Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Right Way to Write a Sarah Palin Op-Ed

Sometimes I just want to point out the correct way to write an op-ed. Ever since she got nominated, my office has been flooded by authors who want to write about Sarah Palin. Some were okay, but many were way too strident. No one reading the op-ed was going to be convinced of anything other than that the author really didn’t like Palin’s policies or how they thought she would govern.

I’ve written before about how op-ed writers need to make themselves be an “expert” on the subject they are writing about. Just because you have an opinion about Sarah Palin doesn’t mean anyone should listen to you -- unless you can tie yourself into the subject. You have to find the logic that give you the “in” to subject matter.

This Washington Post column by Catherine Iino is nearly perfect example in tying a non-national name to a national subject.
I serve on the Board of Selectmen of Killingworth, Conn., a town that has about the same population as Wasilla, Alaska, and I share Sarah Palin's affection for small-town life.
Notice there isn’t much of a preamble. She goes right into who she is and what she’s going to talk about. Then she uses her background in serving on the board of a small town to explain why that experience is relevant to talking about Sarah Palin.
It's been widely reported that Sarah Palin hired her friends for high offices and turned to her family for advice. You do that in a small town. The talent pool is limited. You know who is sensible, who gets things done, who is willing to donate time and energy. In my town, few positions -- appointed or elected -- are paid. Even the opportunities for graft and corruption are small potatoes. (Killingworth hasn't received any earmarks.) You call your friends and cajole them into serving on one more board or committee.
There’s nothing horribly partisan or accusatory. Sarah Palin did hire her friends for office and turned to her husband for advice. The author isn’t saying that’s wrong. But she manages to turn the fact to the point she wants to make.
This is not the way you want the federal government to be administered. Everyone knows everyone in Wasilla and Killingworth, but obviously, you can't know everyone in the United States. We need the people heading federal departments and agencies to have knowledge, competence and track records that inspire public confidence. And we need a chief executive who knows how to seek advice from independent experts, not just her friends and family.
And that’s the key. Catherine Iino is just a a boardmember in the small-town of Killingworth, Connecticut. Why is her opinion important? Because she can illuminate why running a small-town (even as “executive experience”) is entirely different than running a country.

Her ending is a bullseye.
Of course, small towns have distinctive vices as well as virtues. Because we don't have many professional administrators, we reinvent a lot of wheels. Decades-long feuds often color political debates. Sometimes we cut the wrong people too much slack. We muddle through, and I wouldn't want to see Killingworth tie itself in red tape trying to prevent these problems. But you couldn't run Safeway Inc., much less the federal government, the way you run a farm stand.

There is an aspect of small-town life that we should do our best to send to the national level: the attitude toward our neighbors. We need to believe that we are a community, that we all must contribute to the common good. Small-town executive experience, however, would be a risky thing to send to Washington.
Could Iino have tacked on more about Palin’s experience as governor? Sure, but the op-ed didn’t need it. Palin and the McCain campaign have made a virtue out of “small-townness.” Iino’s op-ed, without being harshly partisan or strident, simply points out the errors in the line of logic.

It’s a great op-ed written by an outside voice who knows what she's talking about.

--crossposted at NewsCat


Jessica said...

I admit I've been pretty relieved that everyone's talking less about Palin the last couple weeks. That's largely because I don't think anyone was saying much of use. After the initial information got out, no one really had anything new to say. This op-ed is a perfect example of taking what we know and presenting it in a meaningful way. If only the rest of our political discourse was so well done.

habladora said...

Hummm... thanks for the pointers and for the example. Its got me thinking about op-ed writing and scheming about writing my own. I guess your 'I have an insider's authority' hook really should be true, huh?

NewsCat said...

You don't have to be an "insider" or a "real" expert. But if you are going to write about a subject you need to be able to tie it back to yourself, your job, your life, your experiences, SOMEHOW.

You don't have to actually be an expert on Sarah Palin to write about her, but you should frame your op-ed as an authority of something.