The talent herders at the Washington Post might want to be careful about whom they cull from the flock to replace Blaine Harden at the paper’s New York bureau. Seems once the prize stock sees the big city, it’s a little tough to keep them down on Uncle Sam’s farm. Harden joins Malcolm Gladwell (New Yorker), Laurie Goodstein (New York Times), and Michael Specter (Times) as cherished Posties who have taken that one-way trip up I-95. Up until Harden took a job at the Timesas a writer for Metro and the Sunday magazinethe 21-year Post veteran was expected to be a cornerstone of Managing Editor Steve Coll’s efforts to engineer a writing renaissance at the paper.
Coll eked out a laugh when asked about Harden’s defection.
“The joke in the room is that we are going to require people who take that job to leave some collateral,” he says. “He is a guy who I admire personally and whose work has been a real inspiration to me. It’s painful to lose somebody as good as Blaine, but the reality is, we can’t publish a newspaper there, and that’s where he wants to be.”
“The lure of the place is strong to many writers. They are drawn to New York at one time or another….It’s some people’s idea of what the literary life is like, and that is difficult to fight against,” Coll says. “But this is a very competitive time for high-end talent, and we have already refocused to make sure that we compete and maintain some of the best writers in the country.”
You could tell that the battle was mostly lost about the time Harden penned a valentine to George Steinbrenner. Last month, in between covering the bejesus out of the D’Amato-Schumer death match, Harden wrote the following lede: “Without warning, The Boss became flesh. He glared through an open door in the executive office suite in Yankee Stadium and growled.”
There is no Boss and no Yankee Stadium in Washington. John Cooke? Please. And the Big Jack ain’t jack next to Yankee Stadium. Writers working in New York do a daily traffic in history and myth, while most Washington reporters get to cover a horse race that is losing salience at a gallop. Harden, who has been posted all over the globe, says it’s the lure of the city, more than the idea of being a Timesman, that has him jumping mastheads:
“I switched for a very simple reason: I wanted to live in New York and wanted to write about the city. It’s like no other city I have lived in and I want to know how it works.
“The Post made a wonderful counter-offer….Steve is building an ethos about good writing, and the fact that I am leaving doesn’t mean I don’t believe in what he is doing. But the one thing they couldn’t give me was to be read as part of the local rag in town. If I was really interested in government, I never would leave, but I am a generalist,” Harden says.
One well-traveled Post writer says it’s an old scenario: “We all go to New York thinking we are going to be immune to its blandishments, but that’s not how it generally ends up.”
A Very Small Town If New York is the grail for some nonwonky Washingtonians, then D.C. must be a gulag for New Yorkers. Times Washington reporter Michael Janofsky was hurting so bad for a story out here in the provinces that last Sunday he matched an Associated Press story about people casting human remains willy nilly about the beaches of Venice on the Bay in Maryland. (The story had run a few days before in the Washington Times.) Janofsky did the same walk around with the president of the local community association and found out that AP was right: Locals really, really don’t like people coming in and fouling their pristine beaches with the ashen remains of gramps and grandma.
A Home Run That’s Still Rolling Last winter, the Post was looking for a story with the kind of heft and seriousness that would resonate nationally. They found it in their own back yard: The paper is in the midst of a five-part series that proves D.C. cops shoot way too often and none too straight. According to the Post, Washington cops fire their weapons at double the rate of police in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Miami, resulting in some $8 million in payouts in the last six months. More horrifying still, District cops have shot and killed 85 people since 1990, according to the Post. Weaving graphics, anecdotes, and chilling first-person accounts, the paper has finally kicked out the kind of investigative narrative that wins plaques.
For Post readers, though, the big prize will be a better city. Thanks to the series, Chief Charles Ramsey, an import from Chicago, is learning what natives have known for some time: The men and women he supervises are a menace to the citizenry they are sworn to protect. Among other changes in the works, Ramsey has announced that his troops will no longer take on moving cars with their hair-trigger Glocks.
The series is all the more impressive because the reporting team of Jeff Leen, Jo Craven, David Jackson, and Sari Horwitz had few reliable statistics to work with. Aided by computer-assisted reporting chief Ira Chinoy, they carefully assembled enough of their own numbers from disparate sources to come up with conclusions that will stay with readersincluding the fact that none of the fatalities occurred west of Rock Creek Park. Rick Atkinson, assistant managing editor for investigations, says, “It’s the most complicated story I have worked on in 23 years, in part because of the unwillingness of the city and the police to cooperate. I think this has been a dirty little secret for a while.”
Very Pro Pro-Life Speaking of violent people who are ostensibly protecting life, on Nov. 10the day that Attorney General Janet Reno announced a $500,000 bounty on the person or persons responsible for the slaying of a New York abortion doctorthe Post ran a downright gooey trend piece on “pro-life” activists who are morphing into guardians of the aged and infirm, à la Hugh Finn. “[T]he end of human life is emerging as the new front line of the fight, and conservative ‘pro-life’ organizations are being pumped with fresh vigor.” Never mind the freaks who turned that family tragedy into a soapbox, the story tripped along on anecdotage and lots of overheated rhetoric to suggest that pro-lifers are being reborn and emboldened by this new assault on the living. If the Post and reporter Amy Goldstein wanted a real trend story about anti-abortion zealots, they might have checked out the Village Voice a few weeks ago, which reminded its readers that seven people working at abortion clinics have been killed in the last five years and that several people support killing more, including two Maryland anti-abortion warriors.
“Since 1977, there have been 154 incidents of arson, 39 bombings, and 99 acid attacks against abortion providers, according to the National Abortion Federation,” reported Jennifer Gonnerman in the Nov. 4 Voice. “And the severity of violence has steadily intensified. No longer content with damaging property, extremists are now determined to kill.”
Cooke’s Cookie? In a story on Nov. 6, Post writer Brian Mooar detailed Marlena’s most recent DUI bust near Dupont Circle.
“Cooke was stopped about 1:50 a.m. in the 1200 block of 23rd Street NW after U.S. Park Police Officer Jeffrey Muller spotted her champagne-colored 1995 Land Rover sport utility vehicle driving without headlights on…
“Cooke was with a young man at the time of her arrest, police said.”
Wow, just how young is “young”? I mean, if you’re going to drop that in there, you might want to get specific. You can bet your ass that if the spouse of Senator So-and-So got pulled over drunk and youthfully accompanied, there would be no mention that he or she had a special friend, let alone his age.
Party Favors Katharine Graham held a soiree last week to give Post Managing Editor Steve Coll an opportunity to clink cocktails with local heavies and make nice with other editors. The fact that a very short list of writersyoung lions like Peter Baker, John Harris, Hanna Rosin, and Michael Grunwaldwere included left a few old hands feeling nicely stiffed. “There were a few cracks about the master race of new reporters,” said one. One invitee noted, “It was totally hush-hush, with a lot of game-playing about who came to work on that day dressed in their best, who was putting on makeup at the end of the day, and there were a lot of calls to Coll’s secretary about who was invited and who wasn’t.” Coll says that the list was ad hoc and not based on a secret wiring diagram. “There was nothing scientific about the guest list….If it was a problem, then I guess we should probably just have more parties,” says the suddenly festive managing editor. That might be a good idea. “It was the clearest signal I can think of that there is a generational changing of the guard, and that ain’t going to go over great with the people who have been doing good work for a long time,” says one observer.
The New “Urban Youth” In two recent stories, the Post has uncovered the next adolescent menaceyoung people lurking with intent to wear black. In an Oct. 23 story about a standoff between police and kids gathered at Club Soda to protest police violence, the Post reported that District cops clashed with “teenagers dressed in black or wearing spiked Mohawk hairdos.” And earlier this week, in a story about a foiled plot by some students to shoot school administrators in Wisconsin, the Post described the suspects as “outcasts whose homemade tattoos, spike bracelets and punk wardrobes did not fit in with the Nike and jeans mainstream.” Damn kids, best not leave home without that Swoosh.
William the Reviled Kenneth Adelmanformer director of arms control and disarmament under President Reagan and an amateur Bardophilefilled the stage of the Shakespeare Theatre last Monday night with temporary thespians from the capital’s glimmerati. Adelman conceived “Leadership and Legitimacy According to Shakespeare” as a fundraiser for the theater’s outreach programit was SROthat would connect the world’s best-known chronicler of political intrigue with Washington’s headlines and the people who write them.
Sam Donaldson was cast against type and nature, unspooling a homily on modesty from Henry IV: “I stole all courtesy from heaven/And dress’d myself in such humility/That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts.” He played it for laughs, obviously. Ted Koppel and his daughter Andrea managed to be both affected and affecting as King Lear and Cordelia, with the Nightline anchor grafting an iambic overlay onto his heavyweight approach to consonants. Post Editor at Large Ben Bradleewhose pronunciation of “laydee” seemed lifted from the last cab driver he rode withcouldn’t resist some contemporary editing of Gloucester’s pitch to newly widowed Lady Anne, played by his wife, Sally Quinn: “I want you to listen and listen good. I did not kill your husband.” It was excruciating in spotsevery time Adelman launched into one of his spontaneous soliloquies, it felt as if you had somehow left the party and become trapped in the library of a Shakespearean completist. But, though much of the evening was weighted down by the dread you’d expect in a roomful of amateur actors with a lot of Shakespeare on their hands, some of the casting was luminous. Who else but all-world blowhard David Broder to breathe life into Henry VI’s lecture on airborne currents? “Obeying with my wind when I do blow/And yielding to another when it blows/Commanded always by the greater gust…” David Carr
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