The Death of Newsroom Swagger

Journalism is changing. The Washington Post newsroom brawl shows just how badly some reporters are taking it.

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In a bin in my attic filled with sentimental piles of junk, there is a yellowed copy of a Washington Post essay by Henry Allen. The 1997 piece, “A Capsule History of Psychiatry,” isn’t so much an article as it is a freestyle rumination about the rise of Prozac.

I vaguely remember in college experiencing the essay as a kind of a long, bizarre, free-associative trip. When it was over, I had the distinct feeling that the fact that I knew a whole family on Prozac meant that there is something deeply wrong with our society.

A lot has happened to the field of journalism since I first saw that flash of Allen’s brilliance. Given how badly a lot of macho, swashbuckling newspaperman types are coping with the changes in the newspaper industry, I can’t say I was too surprised by the latest Henry Allen headline: “Fists Fly at Washington Post.” As the Washingtonian reported, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Allen, now pushing 70, punched his reporter in the newsroom last Friday in a dispute over an article.

Although I didn’t work with him directly, I crossed paths with Allen during my stint as a staff writer in the Post’s Style section in the early 2000s. (And full disclosure: The Root is owned by the Washington Post.) But at the risk of doing the same over-analysis Allen has to countless other subjects, I think the well-publicized fight was about more than just a stupid article.

What we are watching is a whole profession losing its swagger.

The offending piece was a USA Today-style “charticle” that riffed on the news that a congressional investigation was leaked. Upon being handed the piece to edit, Allen reportedly deemed the collection of sentences “the second worst” he’s ever seen in his 43 years in journalism.