Readers of the Washington Post might have thought a time warp had collided with the zeitgeist last week when they turned to their Style section. For there, staring at them from the front page, and stretching well beyond, was a seven-page, -14-part package entitled “The Prophets of Oak Ridge,” written by a Style reporter named Dan Zak, featuring 28 illustrations, three graphs, and five original works of art, suitable for framing.
Not since art critic Philip Kennicott’s profusely illustrated (including bird’s-eye map with guide) tribute to the Occupy Washington encampment (2011) has the Post gone to such extravagant lengths to waste space, annoy subscribers, ignore actual news, offend local sensibilities, and generally remind us why media institutions such as the Washington Post are in dire straits. For “The Prophets of Oak Ridge” is an extended—indeed, more than extended—tribute to three “peace activists” who recently trespassed on the nuclear weapons/research facility in Tennessee, vandalized property, and now face federal criminal charges.
Reporter Zak is probably too young to remember, but in tone and substance, “The Prophets of Oak Ridge” is a near-perfect replica of the sort of piece routinely published in American newspapers during Ronald Reagan’s first term, when the nuclear freeze movement had galvanized the Upper West Side of Manhattan and even network made-for-TV movies were depicting nuclear apocalypse (The Day After, anyone?). The only thing missing, from The Scrapbook’s perspective, is a quotation from Dr. Helen Caldicott, author of Nuclear Madness, Missile Envy, and other classics of the era.
All the comic elements are in place. Reporter Zak’s heroes—a belligerent drifter, aging ex-nun, and grizzled house painter—are depicted in all their endearing humanity, and in lavish detail. They’re gentle people, of course, and all too human, but possessed of a vision of world peace and global harmony more powerful than any hydrogen bomb. Needless to say, the residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, are American oafs, Appalachian division, who don’t understand the world quite as well as the reporter and the peace activists, but are dependent on the local employer to pay for their fattening food and pickup trucks.
The peace activists (and reporter Zak, for that matter) don’t exactly disdain the locals, but feel a—well, a pity for them arising out of their deep faith, justifiable anger, and, of course, basic decency. The peace activists speak in a New Age/Old Testament jargon (hence the title) while everyone else—bumptious Republicans, rustic Southerners, military robots—sounds like a cartoon character.
Far be it from The Scrapbook to understand why the Washington Post would wish to revive a trend in journalism that mercifully died around 1987. And we would hardly expect a Style reporter to examine the dread subject of life and death in the nuclear age from anything like a historical perspective.
Two things, however, are painfully obvious. As a practical matter, The Scrapbook won’t stay up late waiting for the Post to devote comparable space and resources depicting religious activists of another sort—say, evangelical Christians on the wrong side of the Post’s editorial page, or pro-lifers who live within the Post’s circulation area. And if the Washington Post is concerned about nuclear arsenals that threaten the well-being of their readers, they should send Dan Zak and an illustrator not to Oak Ridge but to Tehran, or even Pyongyang.