The Washington Post is too respectable and responsible a newspaper to take cheap shots or engage in gutter humor. Nor are reporters' opinions of the world to be displayed in their stories. Both statements are true most of the time, but recent lapses have alarmed some readers.
Consider this paragraph in a breezy but straightforward Aug. 28 front-page survey of the havoc created by this summer's weather: "The list continues: Streets under water in Poolesville and Gaithersburg. Gravel-sized hail clobbering tree limbs in Richmond. Amtrak and MARC trains canceled between Baltimore and Washington. (And farther up the road, the Sodom and Gomorrah sometimes known as New York City reduced to complete chaos by an extended and unexpected cloudburst.)"
This reference to New York City as "Sodom and Gomorrah" -- i.e., "a place notorious for vice or corruption," as Webster's defines it -- was gratuitous, unfair and, at least to some readers, definitely not funny. Insisted one reader, who was visiting from New York: "It's no more like Sodom and Gomorrah than Baltimore or anywhere else."
Susan Levine, the reporter and a person who actually loves New York, pleads no contest. Given other biblical references in her story -- flooding, Noah, the prophets -- she felt safe making another biblical leap. "There were biblical overtones throughout the story. I just thought it would be a fun play on words. It was nothing more than tongue in cheek."
That is where serious journalists often go awry. Tickling the funny bones of such an array of readers as The Post has is difficult, if not impossible. Readers regularly complain about the humor of Tony Kornheiser, which is, for sure, an acquired taste. Still, they know that he is supposed to be funny. Several failed to see the humor in -- or appropriateness of -- an Aug. 20 Reliable Source item depicting Gov. George W. Bush's head atop "a high-precision scale to weigh his words -- if not his stash -- at the drug-use news conference he will inevitably have to hold."
In addition to stabs at outright humor, other attempts at informality can fall flat and, in the process, reveal the reporter's value judgments. This was so with news stories about neighbors turning in neighbors who violated Maryland's restrictions on water usage during the drought. Reporters referred to those who upheld the law as "ratting out" their neighbors.
In the eyes of some readers, several recent pieces landed on the other side of decency. There was the Aug. 27 "Names and Faces" item in Style more or less yukking it up over the sexcapades of Gloria Stuart, the actress who was Old Rose in "Titanic" and is, at 89, still apparently devoted to free love. Said one reader: "Thank you, Washington Post, for your high editorial standards and your continued commitment to providing your public with essential and meaningful information. What the hell is wrong with you people over there?"
Chalk it up to the dog days of summer. How else to explain another too-cute-for-its-own-good front-page story: the Aug. 10 piece about aging lifeguards -- one 53, the other 45 -- with fantasies perhaps more active than their records of conquest. These "studs," we were told, apparently like to ogle "every well-placed bikini along the way" as they work Rehoboth Beach. "It's the greatest job in the world," one said. "Not only do you meet women, you meet them in a half-naked state." The article ended with this lifeguard introducing himself to "a 30-something blond in a flourescent-orange bikini" by using a term that means, again according to Webster's, "desiring sexual gratification" and "sexually excited."
Babies should be cute. But newspapers should, as some New Yorkers would say, "fuhgeddaboudit."
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