WaPo Vet Involved In Newsroom Punch-Up Surprised By Attention

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday, we got news of a newsroom dust-up at the Washington Post, where Henry Allen, veteran features editor, criticized a "charticle" for its lack of quality and for his trouble got called a "cocksucker" by his colleague, Manuel Roig-Franzia, who had worked on said "charticle." Allen clocked Roig-Franzia, because what sort of world do you live in where you say that to a 68-year-old ex-Marine and not expect to get decked?

Allen, for his part, was apparently a little surprised by the way the story took off, telling 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."

Times have changed, though! The sort of passion and experience that Henry Allen brings to the newsroom is getting downsized and bought out and banished -- in favor of dudes who assign charticles! So one can't help but see this punch-up as a microcosm of the ongoing softening of journalism as a whole. Allen's punch should be seen as a larger, more symbolic gesture. Maybe it's a surprising news story, but it tugs at something that's deeply felt.

Which doesn't mean the takeaway should be: "More journalists should punch each other, daily." Rather, I'd endorse the lesson that Spencer Ackerman distills from this story.

Now, I don't mean to act like some tough guy, and I get that continued gawking at Allen, especially with the glee that I evince, is part of the problem that Allen diagnoses. No argument there. But we in journalism have lost a passion and a no-bitch-ass-ness attitude that Allen possesses, and I think is more blessing than curse to the trade. And this is a trade -- not a profession. It's a mission, not a career.

I'm not saying that we should go around acting like pugilists. That's just its own brand of preening, soft pretension, as the farcical life of Norman Mailer demonstrated. But I am saying that we need to return to the crusading, no-nonsense, fact-never-fiction, unafraid-to-give-offense first principles that ultimately protects democracy. Verbal pugilism, not literal pugilism. Get back to rapping; we're T-Paining too much.

All this made me think about last week, when Representative Alan Grayson caught all that flack for referring to some lobbyist as a "K Street whore." This sort of proves the extreme limitations of maintaining a certain amount of that substance called "electability": you tell the truth a little too hard, and suddenly you're facing into a gale force gust swept up by the windmilling effect of everyone clutching their pearls at once.

Well, I've been paying attention to the way the health care sector has been lobbying away the potential good of health care reform, and I'll tell it to you straight: Those people are, in fact, whores. And there's no force on earth that will compel me to apologize for saying so. But you'll note that no one in the world even bothered to examine if there was anything important at the root of Grayson's reaction/remark. That's too bad, because that's where the health care reform story is, that's where the environmental legislation story is, and that's where the Wall Street regulation/derivatives reform/consumer protection/are-we-going-to-let-the-world-get-refracked again story is and shall be.

But the journalists we got are mainly delicate simps who fetishize wealth and turn the news cycle into one long paean to their popped garters whenever anyone says something mean about power. Their light's gone out, their fight's gone out, and when you see a flash of it, it makes you wonder where it went.

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