The Breakfast Table

Squeezing Trends From Aberrations

Dear Michael:

Good, then: All is sweetness and light between us. As for revoking the retrocession of Arlington and giving us back to the district, I imagine that citizens down in Southside would be glad to see us go. The People’s Republic of Arlington–and Northern Virginia in general–played a big part in electing Doug Wilder governor; we kept Oliver North out of the Senate; this year, even the collective might of the area’s Communists, immigrants, and godless bilinguals may not be enough to save Chuck Robb. But Lord help him, Arlington is pretty much all he’s got.

Some good news: In a rare case of reality being neater than fiction, the Williams sisters teamed up yesterday to win the Wimbledon doubles title. I note, however, that my own paper covered this heartwarming feat of sibling togetherness with a brief wire story, whereas the sisterly competition of past weeks earned profile after penetrating profile by actual staffers. Could it be that we in the media conspiracy prefer antagonism and conflict? Could that be why the New York Times led with what has become the other cliché about the Williams girls: their unseemly, might we say unwomanly, bragging? Why do we have such a problem with Venus Williams saying, truthfully, “I was stunning”? (My other question: What does the Williams ascendancy say about faddish theories about birth order; you know, how the first child is most closely bonded to the parents, how the second tends to be alienated and overlooked, how third child always gets called by the wrong names and inadvertently trod upon? Venus and Serena are the fourth and fifth children in the Williams family. Doesn’t this sort of shoot down the idea that first kids attract the most attention? Do you think I could get a book contract using this one slender example as a case for big families? Stop at two, and you risk never having a Wimbledon trophy winner in your lineage!)

But do you really think that the media go soft on sports moms and hard on sports dads? I wouldn’t agree. It’s always been my impression that “soccer mom” is a pejorative phrase, carrying with it undertones, or maybe overtones, I’m never sure, of aimless afternoons spent tooling around in gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles while opening juice boxes with your teeth.

Or maybe we’re both right: I note that our Post story on the hockey fight managed to implicate pretty much every parent, male or female, who has ever schlepped a kid to a swimming meet. Because we are, in large part, a newsroom of parents, we have put the hockey fight on A3; because we are newspeople, we have seen fit to describe the brutal head-bashing of one man by another as part of a “growing phenomenon” of “youth sports rage.” Now, it may be that this is true: God knows I have been known to stalk angrily up and down the side of the lap-swimming pool. But really! Our account cites no actual other examples of youth sports rage. Meanwhile, the man who was killed is described as having had “multiple criminal convictions” and a past that included watching his own father kill his own brother. I mean, this–and not parental anxiety–might be what led him to get in a fight. Not that I’m an editor or anything, but I don’t think we needed the trend angle here. At any rate, the story raises the old question of whether what newspapers report is life, or whether what we report are just the aberrations.

I hope they’re aberrations. Because did you notice all the fascinating examples of lying and perfidy and general bad faith covered on the Post front page this morning? (I’ve been hard on my own employer, a mistake, possibly, for many reasons; I actually thought our front page today was great and every story fascinating, including the look at how Communist leaders took last names away from the Mongolians as away of disenfranchising their aristocracy–a technique I was going to describe as novel until I remembered what this country did to slaves, which is to say, exactly the same thing.)

You’ve got the CIA reneging on its promise to support defectors; you’ve got a man hired to administer programs for D.C.’s mentally retarded being accused of stealing more than $800,000 from these programs; you’ve got threatening to sell off the private data it promised its customers it would never, never reveal. You’ve got medical researchers withholding information from patients receiving experimental cancer drugs.

Assuming for the moment that there may be a “growing phenomenon” of bad faith, what does this say about George W.’s promise to the NAACP that he will enforce civil rights law? I hate to think.