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by Mark Gauvreau Judge


Ex Post Facto

Is there any hope for a once-great American newspaper?

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It's sad, really. And I'm not being sarcastic. Last week, Len Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, announced a reorganization plan. Staff will be moved around and cut, story length shortened, presence on the web expanded. Circulation at the once–mighty Post is down, as it is at virtually all major newspapers (disastrously so on the other coast in the case of the Los Angeles Times).

Of course, the Post was once a titan. If you grew up in Washington, as I did, hearing the thump of the morning Washington Post against your door was as natural as slipping on your sandals or brushing your teeth. Actually, it was more magical than that. There was an excitement to the Post, a tingle in the spine as you padded down the driveway for your copy. The paper's writers set the parameters of the debate. We read them over breakfast, and talked about them with our friends: Didja see what Tony Kornheiser said in Sports? Tom Shales' piece about The Gong Show— you gotta read it! Sally Quinn wrote something you have to see! Richard Cohen and Meg Greenfield on the op–ed page were must–stops. Not to mention Watergate. Ignoring the Post during the early 1970s, before computers and cable, was like deciding not to breathe.

As a kid, I held the paper in awe. My father worked at National Geographic, just a couple blocks from the Post. In grade school we went on a field trip to the paper, and I remember the monkish solemnity we observed entering the environs of 15 and L. Mother Mary, we were slipping down the same corridors trod by Woodward and Bernstein! Getting a call or visit from the Post was like an audience with the pope. In the mid 1980s, my brother was a successful actor in Washington, and won the Helen Hayes Award, given to the region's best actor. Sure, the award was great, and meeting celebrities at the after party was a charge—but the next day he was on the front of the Style section in the Post. He had made it.

Then there was that day in 1989 when I got a call from the paper. I was working at a record store. I had written a letter complaining about an essay they had run, and they had liked my letter—they wanted me to come in and talk. I was 25, and being invited into the sanctum sanctorum of American journalism. I met with the editors of the Outlook section—the Sunday op/ed part—who invited me to write "about whatever you want." I didn't even feel my feet touch the sidewalk as I walked from the Post building to my dad's office at National Geographic for a congratulatory lunch.

It was around this time that David Ignatius, who was at the time the editor of the Outlook section—he's now a columnist for the paper—announced that the Post should hire more "weirdos, misfits, outcasts", folks who had something interesting to say, who could add sparks to the paper. Of course, his advice went nowhere. I was told by one editor that the Post was an iceberg that moved in micromillimeters. They could talk about change all they wanted, but the template was set.

I did wind up writing several pieces for the Post, most often the Outlook section, over the years. And as I grew more conservative, I became more and more aware of what the parameters were. Nothing pro–life, nothing too blatantly Christian, nothing arguing about natural law or homosexuality—unless, of course, it was a performance of conservative switchback, like when Laura Ingraham wrote about her love for her gay brother. Inevitably, I ran up against the liberal orthodoxy there. It most strikingly occurred in 1994, when Outlook ran, at a full page, an op–ed/essay of mine about saving the Howard Theater, one of the oldest historical black theaters in America. I went into detail about the history of the Howard, yet something strange happened to my copy when I got to the 1960s. I had referred to the "moral and cultural collapse" that had destroyed the Howard and surrounding neighborhood—the drugs, rioting, and black racism that had brought down that part of town. The night before the paper came out, I was called and told that the phrase "moral and cultural collapse" had been changed to "social upheaval." Note: this was an editorial in the editorial section.

Of course, I didn't complain. This was the Post. You didn't complain. Because, if you did, you'd be out—and if you were out, there was no where else to go. The old Washington Star was gone, and the internet had not yet exploded.So the Post could and would ruthlessly jettison anyone even mildly critical. My freelancing for the Post ended a few years ago. I was writing record reviews for the Style section, and had the dumb nerve to criticize some of the other coverage. Simply because he was a fan of jazz singer Diana Krall, Book World writer Michael Dirda got to review her album. It was a disaster—it was obvious Dirda knew nothing about jazz. Other rock and roll writers were often illiterate, which, I argued, was bad for the Post.I also had become a serious Catholic, which was a problem. The Post doesn't cover religion—it's buried on the last page of the B section on the Saturday paper—and it is simply out of the question that any should creep into your writing, no matter how subtly. One album I reviewed reminded me of Easter, I wrote in one piece. Rejected. When it bounced back, I simply removed the Easter reference and sent it to a different editor. It was published two days later.

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