What’s the difference between a nutty, bile-filled columnist who mails in canard-and-conspiracy columns every week, and a left-of-center columnist who often gets the bottom line wrong but who gets some things right and who must be read? That’s the difference between the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Scheer and the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof.

Scheer turned into the blogosphere’s bongo-drum last week after peddling the nonsense that American special forces staged the Pvt. Lynch rescue using blanks. This lurch off the cliff of reality drew a lot of first-time attention to the Left Coast’s number one conspiracy theorist, and the laughter still hasn’t died down. Stefan Sharkansky had already compiled a “Canard-o-meter” tracking Scheer’s various cliches and we all had a good laugh at Scheer.

And we sat back waiting for the next installment of Professor Scheer’s unique brand of hysteria. (Yes, he’s a professor – a “senior lecturer,” in fact, at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication. What students he must produce.) But Tuesday rolled around and no new Scheer column appeared. Did he fail to write it? Did he turn it in late? Did the Los Angeles Times spike it? It doesn’t matter, of course, since serious people don’t take Scheer seriously. The future of Scheer’s columns is interesting only as a marker of the Los Angeles Times’ desire to be a real newspaper again.

That desire is not inconsistent with carrying left-of-center columnists, though they do need to retire Scheer and Arianna Huffington who has begun to match Scheer – column for column – on the detached-from-reality scale. Perhaps the West Coast Los Angeles Times could arrange to carry the East Coast’s New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof.

Kristof can also be way off mark. He knows little of ordinary Christianity, for instance, and stumbled badly on that subject earlier this year. But he does try and add reporting to his columns, and his work on Africa is setting a high standard for others reporting on the continent.

His byline yesterday was from Asmara, Eritrea, and it is anything but hopeful. “[F]amine is looming over 40 million people on the continent,” Kristof writes, and he concludes that “it’s time to rethink the continent. Africa itself has largely failed, and Western policies toward it have mostly failed as well.” The immediate crises – the carnage in the Congo and the food shortage that is continent-wide – present very different challenges, and the U.N. is again proving itself incapable of meeting such crises head-on. The U.S. may have to pick up the slack again.

On an individual level, if you would like to make a small effort to alleviate some suffering in Africa, visit Hands Across the Planet for Poor Youth. This school-orphanage is kept afloat by the efforts of a single security guard at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. This is how relief comes to a tortured continent – one project at a time.

Grandiose plans are well and good, as are multi-national conferences and big-picture columns. Relief, whether via this school or an organization like World Vision, is delivered on a much smaller scale, and it is open to every reader.

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