The Washington Post is best known outside the newspaper business for the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein—not to mention Janet Cooke. But in the long run, the Post‘s most enduring achievement is that it pioneered the modern newspaper feature section.
Until the late 1960’s, most features sections were called “women’s pages,” but when Post management introduced “Style” to its readers in 1969, the paper did more than change a title; it actually introduced the techniques of the “New Journalism” to a daily newspaper audience. Instead of simply covering trends in fashion or society. Post readers were treated to first-person adventures and profiles of the rich, famous, and powerful.
The “Style” formula proved so successful that other major dailies gradually changed their women’s pages to the Post‘s model. Today, feature editors nationally recognize the Post as primus inter pares. “Style,” for example, routinely wins many awards at the annual competition for feature writing sponsored by the University of Missouri’s journalism school. And most dailies still derive most of their form and content from the ideas first developed in the “Style” section.
But in the 1980’s, “Style” has lost its way. Most of the Post‘s better feature writers have left, lured by book deals, Hollywood, and at least one syndicated column (Judith Martin, otherwise known as “Miss Manners”). But the crisis in “Style” is more than the need to replace writers. By now even the Post’s editors have realized they are facing a deeper problem: trivialization. At the recent winter retreat (known as “Pugwash”), senior Post editors analyzed the “Style” section. The report, reprinted in Washington’s City Paper, is not flattering.
According to the Pugwash document, several times a week top “Style” editors review two lists. One list consists of forthcoming films, television shows, plays, and parties; the second list consists of “celebrities who have been ‘offered’ to the Post for interviews.” People or events on the list are assigned or rejected; what survives usually becomes the subject of a Post article. As a result, most “Style” articles are either “mega-event” stories reported by most media outlets (a presidential inauguration, a summit conference), or profiles and interviews.
In 1988, the Post published 165 lengthy profiles. Of these, 90 were pieces “about people with something to sell”—actors, authors, painters, musicians. In 1988, “Style” writers only profiled one educator, one religious leader, two scientists (one of whom was hawking a book), and two businessmen.
The Pugwash report closed with a list of story ideas for “Style” reporters to pursue. Among them was a plea for “Style” to produce more stories about “interesting developments” in “sociology, psychology, politics, science, family life, sex, religion, letters, education.” “Why does Style so rarely write about the world of ideas and the people who have them?” one reporter asked the Post panel.
The answer has two parts. Many journalists are afraid of people in “the world of ideas.” For many journalists, ideas are homework, and homework is something to be avoided—the only lesson many journalists learned in college. “Style” editors, one “Style” writer told the panel, “all read the same things: Time, Newsweek, People, Rolling Stone, Village Voice.” Nothing, in short, that would be difficult or demanding, nothing with solid information as opposed to opinion.
Conservatives frequently complain that they are shut out of America’s newspapers by “liberal media bias.” The Pugwash report makes it clear that “Style” editors are not ideologues, but airheads, biased against anyone who doesn’t have a press agent. The reason Jeremy Rifkin is profiled in The Washington Post and Robert Nisbet isn’t is due, not to political bias, but to Jeremy Rifkin’s publicists.
Liberals and corporate drones also dominate daily newspaper feature sections for another reason. Most rising young conservative journalists are not interested in culture or even news. The number of conservative journalists under the age of 35 who do not work as editorial writers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In a world interested only in a battle of opinions, not ideas, the most serious casualties include the responsible press and a voting public that is being fed PR in the guise of news.
—Martin Morse Wooster