Mightier than the sword

COLUMNISTS: Can get away with expressing opinions the editor dare not utter.

COLUMNISTS are often taken as just another piece of newspaper furniture. However, in some parts of the world these scribes carry a great deal of weight with readers.  
Often controversial and hopefully enlightening, perhaps because they ‘play to the audience,’ the columnist attracts readership loyalty. The term has its source in Saint Simeon Stylites of Syria who, in the 5th Century, harangued the populace from the steps of his column. This was a Speakers Corner of its time.
Columnists became a formidable force in America and Britain. In the US the great names included Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Walter Winchell, and HL Mencken. Britain had its own drum beaters in Cassandra (Daily Mirror), Lynda Lee-Potter, Simon Heffer and Richard Littlejohn (Daily Mail). One of the most influential of columnists was the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Simple.
Michael Wharton aka Peter Simple was a thorn in the side of Britain’s Leftists. When he saw several members of a BBC TV camera crew sobbing he asked the reason. They replied they had just heard the news Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, had died.  
Wharton replied: “It’s a pity he was ever born.”  From that moment on, he said, they never spoke to him again.
Washington columnist Marquis Childs guessed that New York Times editorialist James Reston held roughly the power of three US Senators.   Presidents and Prime Ministers tirelessly court these satirists. US President Lyndon B Johnson, a friend of Walter Lippmann, said this columnist could make or break him while the electorate was still in bed.
Lippmann’s column appeared three times a week in more than 200 newspapers. As author of President Wilson’s 14 Points, the document sealed the fate of defeated Germany in 1918. This newspaper columnist might have set out the road map for Hitler and World War  Two.
Lippmann, constantly courted by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, played a leading role in bringing the Vietnam War to an end. The public mood for this US military débâcle was said to have been started by Lippmann’s formidable rival, Joseph Alsop. As the US President ordered 50,000 more troops to Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson was heard to murmur: “There; that should keep Joe Alsop quiet for a while.”
As many as 800 American newspapers carried Winchell’s column. Few of his readers knew that Herman Klurfield served as the columnist’s stand-in and ghost-writer.  
Many columns are penned by an editorial group and appear under a pseudonym; in effect it is a brand name.
Both US President Theodore and Franklin D Roosevelt were newspaper columnists, President Ronald Reagan and presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater likewise.
A columnist’s value to an editor cannot be understated. The challenging essayist gets away with expressing opinions the editor dare not utter. It is the columnist not the newspaper that attracts the flak.

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