The Post War High

The Washington Post of old—gutsy, sharp, writer driven—is back in town. Let's hope it is here to stay.

Now that everyone gets their news by grazing, it's almost eccentric to make distinctions between particular outlets. They're all just subsidiaries of that blobbish entity called The Media. This seemed especially true during the war, which moved so quickly and was covered so massively that it washed over the culture in a vast gray wave, blurring the differences between journalists and organizations.

But even in the frenzy, there was one outlet that, for my money, was consistently a cut above the rest. Day after day during this war, I found myself returning to The Washington Post, both the Web site and the newspaper, though the paper was the bigger draw. About a week into the war, I realized that opening The Post in the morning had become the most important event of my media day.

I followed dozens of other outlets, and many had their moments, but none had all engines firing from start to finish the way The Post did. The paper's front page was especially strong for the crisp, lucid way it organized the news, and its heavy emphasis on narrative. On a complicated, fast-moving story like this, a few gifted voices can make all the difference, and The Post had voices in spades.

I should admit a few biases here. I was a Post reporter for years, and so was my wife. I have many friends at the paper, people I trust. Maybe, in some subconscious way, this gives The Post an edge in my personal media life.

But the fact is, in recent years The Post has been strangely dull and enervated, lacking the pluck and panache that made it a national institution a few decades ago. In many media-intensive Washington households, including mine, The New York Times had quietly become the "first" paper, while The Post had acquired a dreary-aunt status. Last fall, when The Post was forced to sell its half-ownership in The International Herald Tribune, after a bitter struggle with The Times, the transformation seemed complete, and I said as much in a column. To any reader with a pulse, it was clear The Post needed a good kick in the pants.

And that's just what the war seems to have given it. The Post sent some of its best reporters to cover this war—including Peter Baker, Susan Glasser, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and Rick Atkinson, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for history for a book on World War II—and they turned in terrific work. Just as crucial, that work was edited and presented in clear, intelligent fashion on a front page that made sense of the war almost every day, and in a special extra section dedicated to war coverage.

The Post also had a secret weapon, a previously unheralded reporter named Anthony Shadid, an Arabic speaker recently hired from The Boston Globe. In Baghdad from the war's start, Shadid filed a long string of gracefully written, richly detailed stories that had jaws dropping all over the media business—ncluding some, I happen to know, at The Times. Conventional wisdom says he's a lock for a Pulitzer next year.

In wartime, no news day is typical, but The Post's front page of Wednesday, April 9, was typical of the paper's wartime performance and the remarkable narrative energy it brought to this story. Under a straight news lead on the breakdown of authority in Baghdad was a Shadid piece about the gruesome excavation of the spot where it was believed Saddam Hussein might have been killed: "Along the crater, orange trees were uprooted and date palms were split like twigs.... In the rubble was the mauled torso of 20-year-old Lava Jamal. Moments later, a few feet away, they found what was left of her head, her brown hair matted with blood. They put both in white blankets trimmed with blue and left them against a nearby wall, where flies soon gathered. Sitting in a chair down the road, her mother cried uncontrollably into her hands, and then vomited."

On the upper left of the page, below a map of Iraq, was an Atkinson story that began: "The Iraqi soldiers lying in ambush three miles outside ancient Babylon this afternoon were more courageous than competent, more patient than wise. At the end of the day they were dead, and the battle for the last contested city south of Baghdad had begun."

Below was a story by Glasser about an Iraqi Shiite returning to the chamber where he'd been tortured: "Adnan Shaker pulled up his shirt to reveal dozens of scars crisscrossing his chest. He turned to show the marks of cigarette burns on his back. He waved his misshapen right hand, two fingers twisted and useless. He grabbed the electric wire attached to the ceiling in the cell where he lived until a few days ago, and demonstrated how his jailers had tied his hands behind his back when they administered the shocks."

And that was a typical day. The Post didn't get everything right. Its main false note was a number of stories, often partly blind-sourced, suggesting that the Pentagon's strategy was a mess and the war could go on for months. Oops. And, as always, the best news outlet is even better when read in combination with others. To go from The Post to The Times, and a John Burns dispatch from Baghdad, or a military analysis by Michael Gordon, was to get the best the media had to offer in this war.

Still, the headline is clear. The Washington Post of old—gutsy, sharp, writer-driven—is back in town. Let's hope it's here to stay.