Jump directly to the content
Article

by Mark Gauvreau Judge


Ex Post Facto

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

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.

And that was it. I had been canned. Once you are banished, there is no such thing as debate about your case at the Post. I had become one of the "weirdos and misfits" that David Ignatius had spoken about years before, but it was a different kind of outcast—a renegade from the liberal orthodoxy. What is so terribly, terribly sad is that they still, at long last, don't get it. In light of the internet, blogging, spectator.org, cable, and conservative magazines like The Weekly Standard, the Washington Post didn't have to become the New York Post (a rare paper that is actually gaining circulation—and it's doing so, of course, because it is conservative). But the Postcould have, still can, let in some air. In a recent issue of Washingtonian magazine, the Post's new Outlook editor is described as bringing a freshness and "must–read" sparkle to the section. Whatever drugs the Washingtonian is on, I want some. Under new management, Outlook has sunk even lower into the depths of "objective" liberal advocacy. A couple weeks ago the cover blasted this: AMERICA IS TOO SEXIST FOR HILARY AND TOO RACIST FOR BARACK OBAMA. DISCUSS. Before that it was several weeks of Iraq/Vietnam comparisons, and reruns from Post–owned Slate advocating abortion and gay marriage. Oh, and the usual liberal guilt and hand–wringing over race.

At that, one can only roll one's eyes. For the Washington Post, it will always and forevermore be 1974. Again, it's not a choice between this and press releases from the Ronald Reagan fan club. The Post doesn't have to be this way. The once–great newspaper could actually find itself in a debate that is relevant to the way we live now instead of marinating in the old tropes of the 1960s. Recently Post columnist Michael Kinsley published a piece in Time, "Do Newspapers Have a Future?" He declares the end of newspapers—at least, in hard copy form. All is being lost in the tsunami of blogging and the internet. Yet don't despair: "There is room between the New York Times and myleftarmpit.com for new forms that liberate journalism from its encrusted conceits while preserving its standards, like accuracy," Kinsley writes.

"I'm not sure what that new form will look like" Kinsley admits. "But it might resemble the better British papers today (such as the one I work for, the Guardian). The Brits have never bought into the American separation of reporting and opinion. They assume that an intelligent person, paid to learn about some subject, will naturally develop views about it. And they consider it more truthful to express those views than to suppress them in the name of objectivity."

This is the direction that could make more people buy the Post— because the way it is now, we know exactly what is going to be in the paper before we crack it open; that is, if we crack it open. Kinsley's observation reminds me of Robert Blatchford and the great Christian writer G.K. Chesterton. Blatchford was a British reformer who was active from 1890 to 1920; he had converted to socialism after witnessing the misery in the slums of Manchester, and started his own paper, the Clarion, in 1891. Yet Blatchford was not what we would consider a typical newspaper editor. After he vigorously attacked Christianity, he did something extraordinary: he invited the opposition to mount a defense in the pages of his own paper. We're not talking about the modern liberal concept of newspaper debate, which entails trashing conservatives and then allowing them a paragraph to respond two weeks later in the Letters section. This fracas was going to be detailed, allow for several responses and responses to responses, and go on for weeks. It provided the kind of intellectual fireworks that people, no matter what side they are on, will pay to see.

In 1904, a bright young journalist named G.K. Chesterton took up Blatchford's challenge. (Much of what Chesterton wrote for the occasion would wind up in the book Heretics). Blatchford even went to the incredible step of appointing a Christian, George Haw, to choose the defenders who would contribute to the Clarion. The writers wrote repeatedly and at length, and the controversy didn't merely go on for weeks—it lasted for over a year. To Blatchford—and Chesterton—religion wasn't something to be stuck on the last page of the Saturday paper. It was central to people's lives, and as such deserved to be both challenged and praised at length, in depth, and with absolute freedom.

Indeed, the kind of freedom once allocated to journalists is stunning in retrospect. I recently purchased the full run of the weekly column Chesterton wrote for The Illustrated London News for the first three decades of the 20th century. Simply reading down the list of column titles is enough to make one anxious to read the pieces themselves: "Joan of Arc and Modern Materialism," "The Ethics of Fairy–Tales," "Moral Education in a Secular World," "Truth in the Newspapers," and many, many debunkings of bolshevism when it was new. On January 11, 1908—decades before Bill O'Reilly was born—Chesterton turned his attention to the idea floating around that the celebration of Christmas would not survive. He wrote:

"The Christmas celebrations will certainly remain, and will certainly survive any attempt by modern artists, idealists, or neo–pagans to substitute anything else for them. For the truth is that there is an alliance between religion and real fun, of which the modern thinkers have never got the key, and which they are quite unable to criticize or to destroy. All Socialist Utopias, all new Pagan Paradises promised in this age to mankind have all one horrible fault. They are all dignified… . But being undignified is the essence of all real happiness, whether before God or man. Hilarity involves humility; nay, it involves humiliation… . This is why religion always insists on special days like Christmas, while philosophy always tends to despise them. Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he is tickled."

Imagine the Post running that today. Imagine an ongoing debate in Outlook between Robert George or Richard John Neuhaus and Nan Aaron over abortion. You might even find people opening the paper with the anticipation I felt once upon a time.

Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author most recently of God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad).

Most ReadMost Shared