Opinion: Daily Journal

Fred Barnes taught me a lesson

I’ve written a regular column for nearly 35 years. It debuted in the Spring Hope Enterprise, a Nash County weekly, in the summer of 1986 and then quickly expanded to dozens of other daily and community papers.

Over those 35 years, I’ve rarely opined on any subject other than politics and public policy. That’s my beat. I’ll stick to it for as long as my gracious editors continue to include me in their pages. But I’m making one of those rare exceptions today to note the retirement a wonderful journalist who had a profound effect on my life.

More than half a century ago, Fred Barnes began his career as a reporter for The News and Courier (now The Post and Courier) in Charleston, South Carolina. Now he has just retired from his post as a regular columnist for the Washington Examiner.

During the intervening decades, Fred covered the White House and U.S. Supreme Court for The Washington Evening Star, was a national correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, and wrote the “White House Watch” column for The New Republic.

In 1995 he co-founded a magazine called The Weekly Standard that, like The New Republic in its prime, exercised an influence far out of proportion to its modest subscriber base. Some 23 years later, after the magazine folded, Fred moved over to the Washington Examiner.

While his roots lay with the written word, Fred Barnes has also excelled in the broadcast media, serving as a regular panelist on the PBS show “The McLaughlin Group” and a co-host and commentator on Fox News. You may have even seen his cameo in the sci-fi film Independence Day!

I first encountered Fred’s work in the early 1980s. A high-school teacher of mine, Wade Carpenter (another mentor to whom I’m immensely grateful), showcased several of Fred’s columns as examples of how opinion journalists can express their views effectively, based on reporting and rational argument, without demonizing their opponents.

Later, during the tail end of the Reagan administration, I moved to Washington to become a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. I’d done prior internships in the capital, but this was my first full-time job. I worked for Fred Barnes and his colleague Mort Kondracke, doing everything from calling sources and picking up documents to clipping papers and managing in-boxes. I also prepped them for “The McLaughlin Group” and accompanied them to the TV studio each week.

I continued to write my regular newspaper column, sharing drafts with Fred and soaking up his genial but pointed critiques. When I moved back to North Carolina, and shortly afterwards began my own broadcast work as a regular panelist on UNC-TV’s “North Carolina This Week,” I continued to check in with Fred and seek his guidance. During my years at the John Locke Foundation, he was a frequent speaker at our events.

Although Fred Barnes and I are both conservatives, I can’t say he influenced my political views to any great extent. My preferences for limited government, individual liberty, and free enterprise were well-established long before we met. And, indeed, I haven’t always agreed with Fred’s take on political events. That’s hardly required to be fellow conservatives or friends — or for me to owe him a great personal debt.

You see, an indispensable lesson I learned by working for Fred, and by reading and watching him over the ensuing decades, is that opinion journalism isn’t primarily about the opinions. It’s about the journalism.

Your audience ought to learn something new from you even if they never agree with you. They should encounter a new fact, see the results of a new study, or read a quote they might otherwise miss. They should, at least, come to recognize that most issues are complicated, and that political differences aren’t simply a product of the other side’s ignorance, idiocy, or villainy.

I’ve tried to heed that lesson. To the extent I’ve succeeded, it’s because I had a good teacher. Thanks, Fred Barnes, and best wishes.

John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.