Humor Columnist Notes Serious Issues Behind Washington Post Scuffle

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A fistfight at The Washington Post spurred shock, then nostalgia.

In simultaneously lighthearted and deeply felt take on last week’s Washington Post fisticuffs, Gene Weingarten, an editor and humor columnist for the paper, weighed in.

Weingarten talked about the fight between a reporter and an editor, but also–more importantly–talked about the yearning for a  time of deeper, more passionate news coverage spurred by the fight. He writes in a November 3 update to his monthly chat column, “Hooray. Hooray that there is still enough passion left somewhere in a newsroom in America for violence to break out between colorful characters in disagreement over the quality of a story.”

The tussle–between Style reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia and editor Henry Allen—seems to have been dramatic. Michael Calderone writes on that,

Post sources independently confirmed to POLITICO that Roig-Franzia got hit while defending colleague Monica Hesse from harsh criticism of their story leveled by her editor, Allen.

Allen swung twice, with one punch hitting Roig-Franzi, according to sources. Next, staffers on the 4th floor—including [Marcus] Brauchli, whose office is temporarily across from the Style section during renovations—jumped in to help break up the altercation.

Initial reactions to news of the brawl were mostly of shock. Washingtonian Magazine, the National PostNBC, among others, played up the novelty of a newsroom melee.  But others, like the Guardian and NPR have joined Weingarten in heralding this event as a reminder of bygone days where short tempers went hand in hand with journalistic fearlessness and high editorial expectations.

Weingarten gives an “obligatory mature qualification,” writing “I of course decry any breakdown in comity and collegiality and civil discourse in the workplace, and urge all young people to maintain decorum and respect others, to be tolerant of opposing viewpoints, to seek compromise, and to not punch each other out in spit-flying scrums.”

“Still,” he says, “hooray,”–turning a humorous discussion of this newsroom bout, into, well… an interesting and ethical discussion of newsrooms at large.

Sadly, over the years newsrooms have come to resemble insurance offices peopled by the blanched and the pinched and the beetle-browed; lately, with layoffs thought to be on the horizon, everyone also behaves extra nicely to please the boss… In the frantic scramble for new “revenue streams,” ethical boundaries are more likely to be pushed than is the proverbial envelope. Some of all this has leached out into the product. We all feel it. You do, too.

…Lousy things have found their way into print, and worthy things — killed for unworthy reasons — have not. I am not shocked that tempers boiled over, nor am I shocked that they boiled over between two people who know what has been happening, and care.

I hope neither of them loses one ounce of passion and I hope each of them remains privately convinced he was right.

Weingarten’s assessment is a satirical one, but his observation seems to hold true; though violence is never really ethical, the emotion behind it can provoke valuable self-reflection. Weingarten looks at this fight as more than a kooky clash of personalities. It’s an eruption of strongly held ideals of quality–and therefore puts a focus on ethical journalism. Writer Spencer Ackerman also echoes this in a post on his blog:

I don’t mean to act like some tough guy… but we in journalism have lost a passion and a no-bitch-ass-ness attitude that Allen possesses, and I think is more blessing than curse to the trade. And this is a trade — not a profession. It’s a mission, not a career.

I’m not saying that we should go around acting like pugilists… But I am saying that we need to return to the crusading, no-nonsense, fact-never-fiction, unafraid-to-give-offense first principles that ultimately protect democracy. Verbal pugilism, not literal pugilism.

It is an unexpectedly ethical message to take away from this otherwise regrettable action.

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Gene Weingarten Notes Serious Issues Behind Washington Post Scuffle

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