she has to say. If a columnist's actions don't match up with his words, as you can argue in this case, this doesn't make him a bad journalist. It makes him a hypocrite. And last time I checked, that's not a firing offense.

I don't see why he had a column for so long in the first place. I think he was a hack, and I'm not terribly sorry to see him go. But to hold him to a different moral standard than the rest of us is ridiculous and wrong.

Having said that, does anyone have any dirt on Andy Rooney? He drives me nuts.

This essay is based on a rant first published on Sarah's blog, fiendishplot.com.