The assumption inside and outside the Washington Post has always been that in order to get fired, you would have to be found in a closet with a 4-year-old boy who was both naked and dead. But last week’s firing of Hal Hinson, a savvy film critic who wrote for the Style section for over a decade, suggests some cracks in the Post’s lifetime-employment program. To the reader’s eye, Hinson was the stronger half of an uninspired Style film team, but he reportedly drove his editors batshit over the years by missing deadlines and showing up late for commitments. (There was a recent account of a public screening that was delayed 30 minutes to accommodate a tardy Hinson.) Both friends and detractors say that Hinson confronts some demons that may not be entirely of his own making, but Style editor David Von Drehle and new arts editor Peter Pancake ran out of slack for him. Neither Hinson nor Von Drehle would comment specifically on the reasons for the termination.
Observers inside the section wonder whether Hinson’s departure means that Style is scaling back movie reviews, leaving Weekend as the primary source of film criticism. “These people need to relax a bit and watch what happens,” Von Drehle said. “Everybody worries every time we do something that we are going to do less, and what this means is that we are going to do more. You can’t always do better with the same team on the field.” Although Von Drehle said Style will forgo comprehensive review coverage that duplicates Weekend, he pledged he will find a replacement for Hinson. “We need to be doing big-picture stories on film. That has been a big hole in our coverage, and we have been chewing up an enormous amount of time on movies that aren’t worth the effort. There is no reason that we need to cover every Adam Sandler movie that’s released.” Sounds reasonable enough, especially the part about Adam Sandler, but the 86ing of Hinson has created some ugliness in the normally patrician kingdom of Style.
Search Us Last week, the Post wrote a cautionary front-page story about the growth of privacy abuses via online commercial databases. The story—written by Elizabeth Corcoran and John Schwartz—was timely enough but failed to mention that newspapers like the Post are among the more enthusiastic end-users of the peeping technology. Corcoran referred a call about the lack of disclosure to technology editor John Burgess. “You seem to have a good point. We put it in the story we did today,” said Burgess. In a small item on Page 5A on Tuesday about the Federal Trade Commission’s effort to limit access to databases, Corcoran wrote, “The Washington Post Co., for instance, subscribes to several such databases.” It’s worth mentioning that Washington City Paper subscribes to something called Data Base Technologies, which can come up with just about everything but a subject’s ring size using very rudimentary queries. Newspapers are part of the database debate, and their growing use of electronic prying will give the public one more good reason to ratchet up its loathing for the media.
Sprawling Coverage Bob Dole and his minions have spent a lot of time wondering how they could get above the fold in the Post, when it turned out that all the candidate had to do was fall down. Dole took a tumble in California after a couple of creaky whacks at the entertainment industry, and most every paper in America took note in small ways, publishing inside photos that made it clear the candidate was still among us. Even the Daily News didn’t front-page Bob in pursuit of a bounce. The Post, on the other hand, came up with an assassination-style format, with a massive skyline shot of Dole grimacing on the ground. The only thing missing was the 72-point type saying, “Dole’s Flat On His Back.” In an institutional CYA story the following day, Blaine Harden said the picture “has become a powerful image of the year’s presidential race.” The statement was a clever justification for the paper’s lurid placement of the photo, but no other major paper even came close to exploiting the picture the way the Post did. While I admit that the photo served as a tidy metaphor for Dole’s spasmodic campaign, the placement left no doubt the Post is playing favorites. And it wasn’t the first time: Aug. 18’s Page One juxtaposed a teetering, akimbo Dole looking like a bag of bones with a photo of a very youthful Clinton mugging with a cigar. Common sense suggests that the Post is pursuing an agenda, subtextual or not. I’m beginning to think the freaks who are always chanting about the Post newsroom’s liberal conspiracy may be onto something.
Chestnuts Grown on Tamarind Trees In a hilarious parody of a cliché-dependent foreign correspondent, the first six chapters of New York Times staffer Christopher Wren’s novel, “Hacks,” open with mock leads that somehow invoke the “tamarind trees” of the mythical country of Equatoria. The correspondent/hack is finally busted by the fact-checkers back at the home office, who run a correction saying that there are no tamarind trees in Equatoria. It’s a funny bit that was fetched from parody and thrown back into newsprint with the delivery of last Sunday’s Times. In John F. Burns’ Page One story on AIDS in India, the throat-clearing lead read: “The giant tamarind trees spread a lush umbrella across the highway here, 75 miles from Calcutta on the main road between India and Bangladesh.”
Cone Heds Multiple choice. Every 10 years, the Washingtonian: A.) names the 10 best ways of avoiding going downtown for anything, B.) publishes a serious story, C.) has an issue without a special advertising supplement, or D.) rediscovers race as a topic. The answer is D. Actually, the ritual goes all the way back to 1976, when the magazine published its infamous “Can Whites Survive in D.C?” The mag illustrated the racist story with a photo of an ice-cream cone stacked with gobs of chocolate threatening to overwhelm the vanilla. Ten years later, in 1986, it was an illustration of white, chocolate, and marble flavors on a cover that asked, “Blacks and Whites in Washington: How Separate? How Equal?” This time around, the Washingtonian took a cone-free approach and relied on a headline designed to offend no one: “Race Revisited—A Special Report on Race Relations Today—How We Got Here, Where We’re Going.” The lead story by metropolitan editor Diane Granat contained outstanding demographic sidebars, but the narrative dutifully traipsed from one hand to the other and avoided any upshot about race and class in D.C. Perhaps an empty cone would have been a good cover motif.
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