Q&A With Eugene Robinson
Bob Levey's guest today is Eugene Robinson, who recently took over as the editor of the Style section.
A native of Orangeburg, SC, Robinson's professional journalism career began in 1975 at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered "night police, day police, courts...and a spell at city hall." He joined The Post in January 1980, and spent two years covering Marion Barry, "one of the most complex and fascinating characters in Washington's modern history," says Robinson.
Please submit your questions for Eugene Robinson now and during the hour.
Arlington, Va.: Congratulations on your new job. I enjoy the Style section very much, but it has come under some criticism for the snide and-or smug tone of some of its pieces. How do you respond to that criticism? And how do you produce a section that has "attitude" while still maintaining basic levels of courtesy and taste?
Eugene Robinson: Thanks for liking Style! What we try to do is be provocative, witty, sharp, sometimes biting. What we don't want is to sound snide or smug, and so if that tone creeps into our coverage, it's unintended. Style should be a place for the kind of writing you can't find elsewhere in the paper -- or in other newspapers, for that matter -- but it shouldn't be obnoxious.
Bethesda, MD: Carolyn Hax's column has been a really great addition to the Style lineup. It's a shame her column only appears on Fridays. Any chance of her writing a daily column for the Post?
Eugene Robinson: A timely question. Soon, we will be running Carolyn's terrific column twice a week instead of once. You'll be hearing the details soon.
Eugene Robinson: Me encanto Buenos Aires! And now in English: The questioner wanted to know how I liked living in Buenos Aires, where I spent four years as the Post's South American correspondent. The answer is that my family and I loved living in B.A., one of the great cities of the world, and are dying for the opportunity to go back for a visit sometime. The people are great and the beef is hands-down the best in the world.
Mr. Robinson --
Eugene Robinson: Well, the truth is that I don't know of any other feature section that tries to do all the things Style does. We see ourselves as a daily magazine, covering culture, lifestyles, the arts, anything. I'd wager, for example, that not many other feature sections sent a writer to cover the plight of the Kosovo refugees. There isn't anything that can't be a Style story if done right.
Bob Levey: There's little question that the standards in Style are different from the standards elsewhere in the paper. For example, in his Sunday Style column, Tony Kornheiser reported that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has a nice "tush." You know darn well that that would never be allowed in any other section. Why in yours?
Eugene Robinson: I'm not sure the standards are so different in Style. You could get away with the word "tush" in other sections of the paper too -- although, I suppose, only in Style could you apply it to the rear end of a prominent individual. We just get to have a bit more fun with the language, and with celebrities, than other sections.
DC: Mr. Robinson. Can we please get rid of Ann Landers. She is quickly becoming senile. Her answers most often are way off base, and she is forever correcting herself. How about just having Carolyn Hax write 'Dear Carolyn' At least she's a few years from senility!
Eugene Robinson: Don't be so hard on Ann. Her column is still a really popular feature, and I'm sure it'll be around for many years to come. Carolyn, on the other hand, speaks to a different generation. I think her column is one of the best additions to the paper in years.
Bob Levey: As we both know, our newspaper is going batty trying to attract and keep young readers. Style is an obvious "entry point" for teenagers and twenty-somethings. Will you be editing the section with them in mind?
Eugene Robinson: Everybody wants younger readers, but I think there's a real danger if we start editing the Style section -- or any section, for that matter -- with some sort of demographic chart in our minds. Still, I think a lot of the things that Style covers are naturally of interest to young people (like popular music, fashion, television, internet culture) and if we cover them well, we'll be serving these readers well.
Bob Levey: You've said that Style is intended to be "a general-interest daily magazine." That's a mighty hard assignment when our readership is so diverse in so many ways. What do you think that "daily magazine" should include? What should it NOT include?
Eugene Robinson: An interesting question. A general-interest magazine of any kind -- whether it appears at newsstands, in cyberspace or on your doorstep each morning -- is harder and harder to put out these days. People are reading niche publications. The next time I go to the local newsstand, I expect I'll see a magazine with the title "Outlaw Gardener" or something like that. But even if the culture has fragmented into a million little niche cultures, the Post's readership is still quite general. So the thing we hope to do is put out a section that speaks to the things people still hold in common, and also dips into the various subcultures that make up modern American life.
Arlington, VA: The Style section seems like such a large leap from your previous hard news experience. Why the move?
Eugene Robinson: When I first came to the Post, some 19 years ago, I thought the most distinctive thing about the paper was Style. Even while covering hard-news beats, I always tried to write for Style as much as possible. I just felt a real kinship with the section and what it tries to do, and wanted to be a part of it.
Bob Levey: The Style section is famously difficult to manage. You've had 19 predecessors, by my count. Significantly, one of them received a farewell gift of a t-shirt. It said, TELL SHELBY I'M HAVING A PERSONAL CRISIS AND WON'T BE IN TODAY. Will you treat the staff like a talented, quirky bunch of artists? Like a bunch of rowdy kindergarteners? Something in between?
Eugene Robinson: The reputation of Style as a "sandbox" for spoiled writers is much overdone. I've found the writers hard-working, professional and amazingly creative. Plus, I'm six-four and I don't think they want to mess with me.
Washington, DC: Reading "The Reliable Source" has been a guilty pleasure for me for years -- I feel a little bad about reading gossip, but I always look for it when I open the Post. Do you think "The Reliable Source" will change much now that it's getting a new author? If so, what kind of change do you expect.
Eugene Robinson: Don't feel guilty about reading the Source! Our aim is to provide the Washington area with Gossip Without Guilt. It's one of the paper's most popular features and I just want it to continue in more or less its current glory. As you might imagine, it's a real grind producing that column four or five times a week, month after month, year after year. Ann and Annie served their time, and served it well. I'm sure Lloyd Grove will bring his own personality to the column and make it his own, as all his predecessors have done.
Olney, MD: I really enjoy the Sunday style and all its humorous pieces -- but I was just wondering, who is the czar?
Eugene Robinson: The czar of Sunday Style -- I must remember to buy him a crown! -- is Tom Shroder, who joined the Post about four months ago from the Miami Herald, where he edited the Sunday magazine. Tom is... well, let's just say that the section accurately reflects his personality. He's a treasure.
FFX, VA: I just wanted to add that I too am a fan of the Style section. I think that the tone it sets most times can be described as " Don't take yourself too seriously." A la Tony K.'s Sunday column. Would you agree?
Eugene Robinson: Exactly! Can you think of another city, in the whole wide world, that takes itself as seriously as Washington? Can you think of any group of people anywhere who can be so puffed-up and self-important? Washington needs an outlet for fun, irreverence, and all those other diversions. Style tries to be that outlet.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, the new boss of the Style section, Eugene Robinson. Keep those questions coming!
Bob Levey: Let's settle this age-old question once and for all: Why does Style review a movie on, say, Thursday, and Weekend reviews the same movie a day later?
Eugene Robinson: After careful study and painstaking review, I can tell you that the definitive answer to this question is: Beats me. I don't know how this custom evolved, but the truth is that I like it. I think Style's critics are second to none, and I love their reviews. But since The Post is such a dominant paper in the area, what's the harm in having more voices sounding off about the same film? At least the reader can get more than one view. Plus, Weekend's critics are terrific too.
Alexandria, VA: I find "Style Invitational" pretty much off the wall. In fact, much of what is written by your staff and the responses by readers are quite often distasteful.
Eugene Robinson: Sorry you don't like the Invitational. In talking to readers, I find that it's very much an acquired taste. Some people don't like it, some don't get it, some think it's a waste of time and space. But others love it, follow it religiously, and are about ready to make a cult figure of Gene Weingarten, the mad genius who invented the Invitational and sustains it each week. What's more, I'm unable to guess on first meeting someone whether they're an Invitational-lover or an Invitational-hater. You, for example, I would have pegged for an Invitational-lover.
Bob Levey: Often, people in the community ask me if Style is intended to convey "what The Post really thinks" about an issue or a person. I always refer them to the editorial page, yet the question keeps coming. How would you answer it?
Eugene Robinson: The truth is that if you put 12 Post writers and editors in a room, you get 13 opinions. If you put 12 Style writers and editors in a room, you get about three dozen opinions. More than in any other part of the paper, the stories in Style reflect the voice of the author. For what The Post really thinks about anything, you've got to check out the editorial page.
The local DC area has a large selection of professional theatre. But, I'm not sure how many people know about the wealth of community theatre out there. There's tons of talented people doing theatre just for the love of it. Would you consider doing a piece on this aspect of DC?
Eugene Robinson: I agree that the theater community is larger, richer and more varied than we reflect. I really want to take the section deeper into this area, but you should also keep in mind that our space is limited and we'll probably never be able to cover everything that's out there.
Arlington VA: Oh God, I LOVE the Style Invitational. Some weeks I laugh all week just thinking about it.
Eugene Robinson: ...which proves my point. (See above.)
Arlington: I'm sure you get lots of questions about the comics, but here's mine. Why did you replace the very funny "Speedbump" single panel with the incredibly un-funny "That's Life"? Or at least why not get rid of the appallingly poorly drawn and usually not funny "Close To Home" instead?
Eugene Robinson: Glad you asked. Although the comics now appear at the back of the Style section every day -- and what a pleasure it is to be able to find them -- the picking and choosing of strips is not under Style's purview. I read them like anybody else, and have to lobby for my favorites.
Bob Levey: As a fan in the stands, I've got to say that I adore the graphics in Style. Day in and day out, they're arresting, involving, creative.... stylish, to coin a phrase. When will your designers get a daily color front to play with, like sports and A-1?
Eugene Robinson: The Style front should be in living color every day starting in a couple of weeks. I can't be more precise than that for reasons that have to do with arcane production issues that would bore you. Alas, for arcane production reasons that would bore you even more, we can't be assured that the Sunday section will always be in color. But Monday through Saturday will soon be a blaze of hue.
Arlington VA: Where has the Reliable Source been? Sidenote: Style is the first part of the paper I turn to each morning -sometimes, when I feel guilty, I read the headlines on the front page first-, and it's really my favorite part of the Post.
Eugene Robinson: I should have noted earlier that the Reliable Source will resume on May 18, under the helm of its new proprietor, Lloyd Grove.
Arlington, VA: I've heard some people say the Style section speaks more to the older, monied Washingtonian and ignores younger, hipper folk who either aren't interested in what's playing at the Kennedy Center, or don't have the money to spend on a show there. Is it a chicken-egg thing in D.C., meaning, does the Style section not target the NY Times kind of hipsters because there isn't anything really that hip to do here?
Eugene Robinson: I don't buy into the idea that Washington is terminally unhip. I do think that we can do a better job of reporting and writing stories that interest young people, and that's one direction I hope to take the section. It is hard, though, to serve all the various constituencies at the same time. Hopefully, over the course of a week or a month, everybody will find something of interest in Style.
Charlottesville, Virginia: Why does Tom Shales seem to hate almost everything he reviews? Is he just a grumpy person? I realize that there's a lot on TV that is low-quality, which explains some of it, but he hardly seems to like anything, and is quite acerbic.
Eugene Robinson: Tom just has high standards, both for himself and the programs he reviews. When he likes something, he really likes it; and when he hates something, he's such a terrific writer that he makes his point with memorable flair. Plus, I think he believes it's his DUTY to keep people from watching some of the dreck that's on the tube.
Silver Spring, MD: The line between PR puffery and news seems to get blurred in the Style section. Is there a separation?
Eugene Robinson: There had better be a separation! The truth is that there are armies of press agents out there trying to flack for their clients, and every day they mount an assault against the battlements of Style. We decide to do stories because we find them timely and interesting, not because we're being PR'ed into doing them. But its inevitable that sometimes our interests seem to dovetail with those of the publicists.
Bob Levey: Style is well-known as the home of the "extended" piece. Yet it sometimes seems as if every piece that leads the section is 60 inches long, whether it needs to be or not--at a time when readers have less time to spend with the paper than ever. Does Robinson have his pruning shears sharpened?
Eugene Robinson: I think the basic theory about story length in Style is sound. If a story really is terrific, then it deserves exceptional length. If it's just a run-of-the-mill news story, then let's keep it short. Many of our stories are shorter than comparable stories in other parts of the paper. The thing about long stories is that they have to merit the length, and if they don't, then bring out the chainsaw.
Bob Levey: In the last several years, Metro, Sports and Business have all been given gobs of additional space. As far as I know, Style hasn't been. Is that going to change? And if so, what'll you put in the extra acreage?
Eugene Robinson: I'm not sure. The truth is that at present, I don't think Style chronically runs short of space. Most days, we have enough to do what we want to do. I don't see us getting more space, at least in the short run.
Alexandria: Re: Ann Landers...I heard a few years ago the column is being written by her assistants...
Eugene Robinson: I don't know if that's true or not. I do know that the one piece of advice my predecessor gave me when I took over this job was: "Don't (blank) with Ann Landers."
Bob Levey: Readers often complain that Style's critics are negative. I actually find them quite positive for the most part. Does anyone in Style keep score of how many darts and kisses each reviewer throws?
Eugene Robinson: We don't keep track, but sometimes the critics themselves do. And the truth is that they're more often positive than negative. It's just that the negative reviews are more memorable. When you like something, it's, "I liked it, but there are these few things wrong with it." When you hate it, it's, "This is the worst thing I've ever seen." Which stays with you longer?
That'll do it for today. Many thanks to our guest, Gene Robinson. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, April 27, for a look at national politics. Our guest will be Washington Post political correspondent Ceci Connolly. The Friday version of our show, "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," takes a break this week. It'll return (no doubt with a vengeance) on Friday, April 30, from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.