Tom Shales, the Washington Post's Pulitzer-prize winning television writer, says he's probably going to leave the paper when his contract expires at the end of December. "It's been a long process," he says.
Shales took the paper's buyout offer in 2006. "I hate that expression, 'took the buyout,'" he says. It reminds him of an old Gregory Peck movie that ends with a boy killing his pet deer.
Shales went on contract immediately after, remaining the paper's TV critic until last summer, when Hank Stuever was named lead critic; Shales, the Post announced, would become an at-large culture critic with a mission to "illuminate, pontificate and eviscerate, on TV and other subjects."
Shales, 65, hasn't strayed too far from television in those columns, taking wide-angle views of series in their sunset years, personnel moves in front of the camera, and reality TV. He's also used the small screen as a jumping-off point to talk about sex on TV, the cultural ramifications of huge quantities of vapid programming, and television's unwillingness to confront the credit card companies running ads on their stations even as many families' finances went racing off the cliff.
That mission appears to be coming to an end. In a Sept. 30 post on the Facebook Wall of Washington Post Company CEO Don Graham, Shales wrote "After 39 years...I'm being handed my hat," and said that after Dec. 31, "you won't have me to kick around any more!"
(I e-mailed and left several messages for Shales when I wrote about that posting last week; he didn't get in touch until today. Style section editor Ned Martel told TBD's Erik Wemple on Oct. 13 that he couldn't comment on Shales, citing deadline pressures; he did not return my phone call requesting comment the next morning.)
Beneath the bravado in the Facebook posting is a fairly serious set of personal circumstances. The lump sum he took from the buyout is gone, Shales says Thursday night, on the phone from his house in McLean. "I either frittered it or the stock market ate it." And his contract, Shales says, isn't nearly as lucrative as his former salary.
"Now they have said they can’t afford me anymore, even though I’m making a lot less than when things were all ducky," he says.
Is he negotiating with the paper?
"In a way, but then again not," he says. "I mean, I’m gonna sign the document that says I’m going to be leaving on Dec. 31."
Leaving the Post will be hard — not only has he been there since 1971, but there's not exactly a booming newspaper business to absorb him should he get cut loose. "It’s scary, damn scary," he says. "Plus I’m so heavily in debt and my house is underwater. Suddenly I'm a cross-section of the American public."
For a certain section of that public in Washington, it's jarring to imagine the Style section without Shales' mug. "Readers and people outside the building say they can’t imagine this happening," Shales says. Inside 1150 15th St. NW — an office he hasn't worked in for years — he says, the management's approach is less...driven by emotion.
"I'm just older than just about everyone in Style," Shales says. "It’s just weird, but I’m the last of the institutional memory, at least in the Style section. I can’t imagine those people being sentimental about me leaving."
The Facebook posting, Shales says, was a way to send out a smoke signal to his supporters, including Graham, that he thought his time at the paper was ending. "I was feeling ignored, I guess," he says, "and I just wanted there to be some notice that I was headed for the last roundup."