Flame Posies

The Changelings

How the Washington Post became the New York Times and the New York Times became the Washington Post.

When did the Washington Post swap identities with the New York Times? One day, it seemed, the Post rollicked readers with its cheeky personality and the next suffocated them with the sort of overcast official news that made the Times famous. Meanwhile, the Times sloughed its Old Gray Lady persona for the daredevilry that was the Post franchise.

The switch dawned on me one morning 10 years ago as I found myself flipping through the Post because I had to, not because I wanted to–and reading the Times for the joy of it, not because it was the newspaper of record. I know this sounds like the beginning of an encomium for the Times at the expense of the Post, but it’s not. When the papers traded places, they exchanged virtues as well as vices.

In the traded virtue category: The Times takes a lot of risks. It has turned its back on the five boroughs to become a national newspaper, even purchasing the Boston Globe, while the Post has burrowed deeper locally. Its columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich dish the sort of sauce Nicholas von Hoffman and the young Richard Cohen once served at the Post. It continues to innovate, with new sections like Monday’s “Business Day” (a k a “The Information Industries”) and Saturday’s “Arts and Ideas,” while the Post hasn’t contributed anything significant to the template since the “Style” section in 1969. Its Sunday magazine is the best general interest publication in the world. The Post’s isn’t.

Other traded virtues: The Times prints in color, the Post doesn’t (yet). The Times sports an aggressive and handsome design. The recent Post redesign aches like a bad face lift. Times Editorial Page Editor Howell Raines writes barrelhouse editorials demanding action–such as the resignation of Janet Reno–that stir substance and fanfaronade. The Post editorial and op-ed pages are so evenhanded that if Scotty Reston were resurrected, his soft gas would appear there, alongside that of Jim Hoagland. And the Times seasons its reporting with opinion, while the once liberal-and-proud-of-it Post prides itself on cool neutrality (some would count this as a swapped vice and not a swapped virtue). On the news side, Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. boasts he’s so bias-free that he doesn’t vote.

O n the vice side of the exchange, the Times… takes a lot of risks. It’s now the primary exponent of what Post ie Bob Woodward famously called the “holy shit” story–pieces so astonishing that you scream spontaneous profanities when you read them. The downside of holy shit stories is that they can turn out to be wholly bullshit, as Woodward learned in 1981, when a reporter under his editorial watch, Janet Cooke, got caught making up a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.

In its pursuit of holy shit, the Times routinely spins out of control. In 1991, it published the name of the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape–for no particular reason–and then apologized for it. That same year, the paper digested Kitty Kelley’s spuriously sourced Nancy Reagan biography on Page 1. In a transparent lunge for a Pulitzer Prize in early 1996, the Times published a seven-part series alleging that the downsizing of the American workforce was creating “millions of casualties.” Actually, job creation was booming. Later that year, the paper spread its legs for the theory that TWA Flight 800 was downed by foul play, based on the discovery of “PETN” residues in the wreckage. The Times reported: “Law enforcement officers said it was impossible to know, for now, whether the explosion was caused by a bomb or a missile because PETN is an explosive component commonly found in both. Still, the discovery would seem to knock from contention the theory that mechanical failure caused the airplane to explode on July 17, killing all 230 aboard.” (Emphasis added.) Eventually, the Times and the investigators abandoned the PETN/bomb theory for the mechanical failure theory.

J ust this spring, two reckless Times stories slid off the road. Gina Kolata prematurely announced a cancer cure (while shopping a book proposal on the subject) and Rick Bragg botched a simple story about police corruption in small-town Alabama. Bragg, a writerish reporter who would be at home in Style, earned in the June 9 Times. The jailed sheriff spent 27 months behind bars, not 27 years, as Bragg originally reported. Bragg also got the age of the crusading newspaper editor wrong, misstated the paper’s circulation, and mistakenly described the method by which the sheriff defrauded the government (the sheriff cashed checks improperly made out to him; he did not cash checks made out to the government).

Horrible! Just horrible! But consider the alternative. Who wants to read a porcelain white newspaper that has flushed all its holy shit? Whose reporters drive Volvos to work?

The Post isn’t powered by Volvo–yet. But in adopting Old New York Times values of cautiousness and fairness and dullness, in striving to become the new Newspaper of Record, the Post has lost its verve. Sometimes a loss of verve is not a bad thing. Compare the Times and Post coverage of the China satellite story. In the Times, Jeff Gerth implies that illegal campaign donations from China + the extravagant campaign donations by Loral Space & Communications’ chief executive to Democratic coffers = Clinton’s OK of U.S. satellite launches. The Post’s sober coverage expands the theme to detail how the president was as happy to fulfill the satellite dreams of the Republican businessman from Hughes who lobbied heavily and donated sparingly as he was to satisfy the Democratic businessman from Loral who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars (see John Mintz’s June 25 article, “How Hughes Got What It Wanted on China“). The Post’s version is probably closer to the facts, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve enjoyed the Times’ sensationalist coverage more.

Of course the Post doesn’t tiptoe all the time. Woodward’s 1996 campaign finance pieces struck a chord that still rings, and I predict a similar impact for Barton Gellman’s two-part series last week about how the United States and China nearly went to war in 1996 (click here and here). At its best, the Post can still swarm a breaking news story like Flytrap. But at its worst, it sits on hot news. In 1992, the paper delayed its exposé of masher Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., until after the election, thereby assuring his return to the Senate. In 1994, it spiked Michael Isikoff’s Paula Jones reporting, so he left for Newsweek, where he has led the Flytrap story.

Timesmen don’t pay much attention to the Post, except to periodically raid the paper–as if it were a minor league team–for some of its better players. (Post defectors include Celestine Bohlen, Gwen Ifill, Julia Preston, Michael Specter, Patrick Tyler, Patti Cohen, and David Richards–who defected back. Few careers, outside of E.J. Dionne’s, have been made by going the other way.) But it should pay closer attention. It desperately needs something like the Style section, where it can run imprudent stories that readers are dying to read but have yet to acquire the Heft and Importance of a New York Times News Story. Then again, if the Times were to embrace the virtue of a Style section (or is that a vice?), would its news sections lose their current virtue of attitude?

Posties, on the other hand, obsess on the Times. Last month at the Post’s annual “Pugwash” editorial retreat, outgoing Managing Editor Robert Kaiser began his speech with the preposterous boast that the Post, with a staff half the size of the Times’, “does more for its readers, day in and day out.” Kaiser obviously lusts for the Old Times as he repeatedly calls for “authoritative journalism” and higher journalistic “standards,” and petitions Posties to be more intellectual and creative. “Authoritative, creative journalism that meets the highest standards must have intellectual content,” Kaiser says at speech’s end as he road-wrecks his themes. Somebody get this editor an editor!

T he question of how the audacious paper turned stodgy floats over the Post newsroom like a thought balloon. The easy answer: Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee departed in 1991 after 26 years at the top. This theory singles out current Executive Editor Downie for abuse, but complacency took root as early as 1981, when the Post’s cross-town competitor, the Washington Star, folded, allowing the fat beast to diddle all it wanted without paying a price. When Donald Graham took over as publisher, he picked Downie as the editor who would help steer the paper away from the Georgetown elites and toward the masses, away from national competition and straight at the suburban dailies. You’re reading the paper they wanted to make.

Don Graham’s biggest handicap is that he’s the publisher who came after Katharine, and he’s fearful that he’ll blow her legacy. Downie’s is that he came after Bradlee, and he’s afraid he’ll blow his. Who remembers the guys who canoed after Lewis and Clark? No wonder they operate the paper as if the frontier has closed behind them. In that context, Graham’s conservatism makes business sense. His paper claims the highest reader penetration in the nation and is immensely profitable. Warren Buffett, a major stockholder in the company, whispers into his ear that he’s a business genius. Why disturb the money-making machine?

The last time the paper took an editorial risk was in 1986, when it barred no expense in relaunching the Washington PostMagazine as a prestige Sunday magazine on the scale of the New York TimesMagazine. But the Magazine never got to compete with the Magazine: It was bushwhacked by a black talk-radio demagogue who unfairly labeled the debut issue racist and targeted the paper with demonstrations and a boycott. Its momentum shattered, the extravagantly funded Washington Post Magazine limped along for a couple of years until the Post abandoned its grand financial and editorial ambitions and downscaled it.

Various sections of the Post have improved since then–it has invested heavily in zoned suburban coverage, expanded its business page, improved the quality of its travel section, extended the heft of its sports coverage, experimented with an advertorial insert about consumer electronics, and added a monthly midbrow science/history section (“Horizon”)–but it’s taken no publishing risks.

The boldest Post stroke in recent years came this spring when Downie dethroned Kaiser as managing editor and appointed Steve Coll, a 39-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning whiz, who most recently served as Sunday magazine editor/publisher. Coll’s vision for the Post, also laid out in a Pugwash speech, sounds like a description of the New New York Times: “[T]he future of the Post depends mightily on our ability to excel at enterprise journalism–on our ability to think more creatively, to tear the skin off of our subjects more often, to write better, to go deeper, to be more alive, to make more of a difference to readers.” Good luck, Steve, you’ll need it.

Perhaps the Times derives its edge from its succession politics. Whereas Ben Bradlee served as Post editor-for-life, the Times places an informal term limit on its executive editor job, and this turnover has helped to reinvigorate the paper: Times executive editors know they must make their mark in haste, before their tenure is over. A.M. Rosenthal reinvented the paper during his tenure from 1977 to 1986, stealing from Clay Felker’s playbook to explode the Times into a many sectioned national paper. His successor, Max Frankel, brought vivid writing to the paper from 1986 to 1994, making sure that one story made it to Page 1 every day just because it was fun to read. Joseph Lelyveld, who took over from Frankel, has stayed their courses.

Meanwhile, the 56-year-old Downie is now seven years into the job. If he were a Timesman, they’d be farming him out to write a column right about now. Instead, he’s ensconced like the pope.