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Alex Beam

Breaking out the Wooden Prose-o-Meter

There was a curious detail in The New Yorker's recent, none-wished-it-longer profile of real estate and media tycoon Mortimer Zuckerman. The longtime chairman of Boston Properties, Zuckerman writes a weekly column for U.S. News & World Report, which he owns. Here is how he goes about it:

"Generally, Zuckerman reads up on his column subjects on the weekends, underlining as he goes. He writes early in the week, dictating a first draft of the column over the phone to a secretary in Mexico City. She transcribes his musings, and sends them to him; he fiddles and dictates anew, until he has a workable draft."

Inhale. These New Yorker paragraphs run on for ever. Exhale.

"('I wish that I could write with metaphors, but I just try to marshal the facts as well as I can,' he said.) Then, typically, he sends it to Harry Evans, the eminent newspaperman and publisher. Characterizations of Evans's contribution vary, depending on which former editor of the magazine you talk to. Evans calls his round 'a conventional dust job.' "

Wow. Phoned down to Mexico City; more fiddling and dictating; multiple drafts; touched up by the legendary former editor of the London Sunday Times.

So why are the columns so bad? How come they read as if -- metaphor comes naturally to me -- they were written with a trowel?

How bad are Zuckerman's columns? They are pretty awful, a solid 8.7 on the Wooden Prose-o-Meter, where the typical Eleanor Clift or Clarence Page outing scores a perfect 10. They are awful because they are boring and predictable, which is the last thing an opinion column should be.

Let's flit through some recent work. Zuckerman offers up a dutiful, by-the-numbers hand-wringing about Don Imus: "Imus has helped reset the boundaries of acceptable speech. But we must go further, reawakening awareness of the unmet needs of our society." And of course an in-crowd abrazo for New York mayor Michael Bloomberg: "He has governed in a common-sense, adult, nonideological manner." Doubtless it is so.

Separately, Zuckerman frets over the disturbing political insurgency of Senator Barack Obama: "He must grow." Of course he frets big-time over the Hamas insurgency in Gaza and the West Bank. Zuckerman saves his worst writing for the subject he cares about most -- the state of Israel -- because he fancies himself a player in Mideast politics. To wit: "The stakes are high. This is a time not for rolling the dice but for prudent, tough-minded diplomacy and realism. Or else we are doomed to repeat the past failures." What? No "Time will tell"? Perhaps that was in a previous column.

Zuckerman writes with the moribund evenhandedness of someone worried that he might not be invited back to A-list dinner parties. Which is curious, since he hosts about one-half of them. On Israel, I'd much rather read Marty Peretz from the right or Eric Alterman from the left. To paraphrase the Book of Revelations, Zuckerman on the Middle East is neither hot nor cold; I spew him out.

Maybe I should ease up on the former Hub resident who calls Cambridge a "suburb" of Boston; did U.S. News fire all the fact-checkers too? The fact is that any jackass can write an opinion column and many do. Zuckerman's work matches up nicely with syndicated scribblers like Susan Estrich, Bill O'Reilly, or the Emperor of All Received Wisdom, David Gergen. When I applied for a fellowship years ago, the first words out of my mouth were: "I am a newspaper columnist, but that doesn't mean I am an idiot."

So who does columns right? Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, whom I don't get to read often, may be the best reporter/writer/commentator at a big newspaper. Ron Rosenbaum at the weekly New York Observer could really cook. Whether writing about Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, or Yale's secret society Skull and Bones, Rosenbaum pursued ideas to the very end, with fussy, envy-inducing prose.

Michael Kinsley is probably the best newspaper columnist of my generation, but he's really a magazine guy, so we don't have to feel threatened.

Me? Let others judge. I'd love to hold forth longer, but I have to phone some of these thoughts down to Mexico City. These deadlines creep up quicker than a bobcat with slippers on. Oh, look -- a metaphor! I must be doing something right.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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