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Knock ’em out, Henry

God bless Henry Allen of the Washington Post.

We don’t normally editorially endorse physical violence at Southern Fried, but the story of Henry Allen’s fight in the Post newsroom a week ago is the best story we’ve read all week.

Here’s what happened on that final Friday in October: Veteran features editor Henry Allen punched one of his writers, Manuel Roig-Franzia, during an argument in the office of the newspaper’s executive editor.

Allen, who is 68 and served as a Marine in Vietnam, was upset that another Style editor had assigned a story to writer Monica Hesse and Roig-Franzia without his knowledge.

That editor had asked the two writers to play off the disclosure last week that many members of Congress are being investigated for ethics violations. The two writers compiled a list of similar inadvertent disclosures throughout history and came up with what’s known as a “charticle.”

When Allen got the story, he began to rant loudly about the mistakes he found in the copy.

One of the incidents referenced in the “charticle” was an account of how a Confederate solider lost the military plans of Robert E. Lee; plans that found their way into Union hands. The original story said that the incident had occurred in Virginia. Wrong. It occurred at Antietam, which is in Maryland.

Allen screamed: “This is total crap. It’s the second worst story I have seen in Style in 43 years.”

The worst apparently was a mistake-filled profile of Paul Robeson that never made it into the newspaper.

Roig-Franzia cursed Allen. Editor Allen punched him.

The reason I say “God bless Henry Allen” is because I have a soft spot for an old editor who still cares enough about the written word to get into a fight. Too many of today’s editors seem to have no intensity, no fire. The joy of writing and editing is missing from their work. They might as well be in a cubicle at Entergy turning out corporate news releases.

Not to get too nostalgic, but I long for the days when people became angry about reporters’ mistakes. Like many people, I’ve mellowed with age. In my younger days as an editor, I was known to throw a dictionary or two.

When I was the assistant sports editor at the Arkansas Democrat in the 1980s, I once had our “recreation writer” (a cute young thing) tell me she had “writer’s block.”

I didn’t realize I was going to make her cry when I began my rant: “That’s impossible. You can’t have writer’s block because you’re not a writer. Hemingway was a writer. Faulkner was a writer. You’re not a writer. You’re a newspaper reporter. So finish your dang story.”

Later that year, John Robert Starr transferred me to Washington to cover Congress. During the four years I lived there, the Style section of the Post became my favorite newspaper section in America. I would stay up late into the night in the basement where I lived on Capitol Hill’s Tennesse Avenue Northeast, reading the great long-form journalism in the Style section. Those stories ran for thousands of words and were crafted like fine magazine pieces. What a joy it was on a cold night to curl up with the Style section and some coffee or hot tea.

In this sad period for the American newspaper, I echo the words of the Post’s Gene Weingarten, who said: “The first thing I want to say is hooray. Hooray that there is still enough passion left somewhere in a newsroom in America for violence to break out between colorful characters in disagreement over the quality of a story.”

David Von Drehle, one of the finest writers ever to work at the newspaper, wrote this on a Washington City Paper blog earlier this week: “Of all the people to be drummed out of the Post newsroom, Henry Allen was the most dazzling and original talent I’ve seen in 30-plus years in the journalism business. His was one of the truly great Post careers, and he’s my ideal of Style at its best. When I try to unpack the reason I once dreamed of a place at the Post, it has to do with the sense of experimentation, of risk-taking, of form-busting that defined the Post in the glory days. People tried to capture the spark by saying that the Post was the ultimate writers’ newspaper. But what we were really getting at — even if we didn’t realize it — was that the Post was Henry Allen’s newspaper. He took newspaper journalism to places no one realized it could go, and thereby filled a lot of us with big ideas about what the business could be. . . . In these parlous times, how do you put the last exclamation point on a fearless career spent smashing limits and efforting the impossible? No damn sheet cake for Henry Southworth Allen, nossir. He’s left us with one more story that we’ll never forget.”

God bless Henry Allen. God bless newspapers. God bless the written word and those who care deeply about it.

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