Opinions, opinions, we’ve all got ’em. But Jenna Kern-Rugile has turned them into a career. In todays’s guest blog post, Jenna, a friend and fellow member of the Long Island Writers Group, tells of her experience when one of her op-eds ruffled the feathers of Bill O’Reilly.
Sometimes writers accept an assignment simply to pay the bills. In my writing career, I’ve covered topics that I had zero interest in (just about anything to do with the computer industry). I’ve taken assignments that sounded pretty boring but turned out to be fascinating, and vice versa. And I’ve (mostly) enjoyed writing service-oriented articles about topics that have come in handy in my parenting (“How to Help Your Child With Homework Without Losing Your Mind!”), my purchasing (“Tips on Getting the Best Deal on a Car”) and my planting (“Go Organic in Your Garden”).
But my juices get flowing the most when I write op-eds. I get to do that for Newsday’s Opinion Page, where I’ve been a regular contributor for several years. In August 2008, I wrote an op-ed about an incident in Tennessee, where a man walked into a Unitarian Universalist church and opened fire, killing two people. His motive, as he later told police: To kill as many liberals and Democrats as possible. A police investigation revealed that the man had several books in his home from well-known right-wing pundits, including Bill O’Reilly.
My op-ed took the position that the anti-liberal rants of people like O’Reilly contribute to an environment that can push a crazy person over the edge. I didn’t say that O’Reilly pulled the trigger, but asked that the ratched up “liberals as traitors” speech be toned down. It’s a topic that, unfortunately, is at the top of the news this past week with the shootings in Arizona.
The day the story ran, I got a call from one of Bill O’Reilly’s producers, who asked me to appear on the O’Reilly Factor on Fox. I gave it serious thought, but I decided against going on the show. I’d seen how Mr. O’Reilly treats guests with whom he disagrees; calm, reasoned discussions aren’t his style.
Fast forward five days later. As I headed to my car, I was ambushed by two O’Reilly staffers, camera running and microphone thrust into my face, asking why I had so unfairly attacked their boss. You can see it here. I’m told (by friends, admittedly) that I handled myself very well, given that I had no preparation for this ambush. O’Reilly’s real target was Newsday and its publisher; I was a convenient excuse. But the experience left me shaken.
So many thoughts went through my head during the next few weeks: They ranged from wishing I’d never written the piece (thousands of emailed death threats will have that effect on you) to being glad that I’d taken a stand. I wondered, do I really have what it takes to be like Anna Quinlan, whom I so admire? After writing about controversial issues, Quinlan received notes on her doorstep threatening her family, but she didn’t allow that to silence her.
Many wonderful things came out of this experience. Despite the numerous blogs calling me every name in the book, and a congressman denouncing me on the floor of the House, I also heard from many people who were very supportive. Keith Olbermann made mention of the incident on his program, which was an incredible blessing during a stressful time.
It’s been more than two years, and I’m still a bit unnerved when I think of the experience. But it hasn’t stopped me from writing op-eds. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Child Nutrition Act, referencing Sarah Palin and her crusade to keep junk food in schools, lest we become a “nanny state run amok” (and it probably won’t come as a surprise that I took a position that wouldn’t sit well with Palin fans). No one has yet showed up on my lawn with camera rolling. But if they do, I’ll stand tall and speak my mind, even if my shaky knees belie my confidence.
5 Tips on Writing An Op-Ed
Want to “sound off” about the issues that matter to you most? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Find a news hook. Typically, editors want your topic to have a connection to a topic of current debate, so soak up as much news coverage as possible and find a new angle on what you’ve been reading.
2. Write what you know. Okay, it’s a cliché, but when pitching an opinion page—especially to a market that’s new to you—let the editor know up front why you are an expert on a particular topic.
3. Get to the point immediately. You have (maybe) 15 seconds before a reader decides to keep reading your story or skip over to the sports page.
4. Embrace controversy. But back up your statements with facts, studies, and/or “real” person anecdotes.
5. Don’t just rant. Offer solutions to the issues you raise.
From pets to parenting to pesticides, Jenna Kern-Rugile has covered a wide range of topics in her writing career. Jenna is a regular contributor to Newsday, where she’s written about breast cancer survivors for a series called “Life’s Victories”; about adoption for the paper’s features section and, in several pieces appearing on the Op-Ed page, about hate speech, bullying, and gay marriage. She’s also written for the Baltimore Sun, Working Woman and Fortune Small Business, among other publications.