To answer the question all my journo friends have been asking me for the last three days: Yes, I saw the whole thing (the verbal and then physical fray Friday night, right on deadline, between an editor and writer in the Style section) and yes, I have many thoughts about it, and no, I won’t share a whole lot of them. (The story I’ve linked to, the second dispatch from Erik Wemple in as many days, is the most accurate telling of the event.)
The story has circled the globe — NPR, The Guardian UK, blogs galore. But, as I’ve told the media reporters who’ve called me (I have a bit of a reputation as a helpfully on-the-record Post employee to media critics in need of a quote), this is one I’m trying to stay mum on, because it feels like family.
Henry Allen was my editor for nine wonderful years. (I switched editors when I was made the TV critic in August.) There is not a day when he’s in the office that I don’t learn something from him. Henry, who is 68, had already decided to leave The Post. He took the buyout in 2003, and to my great benefit, has worked about eight or so months a year, on contract, ever since. As I’ve said many times, Henry’s already written every story I would want to do, and did it 8,000 times better, and has been a strong, generous editor and champion advocate of my work. Also he’s my friend and inspiration.
People love him; readers love him, still, and rejoice when he files, even though his byline appears a few times a year (since he is principally an editor). By this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bronze Henry Southworth Allen statue being erected as we speak — maybe in front of the Newseum, except that Henry quite publicly holds the Newseum (the idea of a news-eum, the fakey word news-eum, even) in characteristically low regard.
The fight embroiders his legend, and if that’s the narrative people outside the newsroom desire here (brilliant elder writer and editor fights for the last shred of quality in the middle of the newspaper’s identity crisis), then I can understand that. Henry was angry for one very right reason: It’s about the work.
But everything else was wrong. What happened on Friday night was scary and sad; it was not enthralling and it did not have a Front Page, golden-era quality of glory. To think so is like believing that old cliche that all journos used to have booze in their desk drawers. Please do regard Henry as one of the greatest newspaper feature writers who ever lived and please do think of him as a tough-as-nails, thoroughly passionate editor who does not suffer fools. Please do allow this event to be a fantastic flourish to one of the greatest careers at the Post, as a stand-in for your own despair about the business. But also, dear journos? Get a grip.
My only other angle to the story is this: What made Henry snap was that a writer called him a naughty word, an epithet that rhymes with “coughstucker” and is playfully or spitefully reserved as a way to insult a man, by implying he’s gay.
Being an enthusiastic coughstucker myself, I would someday like to ask Henry if it was the insulting delivery of the word, or the subtext of gayness that the word implies that angered him most? Seeing as how our department is gleefully R-rated in much of its casual discourse, it’s hard to know. (The worst thing about all this? The possibility that we could all get hauled into a sensitivity seminar. Not Henry, of course, he’s outta there, but the rest of us. To which I say FUCK THAT, oops, I mean, aw hell, no.)
Back to my question: Was it about the person who said it? The way he said it? Or that it was said at all? If another person in Style called me a coughstucker, I’d just have to shrug and use the Popeye retort: I am what I am.