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.

henryallen3People 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.


  1. Tammy Jones on November 4, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Amen, Hank. But I think you’re misquoting that great post-modern philosopher, Popeye. Isn’t it “I yam what I yam?”! It’s “I yam what I yam”??
    (We’ll discuss the whole homoerotic subplot between Popeye and Bluto later, of course, as well as the perplexing birther questions regarding Swee’ pea)

  2. Mike on November 5, 2009 at 6:08 am

    I don’t know about the distant past, but that epithet has long since lost any homosexual meaning or overtone.

  3. tom shroder on November 5, 2009 at 10:47 am

    What I want to know is where did you get that fabulous portrait of

  4. Geezer on November 5, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Sorry, Take Two. The fine computer system here at my place of employment (“One of America’s Newspapers”) eats stuff. Since we no longer have a copy desk, I’m guessing the funtion is a sad excuse for a replacement.
    Anyway, Hank, I think there may be a generational gap in play here in Manuel’s use of the word in question (even though Manuel isn’t of the generation in question).
    When I went to college in Boston in the early 70s, “coughstucker” was one of three levels of contempt one could bestow upon a creep. It was the middle range option.
    Like the two other levels, it had no sexual meaning at all and was used to describe men, women, professors and members of the New York Yankees.
    The only reason I bring it up is that about a year ago, the “youth” tabloid generated by my emploer used the word “douchebag” as the cover headline, enraging news folks of a certain age and women in particular. We were told by the tabloid’s editor that the word did not mean what we all knew it to mean and that we were out-of-step with the times.
    I don’t know where I’m going with this (I’m still rattled by the origins of Swee’ pea) except to say that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  5. mark on November 5, 2009 at 11:38 am

    I think “I yam what I yam” is Ellison, but good try

  6. MBunge on November 5, 2009 at 11:51 am

    One of the worst aspects of our modern culture has been the lowest common demoninator idea of “If it didn’t bother me, it shouldn’t bother you”. Who cares what the insult was. Why should it be acceptable for a writer to belittle his editor in front of everyone when the editor is criticizing a bad story?


  7. Chris Dornan on November 5, 2009 at 11:51 am

    I think you may be reading too much into this, and perhaps not
    enough. Of course he should have kept his cool–that goes without
    saying but Allen was clearly being provoked.

    If you set aside all homophobic agendas, I can’t see why the
    epithet wouldn’t be crude and insulting.

  8. MBunge on November 5, 2009 at 11:58 am

    Okay, I just read the linked to account of the confrontation. Roig-Franzia acted like an insubordinate ass and deserved a pop in the mouth.


  9. Dennis on November 5, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Cocksucker has about as much to do with homosexuality as
    motherfucker has to do with incest. Don’t read too much into it.
    It’s just a swear word, and a harsh one.
    When I call someone a fucker, I am not impugning the sexual act
    or those who engage in it.

  10. Cubfan515 on November 5, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Context, people. Sometimes the word is a meant to slam a guy’s manhood . . . and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    The word I object to is “charticle.” Jesus, THAT is offensive.

  11. blathering on November 5, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    I chatted with Eric about the cussing. And we both agree with the
    previous commenters; cocksucker is not about a physical act, at
    least not anymore. It’s just used when you want to be multi-
    syballic and more original than motherfucker (also not about a
    literal physical act).

  12. CL on November 5, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Thanks, Hank. I really appreciate your obvious affection for your former editor.
    Whatever happened, it doesn’t sully his legacy for me.

  13. Tom T. on November 6, 2009 at 11:39 am

    So Roig-Franzia uses a homophobic insult, and Hank’s problem is
    how Henry reacts? Shouldn’t he be asking Roig-Franzia why that’s
    where he chose to go when he was looking for something nasty
    to say? Analyzing the literal meaning of the word while ignoring
    Roig-Franzia’s obvious intention seems to miss the forest for
    the trees.

    On a different topic, at some point doesn’t the Post’s refusal
    to report on this event get a little embarrassing for the paper?
    As Hank mentions, the news has circled the world by now, and
    everyone else has reported on it. But Hank has to write about it
    on his blog instead of in the newspaper that he works for.

  14. Cribbster on November 6, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    Yeah, I’ve almost come to blows over the word “charticle” before.

  15. Leanne Potts on November 9, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    That punch wasn’t about homophobia or your co-worker being an arrogant jerk. It was years of pent-up anger over the layoffs, cutbacks, shrinking news hole and devaluation of the people who make the content at newspapers. If the state of the news business doesn’t have you wanting to punch someone, tyou need to back off the Effexor. You’re numb.

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