Opinion editorial is the worst historical source imaginable

I recently read John Grindrod’s Concretopia and re-read Joe Moran’s On Roads one after the other. One thing that struck me: Grindrod’s is the better book, essentially because he goes to the places and talks to the people and avoids the temptation of filling up on old newspaper.

Too many people setting out to write non-fiction head straight to the newspaper archive, looking for opinion. Inevitably they find it, because newspapers publish it. The columnist tends to have an advantage over the reporter, as they appear like clockwork rather than being driven by the randomness of the news. As a result, opinionators’ opinions get written into books.

The problem here is that their opinions are strictly worthless. Opinion pieces about any new development take one of two forms – either clever-reactionary complaining about it because it’s new, or boosterish rah-rah because it’s new.

A while ago it suddenly occurred to me that I have read literally hundreds of books that quote The Times editorials as statements of public opinion, and I couldn’t remember even one where the leader-writer got it right. Invariably they would tut-tut and smart-arse about whatever innovation had happened and predict it would probably blow over. And, well, here we are still using railways.

This gives me an idea: imagine a book that tackles a different, randomly selected phenomenon for each chapter, exclusively by hitting the newspaper archive. I think we would learn that opinionating was both not particularly informative, and also quite a lot about its stylization.

1 Comment on "Opinion editorial is the worst historical source imaginable"

  1. I’m reminded of my discoveries when looking for studies into Y2K, since Brexiters are addicted to using it as a morality play of why everything is “Project Fear.”

    Turns out that one of the most influential academic pieces is by an Australian economists you’ll know if you frequent Crooked Timber. And someone I generally respect.

    But you read this paper on Y2K and realise that it’s evidence base is basically “colour reporting of the problem around the world from the NYT” – not exactly “opinion editorial” but those of you familiar with “foreign correspondent’s disease” will know it’s often a close cousin…


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