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The Bleat Goes On

Why James Lileks (a) rules; (b) toils in relative obscurity; and (c) should be on every op-ed page in America.

12:00 AM, Jul 17, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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Memo To: Editors and Editorial Page Editors

From: Readers

Subject: Lileks

IT HAS COME TO OUR ATTENTION that your editorial pages are predictable, repetitive, and usually cranky. The worst among you think it is somehow daring and perhaps even courageous to run the fevers of Robert Scheer. The timid recoil at the thought of providing both Will and Krauthammer on a weekly basis for fear of turning the readers into members of the "undead Halliburton Zombie Army," as Lileks puts it.

That's Lileks, as in James Lileks, columnist for Newhouse News Service and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and quite possibly the funniest guy you have never heard of.

At least we hope you've never heard of him, or his blog, The Bleat, because otherwise you have no excuse for having denied him to your readers while peddling Ellen Goodman or some other old-as-the-planets and dull as dirt culture-war left-over. Lileks is quite obviously the best generally unknown columnist in America, and among the top two in North America when you add in Canadian Mark Steyn. (I won't choose between these two because both are featured weekly guests on my radio show, and if either gets really upset with me, I could end up a featured item in one of their columns, which is not good for one's reputation. --HH)

It is hard to be funny. Genuinely funny writers can be listed quickly: Dave Barry, P.J. O'Rourke, Christopher Buckley. We'll include Joseph Epstein and Calvin Trilling on our list--though their humor is of a very elevated sort--and Chris Erskine, Matt Labash, and Larry Miller deserve a spot on the "certain to make you smile" log.

Steyn and Lileks are laugh-out-loud writers and pundits with punch. Lileks, incredibly, delivers five mirth-inducing reads for free each week on his website. His Sunday column for the Strib is a homey, chatty, and unfailingly amusing look at the ordinary absurdity of life--a welcome break from the sermons and raised eyebrows of the opinion sections and book reviews. It is written for an audience of Minnesocoldians, but it absorbs the attention of even jaded California denizens. Like his Newhouse columns, Lileks's Strib work could run in every paper in America.

Why then doesn't it? On an objective basis, Lileks is wildly popular among readers who get a chance to read him. The same with Steyn. You can test our assertion by a visit to technorati.com, which allows you to check the blogosphere's connectivity ratings. Lileks is widely linked to and commented upon, and his fans stretch across the vast political spectrum of the Internet's chattering class. This is a sure sign of broad appeal because the weak are never recognized by the blogosphere and the old and the lazy are mercilessly culled from the herd. Lileks is prospering on the web because Lileks is good.

I GET NO SHARE in Lileks's profits and have no interest in his rise to international stardom except the almost certainly vain hope that he will help me through four days of broadcasting from the Minnesota State Fair. I write about his relative obscurity because it illustrates a point that needs to be made again and again: Newspapers and TV talking heads are falling behind their audiences because they refuse to read the map that is in front of their noses. They want to regain their monopoly on commentary, and seem to believe that by ignoring the repeated tidal waves that hit them, they can will themselves back to relevance.

The wise editor would instead allow the battle of the blogs to throw up champions and then ink them to multiyear commentary deals. MSNBC figured this out with Glenn Reynolds, but the ink-and-paper crowd is still busy debating whether they ought to dignify talk radio with coverage (even though that audience dwarfs their own). Horse-and-buggy editors can't even dream of learning how to navigate the cyber-pundits beyond Romenesko, the media critic at Poynter.org.

Newspaper readers like me want newspapers to survive for at least a few more decades. To do that, the dinosaurs have to get out of the swamp. That means finding and printing the best writers and employing the best reporters. For the former, at least, that means Lileks.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.