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Echoes of the glory days

Posted by Christopher Shea  November 3, 2009 03:10 PM

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On Friday, there was a fistfight in the Style section of the Washington Post. An older editor, Henry Allen, a literary lion/New Journalist in his day, called a piece that two younger colleagues had just turned in the second-worst piece of dreck he'd read in four-plus decades at the newspaper. One of the recipients of this insult, a young feature writer, took umbrage and his rebuttal included a vulgarity. Allen counter-rebutted with his fists. The paper's top editor, Marcus Brauchli, was among those who broke up the quite serious scrum.

Today, Gene Weingarten, the Post's humor columnist, weighs in, writing: "Hooray." In these days of fiscal worry and editorial overcautiousness, he writes, he's glad that some writers and editors, at least, still have passion for their work, and high standards.

Which brings us to that question lingering in the air: what was the worst story Allen ever read? Weingarten hears it was a profile of Paul Robeson so weak it was never published. Still, emboldened by the new free-for-all atmosphere at his paper, Weingarten offers his own nominee for the worst piece every published in Style. It appeared in 1999, and the author was Sally Quinn, wife of the legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee.

It was a feature story suffused with New Age thinking, in which Quinn endorsed a supposed miracle experienced by a woman who had walked through a labyrinth designed to foster spiritual thoughts. As she made her way through the maze, the woman told Quinn,

Suddenly, I was in a very bright light. I had a vision of an Indian face with long straight hair, blowing in the wind. He had uplifted arms. He kept telling me to look up. I kept looking up. I was engulfed in light. …

And there was evidence!

A volunteer, Carol Davis, took pictures with a digital camera as they were finishing up. Flipping through the images, she stopped, stunned, at a shot of the group. For there, in the center of the picture, was what looked like a brilliant shaft of multicolored light, coming from above and directed exactly at Arrigan.

[Pause as Quinn expatiates about coinciding solstices, and full moons, and historical facts about Indians that she thinks underscores the link between labyrinths and the spirit world.]

Alas, experts don't find the digital photograph Quinn hails to be evidence of much except a camera glitch:

Members of the Washington Post photo department have examined the pictures of Marylin Arrigan at the labyrinth and declared the apparent shaft of light to be nothing more than "lens flare," an optical effect produced within the camera lens itself. Andrew Davidhazy, an expert on photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, agreed.

Does this deter Quinn? It does not.

But there are many things for which science has a ready answer but the human heart cannot so easily dismiss.… Lens flare or spiritual experience? Or both? You decide.

So what's Quinn up to now? She "co-moderates On Faith, a Washington Post and Newsweek blog about religion and its impact on global life." Oy.

(Via The Awl)

PS. Disclosure: My wife works at the Post but, sadly, saw nothing. She is trained in karate.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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