SOME NEWSPAPERS have on their staff a regular Carping Critic, to keep everybody on their toes. It sounds like a good job, and I hereby apply for it on The Washington Post. I wonder, though, if The Post, or the journalistic community in general, has a clear Critic, should carp about. Journalists seem to think that all they need is somebody to check their facts (and not check their sources), or complain about their lead sentences and investigative morals. The true platonic critic asks instead, What are we doing all this for anyway? Couldn't we do a little less? How about some poker? I'm not sure The Post would like that kind of Carp.
But I'll propose it anyway.
We readers have all become addicts of these sheets. Even I am an addict. Some of us have to have the obits, some of us have to have Dagwood, some of us obviously have to have Doonesbury yet; and then there are those of us who are helpless without the Hechinger ads or the morning editorial about inflation. I am convinced that for whatever the dreadful price is now -- $6.20 a month? -- we are all being indulged in a vice at least as hazardous to our health as cigarettes, alcohol and pot. And if the readers of the papers are becoming addicts, just think of the journalists themselves. So the function of the Carping Critic, as I see it, would be to help journalists, individually and collectively, ease up on the stuff.
Take, for instance, a photographer covering the White House. It would be good for him to learn that there are other photographic subjects than Jimmy Carter shaking hands with a visitor, and that indeed we could get along without any pictures of Carter for at least a year. Or take Thomas Boswell of the sports page. In 1978 he had a Red Sox obsession. In 1979 it was the Orioles. The Carping Critic could recommend him for psychiatric treatment, or perhaps for a raise if he would just not do any one team except on alternate days.
I could go on, and indeed will. There was a terrible moment last summer when James Reston, writing from the island where all the really important insider addicts go, wittily wondered how the administration down in poor empty Washington was carrying on with the business of the country, when everybody who could help was up on the island sunning. The trouble with his joke was that it was only a joke. The Carping Critic's job at that juncture (aside from disposing of the word "juncture") would have been to remove from service the ferry to the Vineyard, and to bomb the Vineyard airport, so that Washington could really be allowed to breathe for a bit. A long-term project of mine has been to have all journalists covering the Washington scene reassigned to Pierre, D.D. I know that Pierre would suffer, but I feel that for the good of the nation a scapegoat has to be found. Otherwise we may all die of a strange new disease that will probably be called the Washington Bloat.
Too much of the same, too often. As an English teacher I dream constantly of a world in which my students, and my own children, would take half the time they now spend with the National Football League, and with the classified ads for guitars, and apply it to reading Jane Austen. The trouble is that then the journalists would hear how the younger set was talking up Jane Austen, and they would start to report on what was being said about her, and how groovy it all was. There would go Jane Austen.
So many things need to be saved from the journalists, aside from Jane Austen and Kissinger's now very old garbage, that perhaps a big paper like The Post ought to have more than one Carping Critic. Working merely alone the single Critic, confronted with his immense burden, might become obsessed like the rest of the staff, but his obsession would be a negative obsession, of the order of a phobia. He would possibly begin by developing a small neurosis about covering the same subject twice, and after writing an article such as this one he would defensively turn around and write another one suggesting that Washington journalists were not covering the town thoroughly enough. Or he might begin to worry about the quantity of words he was himself producing, feeling that if he did not cut down his production by say, 10 percent a month he would not be setting a good example. Soon he would be down to an aphorism a year (next to the comics, like Jack Anderson). Certainly the longer he wrote, and the more he wrote, the less certain he would be that the way to heaven was as a simple verbal Carper. Why should a true Carper pollute the air with words at all? There would come a Friday or Saturday evening when suddenly he would burst into the newsroom with a baseball bat, thus redefining the whole notion of Carping Critic and making himself a prominent news item.
At root not many of us are to the Carper's task psychically. I think that after all in my column, when The Post hires me, I will be less platonic and aim lower. I might start with those infernally zippy leads, for instance.