The Washington Post is known for puffy Style-section profiles of movers and shakers in the Washington area. A few years ago, we looked at the puffiest Washington Post Style profile I can recall. It was about Kate Michelman, the former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America. We learned from that piece that she organized sales to benefit Mexican farm workers as a teenager, makes food from scratch, reads a lot (“every word in every paragraph”), and loves to wash dishes. Here was a sample from that hagiography:
Kate Michelman is the face of reproductive rights. It’s a thin face with high cheekbones, dark eyes that can light up and a mouth with a corner that upturns at comic moments.
Or there was the much more informative, if no less puffy, treatment of Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood. It began and ended with references to her vocation as mother and included nothing but positive information about a woman who oversees the largest provider of abortions in the country. Instead, it’s just nice:
To get the job done, she has been traveling and seeking advice. Thursday she was back in Washington, where she lives with her husband and 15-year-old twins, until they all move to New York this summer. She met with George Washington University students, then with a group of teens at a health clinic in Northeast. She had lunch with a small group of professional women and stay-at-home moms in their thirties and forties. As she rode from place to place, she asked her driver, Ron Evans, for an update on the NCAA tournament so she could talk brackets with her husband.
At the end of the story, she’s actually playing Foosball with kids from the projects. More recently, there was this story about Emily’s List — a PAC that supports candidates who support abortion rights — that read like a press release.
Compared to these puff pieces, last week’s story about Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads the pro-life Susan B. Anthony list, is just odd. (It might have run because Sarah Palin, pictured, spoke at an SBA List function last week.) The best thing I can say about it is that, unlike all of the other profile pieces you read day-in and day-out in the Washington Post style section, this one is not puffy. But it’s also rather distant . . . and cold. I don’t know Dannenfelser and I didn’t really feel like I knew her any better after reading this piece. It’s not that it has many errors, or completely fails to discuss Dannenfelser’s religious views, it’s just written as if the reporter and the subject inhabit different planets.
We learn a bit about the group’s political strategy, an interesting topic these days when those who oppose abortion have been dealt some tremendous defeats at the federal level. But it certainly seems as if the issue is personal for reporter Jason Horowitz. Note this paragraph:
Dannenfelser, wearing a striped beige jacket and a necklace of silver spheres, came out of her small office, where books about the importance of women in the life of Pope John Paul II (“Wojtyla’s Women”) and an anti-Democratic screed (“The Party of Death”) sat in a short bookcase. She spoke in a warm Southern accent, and as she fiddled with a pink packet of Post-it Notes, declared that the abortion issue is back on the nation’s radar.
I’ve read “Party of Death.” I’m pretty sure that Mr. Horowitz hasn’t. It’s the opposite of a screed. It has an aggressive title — one that refers not to a political party but to a movement that, Ponnuru argues, has overtaken the Democratic Party, the media, many courts and other institutions — but the book itself is very calm and reasoned. The author, who I know and who is actually a Post contributor, is unique. He lays out his case without personal invective, something that’s almost unheard of in modern political writing. Ponnuru’s book, which is about many aspects of modern bioethics and political history is just not a screed. Ponnuru is a tough opponent. His book certainly angered pro-choicers as much as it delighted pro-lifers. But no matter what your personal view of abortion politics, screed is just not an appropriate word to use about an important book like “Party of Death” in a profile piece about a pro-life activist.
Of course, whether Horowitz is writing on the front page of the Post or in his normal Style section digs, I think he lets too much of his own politics into his writing.
Anyway, back to the profile. Here’s a sample:
Dannenfelser, a native of Greenville, N.C., and former debutante, grew up as Marjorie Jones, an Episcopalian and defender of a woman’s right to choose. One summer spent in a Georgetown house for Republican interns changed that, when a bitter schism erupted between social conservatives and libertarians over a pornographic video. That domestic dispute began the gradual transformation that led Dannenfelser to her current antiabortion crusade, her conversion to Catholicism and the founding of a society named after the suffragist who, according to historians, hardly made abortion a signature issue.
OK, the last line is also interesting to me.
I remarked last week how funny it is that the media never ever discuss that the founder of Planned Parenthood — one Margaret Sanger — was a major league eugenicist. Sometimes when I’ve criticized that absence of information, a reader will say “Come on! Everyone knows she was a eugenicist.” I’ve come to wonder how everyone “knows” something that is never mentioned by the mainstream media.
You will note that in that long, puffy profile of Cecile Richards, current head of Planned Parenthood, no one mentioned that the organization’s founder had some (in my view, at least) pretty disgusting things to say about some people. Nope, not even in a profile of the current head of Planned Parenthood.
But this article includes several paragraphs complaining that the suffragist Susan B. Anthony didn’t make abortion her “signature issue.” I think — I hope — we all know what Susan B. Anthony’s signature issue was. It’s also undeniable that she was an outspoken critic of abortion. All suffragists of that era were against the practice of abortion, of course.
Abortion as a political issue is a modern invention but abortion as a signature political issue is of even more recent vintage. Pro-choicers have been complaining about pro-life feminists using the anti-abortion writings of the suffragists for years — they concede Anthony was morally opposed to abortion but say it’s unclear whether she would have supported the right to commit what she called “child murder.” Fair enough — it’s a legitimate issue to highlight, I guess. But I just find it fascinating that so much space is devoted to examining Ms. Anthony’s views (and, implicitly, the motivation of this particular pro-life activist group) when the more recent views of Margaret Sanger never seem worthy of being explored or analyzed.
Anyway, perhaps this tepid profile of Ms. Dannenfelser is an indication that the Post‘s Style section is going to drop it’s slobbery puff pieces. Somehow I don’t think so, however.