Last Sunday morning, I woke up to a sparkling Washington Post front page. There was an update on the continuing ethical troubles of Gore campaign chair Tony Coelho, a Goodfella portrait of union leader Arthur Coia, a lament for the flood-ravaged city of Princeville, N.C., and a head-on consideration of why Washington has no black theater company.
There’s only one problem with this riveting front: I had to assemble it myself. The actual Post Sunday cover was anchored by an Al Gore biopic, a second Gore piece updating his stumbling campaign, a story on black inmates being brought—guess what?—chicken from their D.C. families, and an infobox suggesting, “We’re working at home more and loving it.”
Only Roberto Suro’s timely report on the CIA’s inability to verify Russian compliance with the nuke accords belonged anywhere near the front of a paper.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Eighteen months ago, Steve Coll became the paper’s managing editor with a mandate to make the front page a feast of ideas and a reflection of where we live now. Instead, the cover remains soporific, a place where hotshot writers squander their talents on questionable projects while the general-assignment stars who remain get their best work buried deep inside the paper. Last Sunday’s edition—whoever made the picks was using a coin with Politics on one side and Process on the other—was a perfect case in point.
Let’s start from the top. “Al Gore, the Wonder Years,” was the first of many A&E-style installments that will unfurl in the coming weeks. This one started before the veep was born and ended with a strapping young Al out behind a plow, taking a stint as a Tennessee prole on a field trip from his home atop an Embassy Row hotel. In real life, when a dinner speaker or an honoree dips that far back into history, it’s best to bank in a few extra cocktails, because you know it’s going to be a long one. Sunday morning Bloody Marys, anyone?
Maybe Al Gore is that interesting. This man-against-silver-spoon saga was serious as only the Post can be, full of banjo music, both Hill and hill people, and powerful men doing powerful things. The elegiac opener depicted a funereal Gore family traveling between Tennessee hamlets with names like Difficult and Defeated. Thank goodness, it looks as if it will have interludes between installments, unlike George W. Bush’s punishing serialized biography, which rolled out majestically over seven consecutive days in July.
I read the whole damn first installment, not because it’s my job, but because there just wasn’t much else to pull me in on the front page. One of the problems with tasking your best hitters to The Big Project is that All The Rest of the Stuff gets covered in very average ways. “When you look around this place, there are so many people who are capable of doing amazing things. And when we lock those same people up over these endless projects, the regular, day-to-day stuff is never going to shine,” laments one Postie.
Of course, even if the staff were kicking out generally assigned excellence, you wouldn’t see it on Page One. It’s not that the leaders of the Post don’t know what they’re doing, it’s just that what they’re doing isn’t very interesting. Coll and Editor Leonard Downie are so institutionally inculcated as to what constitutes a Post story that stuff that’s outside of the box never shows up in the window of the newspaper box. And that’s why, despite all the best efforts of staff and brain trust, the paper just refuses to get great. (Coll was not interested in defending a single Sunday paper or discussing front-page choices in general, beyond saying that it was a complicated task and that significant steps had been taken to make the front a great read.)
Sunday, a day that is supposed to be the gravy of newspapering, a day when editors cherry-pick their way to a mosaic of the moment, has instead become a brutal testament to the Post’s limits. Perhaps that’s why there’s an ongoing discussion at the paper about naming a separate Sunday editor, a person who would be charged with conceiving and assembling the Sunday front.
It certainly couldn’t get any worse: Because Gore’s biographic stone tablets preoccupied the top of the paper, there was room for just one or two other stories above the fold. And that story was about…Al Gore. Turns out that Gore is tired of heaping money on Washington consultants and going backward, so he’s shipping everybody in the campaign off to Nashville. And while he’s back in what he pretends is his home state, Gore will gut-check his sense of self. “‘It comes down to one thing….Al Gore is peeling away the layers of himself to see what’s at his core,’” suggested an insider. (What if he and the Post find out that the answer is a couple of dust bunnies?)
Dan Balz’s Gore-centric update of the X’s and O’s behind the presidential campaign formed the Sunday version of what the Post has dubbed “the invisible primary,” a contest of polls, money-raising, and—I’m sure this will shock you—stories just like the one the paper was writing.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer my invisible campaigns invisible. My front page, if it had to include a Gore story at all, would have featured a breaking dispatch about his campaign chair. Former Congressman Tony Coelho has always lived on the margin between politics and business, and it looks as if he’s stepped in it again. According to an audit done by the State Department and released by the Center for Public Integrity, when Coelho served as the U.S. rep to the World Expo in Portugal last year, he featherbedded, profligated, and cronied up a storm while serving as “commissioner general.”
If you are going to do a story about campaign disarray, previewing your readers on the fact that campaign chair Coelho is about to disappear in a cloud of red mist seems worth mentioning, especially in a paper that prides itself on tracking the most insignificant political personnel wiggles and wobbles. The Washington Times played the Coelho bit big time, in part because it fits that paper’s worldview, which begins and ends with Clinton’s pathological political legacy.
Other precious Page One real estate in the Post was occupied by a feature describing District families traveling over hill and dale to see their imprisoned fathers and husbands in Youngstown, Ohio. Families have been making that trip for two years, yet the Post still feels compelled to show folks loading up coolers after “frying fish and steak, barbecuing ribs and chicken, cooking chilies and lima beans with neck bones, baking pies, cakes and corn bread…” That sad journey was well-covered ages ago in, ahem, other local publications, and regardless of how riveting the reunion photos were, it didn’t belong near the front. Maybe Metro on a slow day, and there have been a lot of those.
The play is even more difficult to understand when, two pages away, you had the Princeville portrait written by Sue Anne Pressley, full of people searching for beloved dogs, usable artifacts of their former lives, and a place to put the leavings of Floyd. I’ll take the upshot of “‘God’s going to take care of us. Whatever was done here, God did it,’” over the trite and foregone quote from the bus story: “‘Even though they did bad, they are still our children, no matter what,’” on any news day. And even if Pressley’s story was nudged out on account of local salience, the Sunday Arts serious whack at the historical blackout in local theater would have been a nice frontispiece.
But that doesn’t fit the Post’s formula of black folks mixing it up at church suppers and struggling to reclaim lost generations. Over and over, the Post’s institutional racial dynamics have left it looking for uplift in all the wrong places: like the gangbanger who straightens up—and oh, by the way, he’s got many girlfriends and even more kids, one of whom he was recently convicted of beating the living hell out of. If the paper is going to use prison as a prism on black life, how about some numbers on the millions the Corrections Corporation of America is making on those guys in Ohio, or a story about why two District prisoners died there? Save the chicken necks for Food.
So what else did they have to pick from? Well, the New York Times had a piece last Sunday—harvested from the Post’s back yard at the Agriculture Department—about how nonprofits are scamming millions of dollars meant to feed poor children, which was neighbored by a real trend story, one about how vulnerable patients are being sold high-risk treatments while private companies enrich themselves.
The papers’ contrasting approaches to storytelling come into sharp relief on Sundays. Months ago, the Times used two German women, longtime friends—one from the East and one from the West—to demonstrate why Germany refuses to fully unify. Last Sunday, the Post used Michael Stuermer, “a foreign policy expert and adviser to former chancellor Helmut Kohl,” to do the same thing. The Times finds stories with implications, people, and real information about the human condition. At its worst, the Post finds stories that might tell a GS-9 what kind of week his department has in store.
The Times takes its mission as a national paper very seriously, and the Post is conversely guided by its desire to be a dominant regional player. The strategy makes business sense for the Post, but the parochialism and geographic fealty built into it circumscribe what will and will not get played.
More important, the Post has lost its capacity to surprise, if it ever had it. It could have given its readers a jolt on Sunday by featuring Michael Powell’s wise-guy treatise on Coia, but the editors would never think of giving that kind of story a ride to the front. It even had quotes from U.S. officialdom—rub out some of the purple prose that made it a Style story, and it would have made the front of the Times in a heartbeat. Every other month, the Times comes through with a funny/sad piece on the denouement of La Cosa Nostra’s fading evil empire. When the Post gets a story about a greasy guy trying to do good in spite of himself, the editors always check to see what agency he works for before giving it a pass to The Show up front.
I guess I should just be thankful that for $1.50, I get to read the flowers of American journalism, regardless of how they are arranged. But if the Post would forget about making an important front page and start making a good one instead, maybe I’d quit spending so many of my Sunday mornings with a gray old lady who doesn’t even live here.
Future Shock Last [insert random date here, known only to Marty Peretz], New Republic Editor Peter Beinart found out that he was no longer editor of the venerable news and opinion weekly. After a short [pick a tenure here, anywhere from eight months to 15], Beinart was told that Marty Peretz thought it was time for a change.
“I think Peter has done [totally insincere faint praise], but the New Republic [transparent fig leaf for next round of Peretz meddling],” Peretz said. Staffers insisted that Beinart had done excellent things both inside and outside the magazine, and expressed surprise that Beinart, who had spent his entire career at the magazine, was out. “Peter has been [some claptrap about mentoring and
intellectual leadership], but I think [next victim] has a real vision for how the New Republic can return to its [tired synonym for glory days],” said one staffer.
Beinart, who said he had anticipated no trouble with Peretz when he took the job back in October of 1999, declined comment.
Racial Trends Post inside headline on Wednesday, Oct. 6: “Senate Rejects Black Judicial Nominee.” No mention, though, that most of those who were voting were white. —David Carr
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