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Energized by the Washington Post’s primary election coverage, fewer than 18,000 voters in a city of more than half a million showed up and put Ward 6 Councilmember Brazil over the top in the Democratic primary for an at-large seat. The Post’s template for the race—Brazil clear front-runner, challengers not worth bothering about, Brazil inevitable winner—read true, but rang false.
It’s as if he started this campaign on third base and then received a bye from Vanessa Williams, a very recent arrival from the Philadelphia Inquirer who constituted the entire campaign team deployed by the Post. Nominating front-runners is easy in the District because the stakes are so low that local media outlets don’t bother paying for pre-election polls. That leaves a solitary Post reporter, sauntering from one candidates’ forum to the next, to decide for herself.
With Brazil as overdog, the race was billed as a fight between the reformer-turned-hack and Joe Yeldell, a debased municipal employee who didn’t have the decency to go away. Never mind that the at-large race was jam-packed with other candidates—Phil Mendelson, John Capozzi, and Paul Savage—who had no hand in the current municipal disaster; none of them saw the light of day in the Post. The foregone endorsement of the paper’s editorial page last week pretty much sealed it. Now the Post can start running stories about Brazil being the front-runner for the mayor’s job.
In two terms on the council, Brazil has gone from young turk to turkey, but the Post has decided that he’s their boy anyway. The Post leadership reels under the weight of the white man’s burden, and Brazil—a black candidate with reformist pretensions—has become the Black Guy the Post Can Deal With. Expect Brazil to be granted the kind of permissions that eventually helped undo Marion Barry.
Other candidates, some of whom had the misfortune of being white, were left to wonder why the Post framed an eight-person race as a two-man dogfight.
“For a paper that cries out for change in the city and fails to cover any of the new candidates, and I’m not just talking about me, I’m talking about Phil [Mendelson] and…Paul [Savage], is a big disappointment,” said John Capozzi, standing in a humid post-election wake at State of the Union.
In its editorial pages the Post may keen about the need for new blood, but the paper really isn’t ready to think outside the box. This is how mediocrity becomes institutionalized—conventional thinking meets lowered expectations, and suddenly it’s Brazil for Ribbon Cutter in ’98.
Take It Back, Take 2: The death of the Sunday newspaper magazine is old news in every city save a few, but the Washington Post Magazine ain’t going quietly. Last Sunday’s edition featured the latest in an endless series of tweaks and lurches designed to somehow find a place on the plate of the Sunday reader.
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The redesign includes an opening column focused on current linguistic idioms, by E.J. Dionne. Hell of an idea. Sounds sort of familiar, though. There’s also an annotation of an original document. Again, cute, but there’s an echo in there somewhere. The problem with reinvention is that somebody else usually already invented the good stuff.
Execution is a problem as well. Dionne may be a rightfully prized voice on the Post’s editorial page, but judging from his debut on language in the magazine—a harangue about “defining moments” that reads like a GAO report—he’s got some brushing-up to do before he becomes the Post’s answer to the William Safire. The language in a column about language should be paramount—riffing will not do. If the Post was in a borrowing mood, it should have copped the New York Times’ approach to editorial redesign. The Times pulled it off, coming up with a magazine that can be grazed or devoured, depending on the reader’s level of commitment.
It’s a tough niche. Sunday magazines have always been an unholy union of longform journalism and product-oriented copy, but the need to stretch out editorially over hard and soft goods can be very awkward. Under a page titled “Intelligent Life,” the magazine detailed the evolution of the BarcaLounger. My friend Elliot suggested that the feature was one more small indication of the “recline of Western civilization.”
The Post wants to hang onto the magazine as a point of institutional pride and as a vehicle to offer its advertisers color. The bad news for editor Steve Coll is that he’s in charge of keeping all those furniture ads apart, which is where the fizzy departments come in; the even worse news is there have never been that many ads of any sort to keep apart in the first place. When the Post Magazine was redesigned and shrunk to its current format in 1986, a dumb cover story and an unfortunate Richard Cohen column touched off a dialogue over race that featured many Washingtonians spending their Sunday afternoons hand-delivering the magazine back to the company’s doorstep. Ever since the community asked the Post to “Take It Back,” the magazine has been an institutional and advertising orphan. It has never developed the kind of plop value that would allow it to wriggle out from underneath the Sunday New York Times Magazine, so it leads a solitary existence at the bottom of the magazine pile—if it slides out from the sheaf of ads at all.
Part of the magazine’s problem stems from the success of the paper it comes wrapped in. The Post is one of the few papers in America where talented writers can routinely go long, so one of the underlying rationales for a Sunday takeout vehicle is moot. As it is, the covers are held down too often by book excerpts by Posties, or specials—like the incredibly dour fashion issue that curiously anchored the launch of the rejiggered mag.
Maybe next week, once the clothes horses are back in the closet, the cover will take a sweet or substantive turn. There really is no secret to making a memorable Sunday magazine—you consistently fill the cover with no-shit stories. It’s worth staying tuned, if for nothing else than to see what happens when the king of the personal pronoun, Richard Cohen, is alternated with Liza Mundy, who will “tilt at public and private life in Washington.” Sounds like a spectator sport all the way.
Redesigning the current magazine may not end up being productive, but it’s not all that risky. I don’t think the magazine’s editors will be getting a lot of mail demanding to know why they finally punched out “Real Time” or pulled the microphone away from the space between Jeanne Marie Laskas’ ears.
Ten Best Right-Wingers In its July 8 issue, the Nation ran a bit suggesting that local nuclear warhead Frank Gaffney, who would build a Star Wars defense system with his bare hands if he could, was benefiting from some heavy-hitting funders. The Nation reported that Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy is supported by General Dynamics, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Northrop…and Washingtonian magazine. A spokesman from Washingtonian said that the magazine does not sponsor Gaffney’s pipe dream as a corporation, but that publisher Phillip Merrill, former assistant secretary general of NATO, lent his own name to the center. Maybe the magazine should feature an afternoon discussing geopolitics with Gaffney on its next list of close-to-home getaways. —David Carr