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WaPo's Gene Weingarten On Fisticuff-Spawning Passions: "Hooray!"

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Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten took the time at the end of his "Chatalogical Humor" chat yesterday to weigh in on the recent newsroom dust-up between Henry Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia. The big takeaway? Gene Weingarten is awesome, for reals:

The first thing I want to say is, hooray. 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. (Obligatory mature qualification: I of course decry any breakdown in comity and collegiality and civil discourse in the workplace, and urge all young people to maintain decorum and respect others, to be tolerant of opposing viewpoints, to seek compromise, and to not punch each other out in spit-flying scrums.)

Still, hooray. Newsrooms used to be places filled with interesting eccentrics driven by unreasonable passions -- a situation thought of as "creative tension" and often encouraged by management in eras when profits were high and arrogance was seen not as a flaw but a perquisite of being smart and right. Sadly, over the years newsrooms have come to resemble insurance offices peopled by the blanched and the pinched and the beetle-browed; lately, with layoffs thought to be on the horizon, everyone also behaves extra nicely to please the boss. In the face of potential ruin, journalists have been forced to reach accommodations with themselves: New strictures, new styles, new protocols, new limitations on what is possible are now meekly swallowed. In the frantic scramble for new "revenue streams," ethical boundaries are more likely to be pushed than is the proverbial envelope. Some of all this has leached out into the product. We all feel it. You do, too.

Weingarten goes on at length to praise both pugilists, especially Allen, who Weingarten suspects "doesn't like me very much, I think," but for whom he nevertheless feels "pure hero worship." Then he picks up his critique of the news industry again:

I don't know the ultimate precipitating factor in what led to blows between these two guys on Friday -- for all I know, Manuel strangled Henry's cat. But I do know what I read, that the proximate cause was the quality of written word -- what we put in the paper. It doesn't surprise me. "What we put in the paper," used to be a sacred term in most newsrooms, back before things began to change and some mediocre stuff began to appear with regularity. Back then, the meaning of "the paper" was completely different, too.

The news about the news, for the most part, has stunk for some time: There's been cowardly and crappy decision-making in scary times; ethics, at times, have been mislaid; lousy things have found their way into print, and worthy things -- killed for unworthy reasons -- have not. I am not shocked that tempers boiled over, nor am I shocked that they boiled over between two people who know what has been happening, and care.

Weingarten adds, "I hope Henry is invited and welcomed back to the newsroom; if anyone deserves a little slack, it's him. I hope he and Manuel bury the hatchet. I hope neither of them loses one ounce of passion and I hope each of them remains privately convinced he was right."

Oh! And then you get to the part where he challenges Sally Quinn to fisticuffs, sort of, over The Worst Style Story of All Time. Like I said, Gene Weingarten is awesome.

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