Pulitzer Prize Winners in South Carolina: Commentary

From the Jazz Age to the Digital Age: Pulitzer Prize Winners in South Carolina Celebrating Pulitzer Commentary with Kathleen Parker and Jim Hoagland. Moderated by Charles Bierbauer.

Two Washington Post columnists who have South Carolina connections discuss writing for their columns.

Kathleen Parker states that being a journalist comes first, and unlike writing a story on some breaking  event, writing commentary gives her time to think about what each column (750 words) will encompass, and what will make it interesting, so that it will remain fresh for several days. When she has chosen her topic and researched it, she makes three sweeps. In the first, she doesn’t take time for punctuation or editing. She then walks away for ten minutes and does something else. When she comes back, she “clears out all the debris” and punctuates and corrects the spelling, and walks away again. In the third sweep, she inserts the art, includes humor, makes sure there is a sense of unity from the beginning to the ending, perhaps installing a simile or metaphor, and tries to make it a more interesting read than just what she thinks.

Jim Hoagland writes “searching and prescient columns,” and his Pulitzer award-winning topics have included the events that led up to the Gulf War and the political problems of Mikhail Gorbachev. His approach is very different in that he “sweats over every sentence.” He states that he served as a foreign correspondent for 20 years and that during that time, he was paid to keep his opinions out, and then it was decided it was time for him to put his opinions in. He says that by and large, there is an intro, saying, for example, what the president has been doing wrong, and a “therefore” paragraph, laying out, for example, what should be done.   

They continue the conversation, discussing responses received from their readers. Parker mentions that after 3000 columns, it never gets easier, and she is constantly raising the bar on herself. Hoagland states  that the pleasure in writing two columns a week is that in 750 words, you can express basically one idea. Then you can come back and expand on that. They discuss Twitter and punctuation, and when asked about the kinds of stories that make you want to write, Hoagland responds that it’s the “old news person’s reflex, finding out something that nobody else knows.” He states that having access to an important fact, and then putting it into a different kind of context appeals to him. Parker comments that the best columnists do a lot of reporting.

Parker comments on her columns being about politics now, but she likes to look at it historically, sociologically, and philosophically, and that later, that will change to what is actually happening in Washington. She says if she could choose a new beat, it would be bio-ethics. She thinks “the big decisions we’ll be making as a human race” will be “the most interesting and the most problematical of all because we’ll be dealing with robots, the dehumanization of workplaces through increased automation, and we’ll have to decide what human life needs to be and how we want to fashion the world in the future.” Hoagland says that the other big thrill is “seeing a pattern, seeing something big historically happening, and coming to that conclusion before anybody else”… “the discovery element, as well as the reporting element.”

They discuss the political season, the effects of globalization, and Europe working its way through the refugee crisis. They discuss favorite writers, Walter Lippmann, James Reston and today, David Brooks and others at the Washington Post. Parker mentions Russell Baker and H.L Mencken and today, she doesn’t read many columns because she doesn’t want to be influenced and most of them are her friends and she already knows what they think.