After 1,250 Columns, the End
T he first of 1,250 columns, nine years ago, spoke of a time that seems impossible now, of heady young tech moguls flush with money and drunk with possibility, instructing the chef at The Palm in Tysons Corner to spell out "Netscape" for them -- in crabmeat.
Today's is my last column, and as I scan the archives, I see stories of public arrogance and private foibles, but mostly, I see stories of people poking their way through life -- a quest I've tried to capture here a few times each week.
Those first columns covered topics that seem all too familiar today: police beatings, dreams of a trolley line from Bethesda to Silver Spring, schools that teach little more than cynicism. But other pieces feel like relics of another world: a journey with the mapmaker scurrying to keep up with the leading edge of sprawl, a visit with city kids who played baseball where dreamers thought there might someday be a major league stadium, an attempt to understand what drove angry college kids to shut down the city with protests against . . . well, it never was quite clear.
Those demonstrators didn't teach me anything about globalization, but writing about them did show me that the relationship between news writers and readers was changing forever.
For that column, published the day after the anti-globalization movement held its biggest demonstration here, I wandered around downtown asking protesters what they were so angry about. One young woman explained that her parents failed to see the root injustices of society: "They say, 'I like my VCR and my Saab, and I like medicine and fried chicken.' "
"Such terrible people," I wrote. "Imagine, liking medicine and food!"
The reaction to my description of "humorless bands of adolescents . . . searching for ways to upset their elders" was immediate: Thousands of e-mails poured in (this was just as broadband was becoming commonplace), most howling about how mean I was. The issue was fleeting, but what stuck with me was how the culture of the Web was shifting the relationship between writer and reader. People took a visceral interest in how the story was told. They wanted to know how I'd chosen whom to quote, what views I'd brought to my reporting. I'd always received letters, but this was new -- in the size of the response, in the unchecked venom, in the expectation that there ought to be a continuing conversation between news purveyor and news consumer.
There was something empowering about the new media, the digital technology that let readers speak out in the same format, the same time frame and the same space as the news that had hitherto been delivered from on high.
I loved the new battleground of ideas even as I lamented how opinion -- the laziest form of journalism -- was elbowing out the rigorous work of reporting. In this new world, it was so cheap to mouth off that the difficult and sometimes less-exciting work of ferreting out facts became too easy to discard or trim back.
On the first day I was given this space to play with, the great columnist Mary McGrory summoned me to her office with a note: "Come see me. I have three words for you."
I scurried over and presented myself. Mary looked up from her desk and said, "Three words: Cruelty is important." To do this job right, you must name and blame the bad guys. You must call it as it is. The minute you hold back, your credibility is shot. The second you stop reporting, you're just one more pontificating, pusillanimous pundit." (When my friend and colleague Marjorie Williams launched her column, she, too, received the gift of three words from Mary: "Subtlety is overrated.")
The beauty of a column is that you can dig up the story, then say it straight: You can expose the cynicism that leaves D.C. school kids worse off at the end of their education than they were at the start, then you can call that system a criminal enterprise. You can reveal the narrow-mindedness that threatens to put mentally retarded people out on the street and then push until embarrassed officials do the right thing. You can keep hitting the same note until a school principal with a phony doctorate is removed.