Bad taste in my mouth, on the page: Donald Hall, Sarah Palin, and WaPo

No caption needed.

No caption needed.

Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post gives us more evidence that she is not a class act, though after her rather tasteless derision of the octogenarian poet Donald Hall receiving the National Medal of Arts last week, we really needed no further proof.  I posted about David Sanders‘s comments in “Poetry News in Review” on March 7, and the post was picked up by (among other places) the conservative Weekly Standard.

When Sarah Palin tweeted about Petri’s “caption contest,” I feared it might become a political football, and I was right. A fundamentally human issue fell into the mighty left-wing/right-wing chasm that now disfigures this country’s public discourse.

Petri grabbed the low-hanging fruit.  In her blog post, she reveals:

“My first thought on hearing that Sarah Palin had tweeted this in response to something I’d written was: ‘Oh no, she’s read the Justin Bieber coverage.’

After all, I frequently wake up in cold sweats from dreams in which I am reprimanded by Sarah Palin for writing too much about Justin Bieber — or vice versa. This is the single most shameful thing that can happen to anyone, ever, including wearing white after labor day while being Charlie Sheen.”

While I’m not a fan of the Alaskan governor, she (or whoever wrote the tweet for her) happened to be right on this one.

However, Petri appears to be one of those people who only opens her mouth to change feet.  Hence, she continues:


“Still, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, Sarah Palin et al., but caption contests have been around for a while. They fall, like rain, on the just and the unjust alike. From the sounds of the coverage, you would think I’d gone to Mr. Hall’s home with a megaphone and read ‘Sudden Things’ in a snide voice, or that caption contests were a new invention, designed explicitly to bedevil old gentlemen with rich life experiences who wind up in amusing snapshots.”

Nice to see you googled Donald Hall to read one of his works, Ms. Petri – not his best effort, but I don’t expect you’d know the difference, given the cultural interests you’ve cited.  In any case, we’d prefer you’d stuck to Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen.  Caption contests don’t fall “like rain,” they are developed by writers, approved by editors, and then read by the public.  This isn’t a big issue – and I certainly didn’t expect a moment of conscience from you – but it’s worth noting, which is why I took time to write about it.  I had hoped for better from your editors.

“Maybe this is a good time to explain the concept.

“A caption contest presents you with a photo. (Sarah, a photo is basically like a TLC series about you, but sometimes it can show you in an unflattering light.) Then, the people who see this photo attempt to write something called a caption, the goal of which is to provoke laughter in the people who read it with the photo.”

Donald Hall receives honor from Pres. Obama

Yes, Ms. Petri, we gathered that was the point.  That’s why many people wrote about their dismay and your lack of respect for people who are clearly your betters.  We were appalled by the low cultural level your writing represents for a once-great national newspaper.  We were repelled by the ageism you encouraged in the comments. When you offered, in today’s post, your own picture, for more funny captions, we are puzzled by your lack of self-respect as well.  But it explains a lot.  Really.

“I’ve written more than a dozen pieces about Palin herself, who is like cocaine except that there are rare occasions when cocaine might make your writing better.”

Whatever it takes, Alex.  Whatever it takes.

Postscript: Mark Bauerlein at The Chronicle of Higher Education weighs in: “It must be read to be believed.”  Read more here.

Postscript #2:  Frank Wilson at Books Inq throws in his 2 cents:

[Petri] certainly appears either incapable or unwilling to grasp that the problem was not with her having a caption contest, but with her choice of photo, which was of a person deserving respect, not derision. So let’s help: You were making fun of a frail old man, Alex, for no other reason than that he looked frail and old. Most people regard doing such as in terrible taste. Don’t hide behind Sarah Palin. Go take a course in remedial manners.

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2 Responses to “Bad taste in my mouth, on the page: Donald Hall, Sarah Palin, and WaPo”

  1. Jeff Sypeck Says:

    Cynthia, I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here, but beyond the basic rudeness issue, I also see this little incident as indicative of the sad state of arts coverage by newspapers. Except for the gossip columnist mentioning he’d spotted Quincy Jones and James Taylor in a D.C. restaurant, the Washington Post had no coverage of the honorees beyond an overview of the ceremony: no interviews, no retrospectives, no commentary or appreciations, no excerpts of their work, nothing.

    When a major newspaper focuses more on pop-culture snark (which I sometimes enjoy, but which a thousand other venues do better) and all but ignores the honorees of the country’s highest arts-and-humanities award, then it’s hardly surprising that those of us who love to read take our eyeballs to arts and books blogs instead. At the same time, I imagine most everyone on the Post’s staff support, in theory, the NEH and the NEA…but then how can defenders of those agencies, or of the arts in general, make their case for their relevance when even the capital city’s major newspaper spends more words mocking one honoree than it does covering all of them?

  2. bali Says:


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