Kathleen Parker on the Post scuffle and newsroom passion

By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, November 8, 2009

The so-called "newsroom brawl" between an editor and a writer at The Post recently has been a fine distraction for the health-care weary.

The two men apparently came to blows over, of all things, words. Not ad hominems necessarily, or at least not exclusively, but words as in the quality of writing. So began the argument that led to the scuffle heard 'round the Internet.

Be still, my fibrillating heart.

The pugilist was one Henry Allen, a renowned writer and an editor with the Style section. On the other end of Allen's ire (something between a clenched fist and a slap, say eyewitnesses) was Style writer Manuel Roig-Franzia, co-author of a "charticle" (an appetizer-sized combination of words, images and graphics) that Allen called the second-worst story he'd seen in 43 years.

Roig-Franzia, who had sparred verbally with Allen, responded by suggesting that Allen not be such a "[bleep]." Allen, 68 and just a few weeks from retirement, lunged. Bystanders to the excitement, including Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, intervened -- and Earth continued to spin on its axis in the customary fashion.

No harm, no foul, right? Not quite.

Much harrumphing has ensued. Opinions veer between "We can't have that sort of thing" to "Was that great, or what?" Moi? I feel like Miss Rosie Sayer in "The African Queen," reluctantly weak-kneed in the presence of the rough-hewn Charlie Allnut.

In an online chat, The Post's Gene Weingarten cheered the passion, long missing from America's bean-counter newsrooms. Reporters of a certain age remember when newsrooms bristled with heat amid the search for light. Fights may have been infrequent, but tempers often flared as deadlines loomed and reporters sweated over just the right word, usually under the baleful eye of an editor whose own deadline was bearing down.

The newsroom wasn't just a workplace. It was a rendezvous point for renegades from the ordered life who, nevertheless, were compelled to perform under fire. To create on demand is a contradictory skill. To do so artfully is not usually a function of charm.

Thus, David Von Drehle, a former Post editor and writer (now at Time), lamented the decision that Allen could not return to the building, calling him "the most dazzling and original talent I've seen in 30-plus years in the journalism business."

"Instead of being banned from the building, Henry should have a statue in the lobby," he told the Washington City Paper.

While some staffers have been placing bets on what might have been the worst story ever to cross Allen's desk, others have tried to discover the deeper meaning of the fracas. Among the theories advanced is that Allen was reacting to New Media's advancing siege.

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