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The passion of Henry Allen

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Kathleen Parker
November 8, 2009
— The so-called “newsroom brawl” between an editor and a writer at The Washington 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 a punch being thrown.


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 fist 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 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 the 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 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.

“What we are watching is a whole profession losing its swagger,” wrote Natalie Hopkinson on The Root, a Web site hosted by the Post.Piffle.


Now, there’s a word unlikely to have tumbled from the fingertips of Henry Allen. Or those of Matt Labash, an ardent admirer of Allen’s and, himself, the sort of muscular writer who fashions sentences you want to read aloud. The thought that this smallish eruption portends or remarks on the end of journalism-as-we-know-it was enough to prompt Labash to an e-mail rant, which more or less ranks with having Bruce Springsteen call you up to sing “Happy Birthday.”


“He’s the best writer by a factor of five that the Style section’s ever seen,” wrote Labash. “The problem with newspapers is there was never enough Henry Allens to go around, which the Internet only serves to prove daily.”


Maybe, as with all things lately, we’re overanalyzing what amounted to a scuffle between two men under the influence of testosterone. Alex Jones, longtime media critic and head of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, distilled the event to its plainer truth:


“Maybe it’s because I’m from the South, but if you call me a ‘(bleep),’ I’m going to take a shot at you unless I know I’ll get the crap kicked out of me—and maybe even then.” Which is to say that Allen was defending his honor, an act so unfamiliar in today’s emasculated newsrooms that we hardly recognize it. No one would insist that fisticuffs are an appropriate route to resolution (harrumph, harrumph), but it is sublimely reassuring that such a passion for wordsmithing survives in a twittering, talking-head world.


With appropriate concern for Roig-Franzia’s own bruised honor, it is still possible to cheer Allen’s spirit. As Miss Rosie might put it: “Mr. Allen, you’re the bravest man that ever lived. You’re just overdue, that’s all.”


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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