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.
The reporter told Allen to stop being such a “cocksucker,” and then Allen, a former Marine, clocked him. The Post’s top editor was among those who broke up the fight.
Ever since news broke, the media house of mirrors has been reading all kinds of meaning into the incident. The Washingtonian account read the fisticuff as sort of a Custer’s Last Stand for journalism, the feisty geezer defending the integrity of the profession and knocking out gimmicky infotainment.
Post columnist Gene Weingarten hailed the brawl as a heroic stand for journalism with a pulse: “Hooray that there is still enough passion left somewhere in a newsroom in America for violence to break out between colorful characters in disagreement over the quality of a story.”
Allen, who reportedly was told never to set foot in the newsroom again, feigned shock that so many news organizations have feasted on the story. As he told Politico’s Michael Calderone: "Back when I got into journalism, the idea that a fistfight in a newsroom would turn into a news story was unthinkable," Allen said when reached Monday evening. "The guys in the sports department at the New York Daily News, they had so many, you wouldn’t even look up."
Ah, the glory days of journalism! At a luncheon at the National Press Club several years ago, I remember hearing Walter Cronkite grouse about how high-falutin the field has become. Back in his day, he said, journalists drank their lunch.
Of course, there are those who might have a different view of the newspaper industry’s so-called golden years. Take veteran Post scribe Dorothy Gilliam, who told me about integrating the Post newsroom in the late ‘50s, when she was forced to go through the back entrance to interview sources. Besides black women, there were a whole lot of folks who weren’t welcome at that particular club.
As far as I can tell, this mythical, old-school shoe leather newspaperman has not made an appearance in newsrooms for quite some time. There are some impressive holdouts, but by and large, the newsrooms I’ve worked in have been filled with overeducated suits, playing inspector general in search of the next public official to “take down” a la Watergate. The vibe is definitely more law firm than meat-packing plant.
That’s why it’s been so interesting to watch the existential crisis that the nation’s largest newsrooms have experienced, now that driving information around in trucks is not the best way to inform the public. Thanks to the Internet, the haughtiness that journalists once got from knowing more than everyone else has all but vanished. As even the New York Times struggles to hold back the Internet tsunami, it can no longer pretend that it has “all the news that’s fit to print”—or click.
Meanwhile, the general public seems all too happy to watch all those arrogant pricks with press passes finally get their comeuppance. (Sorry, David Simon, there will be no elegy for the ink-stained folks.)
The Post newsroom will be poorer without Allen’s stealth bullshit detection. But I’m not crying about it. The high-minded principles of the Fourth Estate will live on. Thanks to technology and globalization, the voices from the margin are moving toward the center. It is scary and bumpy new terrain. But it also means there are more outlets than ever for off-beat voices. Voices like that of the great Henry Allen.
Natalie Hopkinson is associate editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.