Commentary, the new title of this section, has a long tradition in newspapers and writers include such stars as Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and, locally, Fritz S. Updike.
Twain’s wry humor colored everyday issues: “The Virginia Cadets ... will appear in public on New Year’s Day, the weather permitting, armed and equipped as the law directs. The boys were pretty proficient in their military exercises when we saw them last, and they have probably not deteriorated since then.”
Mencken took the political with great skepticism: “It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.”
Commentary should mirror locally what we laugh about, what we love, and what we respect.
For almost 70 years, Updike, constant companion at local church and volunteer fire department Sunday dinners, wrote about the area. While Updike did bring personal reflections to his columns — his childhood times near Watkins Glen were the subject of Growing up on Potato Hill — he most often painted himself out of the background preferring to shine light on local daily life.
Personal feelings were not news, he believed, and instead described other people and events so as to let readers come to their own conclusions.
Radio sportscaster Eddie O’Brien, known for his longtime coverage of Rome and Clinton competitions is a master of commentary. His encyclopedic knowledge of past sporting events sprinkles broadcasts while he allows player accomplishments to shine. He calls the plays, but avoids inserting himself and inserting judgments about what players should have done.
Good commentary is based on solid reporting by writers who travel with a full set of skills but very little baggage. Write tight, edit clearly, and reduce what is said to the meaningful. Report what you see, not what you feel or believe.
Compared to commentary, editorials traditionally are written or approved by management to represent management views.
Often, fewer editorials are called for than are written. Editorials should be illuminating, not incendiary. Good editorials stick to issues rather than personality because it’s too easy to misrepresent people in the confines of a few paragraphs.
Decent journalists laugh at claims of objectivity. A delightful person with health issues was once asked if he was putting on weight. Lifting his belly with his arm to weigh it he said, “I don’t think so.” Writers can be too close to themselves to judge wisely.
Self-indulgence is a hazard. Those invested in advocacy shouldn’t report on it. The pretext of interviewing someone too one easily overtakes the article.
Commentaries fit better community life where most people have occasion to meet local politicians anyway. Commentaries bring to consciousness common aspects of community and humanity that bring us together.