The Death of Newsroom Swagger

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

View of the front page of the October 30

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.