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Richard Harrington is getting eased out the door at the Washington Post for beingof all thingsall things to all people. Harrington began covering pop music as a freelancer back when the King was still touring and punk was not yet bornlet alone dead. But the next musical vogue will have to go off without him. After 18 years at the Post, new Style Editor Eugene Robinson and Arts Editor John Pancake decided that Harrington is burned out beyond repair. Harrington will continue to do his job for as long as six months, and then someone else will take over. It’s a tough hire: a mythical hipster who can survive at a daily while presenting a threatening array of pop culture in nonthreatening ways.
The Post finds itself in the predicament that many daily papers are facing. In the mid-’70s, when pop music became enough of a cultural force to require coverage, they finally created a slot for music writers who revered Lennon and McCartney more than Beethoven and Brahms. Twenty years later, those fresh young faces are now in the grip of middle-age dotage, and the job description has fundamentally changed. Instead of discerning nuances in Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, the critic is confronted with disparate genres that morph and breed on a daily basis. No one person, regardless of age, can presume to have anything approaching comprehensive knowledge about the grab bag of styles and productions that still fall under the rubric of pop.
Certainly, Harrington has his limits. He writes most passionately about dead people, in a genre called “Appreciation” at the Post. And he has no time for this or that band burped up by the Buzz Bin, resisting Zeitgeist with every fiber of his curmudgeonly being. Harrington’s concert reviews can range from competent to crabby, and his record reviews don’t put you in the mind of someone tearing the shrink-wrap off his first CDbut hey, you try listening to several dozen records a week and see how excited you are about serving time as a middlebrow Cool Hunter. And, although no Post editor will go near the legally toxic issue of Harrington’s agehe’s 52you get the feeling that it’s in there somewhere when they talk about moving on to next.
Still, because he has been around since the invention of the Stratocaster, Harrington can write competently about almost anything related to pop musicand he has to. While other major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times employ several pop-music critics, each with a specific area of passion/expertise, Harrington is it at the Post. In the past month, he reviewed: the follow-up recording by the trio of Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris; Long Island con/rapper Keith Murray’s latest release; and Offspring’s Americana. The writing is usually workmanlike, but he can still rear back and launch a beauty: His Sunday Arts piece on the second installment from Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick was knowing, lustrous, and well-turned, although it’s worth pointing out that Elvis doesn’t have a pulse, either, so it’s another version of Harrington’s vaunted obitry.
Harrington can’t be getting doinked over productivity. In a room with its share of Scrabble players who file on a schedule known only to them, he turned out more than 200 bylines last year. Nobody is going to mistake him for Greil Marcus, but he covers his vast beat as well as any lone ranger can. He is assisted by a rotating roster of music freelancers who give the Post breadth, but no institutional depth.
Via e-mail, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, 56, writes that although he has never followed Harrington, he believes it silly to think that any one person can do the job of making sense out of the idiosyncratic wall of sound the ’90s are producing:
“A paper the size of the Post can certainly afford to hire [another] younger critic, who almost certainly would give them better coverage on Zietgeist matters. They’re not mythical or irrelevant. But that doesn’t mean an older authority can’t add something else. The basic question is whether the powers that be in the paper’s art coverage are smart enough to understand that rock has also evolved into an art form with many roots and branches that no one critic can cover equally well.”.
But big, primarily suburban papers like the Post are mostly in the business of explaining pop culture, as opposed to covering it. Harrington, who reportedly can be a pain in the ass to work with, is not generally predisposed toward semiotic deconstruction of the poetry of Jewel. But the Post wants the trend stuff that will provide its readers with cultural Cliffs Notesstories that allow them to vaguely swing with the conversation should they be confronted with that rare Washington moment when they run out of things to say about working at the EPA.
Harrington says there will be no raging against the machine, for his part.
“If they don’t want me in the job, they are entitled to make any changes they want to make. I am obviously disappointed. It would have been great to have other people hired to help, because it’s more than any one person can do….[Still], I don’t think that I can be held accountable for the state of the Post’s coverage of pop culture. That is a bigger job than just me,” Harrington says.
Style editor Robinson was not interested in going into detail about the motivations behind his first big move as the section’s editor.
“Richard has had a very long, extremely prolific, and glorious run as a rock-music critic, [but] I think it’s time to start looking toward the future and the possibility of making a change….I think coverage of pop music is a very important thing for Style to be doingand doing intensivelyand I want us to be as close to the wave as we can. There are big things happening in pop culture that I want to be more reflected in the Post. There are more ways of getting into how music affects the larger culture and how that culture plays back into music,” says Robinson. I can’t be sure, but I think that’s Post management-speak for “He wouldn’t know a trend if it sat on his head.” Robinson doesn’t say so, but there’s a notion in Style that Harrington is writing too far out of his demographic.
Tom Moon, the 38-year-old music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, says putting an expiration date on a cultural writer because of age or tenure on the beat is dicey business.
“Look at movies. We are at a point in the culture where every movie critic addresses teen movies. They may not understand all the references, but they are equipped with the critical resources to analyze it as work. If we are confronted with the imperative to chase down every trend in music regardless of its value, the reader is not well served,” Moon says. “We should think pretty hard about what it means when people who have little specific knowledge of art or music or criticism start making decisions based on how in step they think a writer is with the times.”
Personally, Christgau is not ready to turn over cultural stewardship to any old children’s crusade: “I expect to be on this beat till I die myself. It’s endlessly rich, endlessly fascinating. Any critic who can convey that fascination deserves to work. Any critic who is or seems bored can only expect to be moved out sooner or later.”
Post editors insinuate that Harrington fits squarely in the latter category. There had long been rumors that Harrington’s resistance to changing his groove would beget changes, but in the Washington tradition of handing out ambassadorships to people who are no longer deemed useful, Posties of Harrington’s tenure usually get kicked upstairs to emeritus status, rather than just kicked out. The Post is then free to bring in a younger writer who spends his or her days and nights surfing the Web and the clubs for Next Big Thingies to sprinkle into the pages of Style and Sunday Arts. But Pancake says that isn’t the way it works at the Post.
“This isn’t the federal courthouse. We don’t have any emeritus system. We don’t have the resources to do that….We need to find somebody who can cover the entire spectrum of music, from Willie Nelson to Master P,” Pancake says. That really isn’t one person, but Harrington is about as close as you’re going to get.
Synergy Without End In architecture, they’re called adjacencies. One thing is next to another for the sake of convenience and utility. In journalism, adjacencies between ads and editorial are also convenient, but they’re generally unethical. In the March issue of the Washington Monthly, Robert Worth writes a nicely considered piece suggesting that kids reared on South Park would be best goaded into forgoing smoking through the use of irony and humor. The article is illustrated by an ancient ad in which Ronald Reagan is pimping Chesterfields’ supersquare mildness. In the illustration at the end of the piece, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids suggests that “If Philip Morris really didn’t want kids to smoke…it would dump the Marlboro Man.” But wait, it’s not a graphic at all, but a juicy full-page ad that neatly parallels the message of the story…and substantially reduces its credibility.
By the way, if this fitful media age has you skipping Charles Peters’ “Tilting at Windmills” set piece in the same magazine, you’re missing a camp classic this month. In one item, he suggests that a military draft built on a lottery composed of “18-year-olds with family income of more than $100,000 or SAT scores above 1400” would make the richest and the smartest finally show up for duty. But a mere two columns away, Peters mentions “The Washington Monthly’s long campaign to undermine the insane authority of SAT scores” in reference to a New York Times Magazine story about people who use tutoring to improve their children’s prospects. Let’s get this straight: Peters wants to use a profoundly flawed measure of intelligence as a way of finding and enlisting our best and brightest. Nobody does it like Charlie, and there are a lot of good reasons for that.
And Speaking of Self-Service Post Managing Editor Steve Coll’s campaign to enliven the bureaucracy and government-bound pages of the Post seems to be taking hold. I found myself reading story after story with relish and a small amount of envy until Washington City Paper Senior Editor Michael Schaffer pointed out that Februarywhich is Black History Month nationallyappears to be City Paper History Month at D.C.’s paper of record. The short list of City Paper stories re-reported in the Washington Post in the past couple weeks includes:
•“Your Enemies and Neighbors: Quique Aviles’ new play makes a bitter stew in D.C.’s melting pot,” by Holly Bass, CP, 1/22/99 (not to be confused with “The Poet of Uneasy Street,” by Peter Carlson, WP, 2/9/99).
•“The Lady’s a Tramp: Madam’s Organ sign has sensitive locals averting their eyes,” by C.W. Anderson, CP, 6/12/98 (not to be confused with “A Madam’s Image Problem,” by David Montgomery, WP, 2/11/99).
•“Cops and Haulers: D.C.’s Environmental Crimes Unit catches criminals green-handed,” by Elizabeth Murdock, CP, 1/22/99 (not to be confused with “On the Trail of Polluters,” by Allan Lengel, WP, 2/15/99).
•“All-American Girl,” by Dave McKenna, CP, 4/10/98 (not to be confused with “Miller Is at Top of Her Games,” by Kathy Orton, WP, 2/17/99).
•“All My Rabbi Friends Are Comin’ Over Tonight,” by Dave McKenna, CP, 1/22/99 (not to be confused with “An Unorthodox Recruit,” by Tara Finnegan and Jeff Seidel, WP, 2/17/99).
•“On Willard’s Tail: Filmmaker Jim Felter chases the rat, the devil’s mascot, across D.C.,” by Jake Tapper, CP, 7/17/98 (not to be confused with “Rats! Rats! Rats! Our Gnawing Problem: Film Takes On D.C.’s ‘Garbage Culture,’” by Nicole Lewis, WP, 2/18/99).
What other stellar CP stories will we see next? Bob Woodward getting his rear end plaster-casted? David Broder stalking John Hinckley? Sally Quinn tossing a few back with some moonshiners? Of course, we use the Post every day in our reporting, keeping abreast of daily news while liftingand, yes, creditingdata we see there. Not so when the elephant feeds on the grass roots.
I sent Coll a note suggesting it was either a very small town or his paper had settled on a surreptitious homage to the genius of the local weekly. He didn’t reply, and I was prepared to leave it at that until I opened up the Post on Saturday and noticed a front-page story describing a crumbling music industry that used local heroes the Dismemberment Plan as an exemplar of bands caught in the downdraft. David Segal’s story was a nice little trend piece…and a high-handed ripoff of a recent Colin Bane piece in City Paper. Bane had used the same band to demonstrate the same phenomenon just a few weeks ago, yet there it was again. It’s a great idea for the Post to spend front-page real estate on an industry that doesn’t have an office on the Mall, but you’d think someone could have picked up the phone and found any one of the other dozen locally connected bands that will be out on their asses once the shakeout is complete. Maybe they should have asked Harrington for a list of likely suspects. David Carr
E-mail Paper Trail at email@example.com or call (202) 332-2100.