Ernest Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure.” By that definition, it’s been a courageous time for the Washington Post reporters covering the foreign policy and intelligence beats after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Bob Woodward’s probing story on the letter left by hijacker Mohamed Atta on Sept. 28 was vintage stuff, as was Barton Gellman’s article on a failed deal with Sudan to arrest Osama bin Laden on Oct. 3. John Ward Anderson’s piece on the Iranian government’s assessment of bin Laden’s culpability in the Oct. 6 Post was another home run.
Deeper down in the A section, the Post has been just as strong. John Pomfret’s Sept. 20 piece on Chinese factories working overtime to crank out American flags was wonderfully ironic. An article by Brooke A. Masters about the hijackers exploiting Virginia’s lax Department of Motor Vehicle laws to obtain driver’s licenses seemed criminally underplayed on page A15 in the Sept. 21 edition.
Yet what about the graceless under pressure at the Post? The losers of cool in print? The argument against pointing fingers is that “Reporters are people, too.” But most people don’t make their money barking through a highly amplified public megaphone. Even in the crucible, reporters must write responsibly and sensibly. When they don’t, editors must curb their self-indulgence or silliness. That’s what journalists get paid to do, much as firefighters get paid to put out fires and not start them.
In short, readers depend on that grace under pressure. On 15th Street NW, however, there have been a few instances of post-attack folly marching on.
Tali-bananas! Normally unflappable TV critic Tom Shales threw one of the most shameful hissy fits in recent Post memory on Oct. 1. In his review of the first episode of Saturday Night Live’s new season, Shales petulantly accused the show’s writers of ripping off a dumb joke he had made about the Taliban in a piece he’d written for Electronic Media Online. The real joke is that there’s more evidence linking bin Laden to the disappearance of Chandra Levy than there is linking SNL’s writers to plagiarism. In fact, an Oct. 4 post to Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews Web site offered a Google.com search tracing the joke’s origins to March.
I Learned the Truth at 25 Post staff writer Janelle Erlichman is 25. Readers know this because she mentioned it 12 times in her Sept. 20 piece about how the attacks had ruined her young life. Erlichman asserted that recent events would “overshadow everything: falling in love, a promotion, getting engaged, getting married” and padded her article by quoting the e-mail maunderings of her fellow 20-somethings. (One actually urged Erlichman to “Hug her editor.”) Couldn’t Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax have handled this?
We’re Definitely Not in Kansas When is a tornado not a tornado? When there’s a war on terrorism, of course. The Sept. 24 tornado that hit College Park was the first in the wider region since 1998 and among the closest ever to the D.C. metro area, leaving two dead and millions of dollars in damage. In normal times, this story would have spun out for days, but after the Post’s front-page report on Sept. 25 and a two-page spin in Sept. 26’s Metro section, the killer twister almost vanished from sight. By Sept. 27, the story had been pushed off the front page of the section and was covered inside with 18 paragraphs.
Magazine Recycling The Oct. 7 Washington Post Magazine was an utter waste of paper. That’s a harsh verdict, but the singular lack of imagination in this particular issue fully justifies it. More than three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the magazine scrapped its format to assemble the same sort of photojournalism keepsake that national newsweeklies had managed to produce two days after the tragedy. Not exactly timely. The package also lacked a local angle that might have helped save it. The sheer scope of the New York attack has left the Pentagon’s story woefully undercovered, and a visual package on the day that D.C. stood still could have been a winner. Instead, the magazine devoted only nine pages to the attack in its own back yard. As good as the pictures were, the concept was a failure.
Panic Button Sally Quinn first flashed her terror fetish in a fatuous Sept. 26 column by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in which Dowd portrayed the Post scribe and mouthpiece for Official Washington in the act of trying to procure gas masks. Goaded by a BBC reporter’s ridicule over that brief cameo, Quinn penned an Oct. 3 op-ed that stands not only as a classic example of privileged panic-mongering but also as clear evidence that al Qaeda’s wildest fantasies of spreading terror to the heights of power have succeeded. After all, Quinn speaks for the collective “we” in federal Washington, right? (She did so most notably on Nov. 2, 1998, when she officially cast Bill Clinton from what she dubbed the “Washington Establishment.”)
If Quinn really does speak for “us,” then “we” are scared shitless. In her recent piece, Quinn clamored wildly for antibiotics (which her “regular doctor” wisely wouldn’t give her), gas masks, and anthrax vaccines. “Everyone in the military has to have the anthrax vaccine,” wrote Quinn. “We’re all on the front lines now. Don’t we need it as much as they do?”
In a word, no. But the members of the privileged Washington Establishment for whom Quinn speaks will get their gas masks and Cipro and vaccines eventually. Maybe they’ll even shut up when they do. What’s truly unsettling is that Quinnas a journalist married to an even more prominent journalist (former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee)exudes the aura of someone “in the know.” If Quinn’s worried, we are to assume, then all of us should be worried. All of us should down tools and refuse to do another moment’s work until we get an injection or a gas mask.
Of course, Quinn doesn’t know any more than the average reader. She should know better, however. But don’t take my word for it. The Post itself debunked her maddening trash with a bioterrorism Q & A in its Oct. 9 issue. Vaccines? Not for the masses, says a George Washington University expert. Stocking up on antibiotics? A “bad idea.” Gas masks? A “waste.” Pretty much a slam-dunk of the nonsense contained in Quinn’s column.
Quinn’s op-ed wasn’t just sillyit was an abuse of readers’ trust. In this new kind of war, one could even see it as aid and comfort of a sort for an enemy that desires such extreme and irresponsible reactions.
The Weeklies Rock the Casbah
Groupthink rules again at America’s top three newsweeklies this week. All three went for the “angry Arab world” motif on their Oct. 15 covers, but Newsweek’s nuanced package by Fareed Zakaria offers readers the most valuable take on the phenomenon. Richard Byrne