Focal Point

BACK IN THOSE HALCYON DAYS when I was a member of the working press and especially when I was a desk editor, I tried – over and above the flow of breaking news and follow-ups on stories we were already running -- to get into the paper material people weren’t likely to find anywhere else. This ranged from humorous items (the woman who went to her automobile to drive to the supermarket, found two skunks copulating in the car’s front seat and raised a big stink that ended with a hysterical telephone call to the sheriff), to serious stories about environmental or economic questions (how federal manipulation of milk prices means you pay more as demand declines). Sometimes it was a local story, sometimes it came off the wires; sometimes – when I was a reporter or a columnist – it was a story I covered and wrote myself. But most of my opportunities for that sort of selection were during the years I was what newspapermen of my generation jocularly called a “rim-rat” – a city editor, a copy editor or an acting telegraph editor, one who sat either around the rim of the huge round center-slotted copy desk typical of those years, or in the slot itself as “the slot man,” the editor in charge.

Those were the times when sport-coats and neckties were mandatory but newsrooms were nevertheless as comfortable as good saloons, as smoke-filled as Boss Tweed’s office at Tammany Hall, alive with the rhythmic energy of hundreds of fingers pounding manual typewriters, the muted soft percussion of the wire-service teletypes and sometimes the dread electrifying ring of their alert-bells, the insistent buzzing of telephones and murmur of purposeful conversations, the counterpoint “ka-chunk” of pneumatic tubes connecting newsroom with composing room and then finally the bass crescendo of the press run, the One Star coming off the rollers at midnight and setting the entire building atremble, the first of the five editions we would publish before dawn. Old-time newsrooms even had their own characteristic smell, a combination of tobacco smoke and ink and the curiously toasty odor of newsprint – every newsroom in America smelling much the same – perhaps on some sublime level the source of the phrase “hot off the presses.” Those of us who worked in such places were fiercely proud of what we did and delighted we had escaped the florescent-lighted hells of insurance offices and executive suites. But not any more: in today’s politically “correct” newsrooms, smoking is absolutely forbidden; the advent of the computer has quieted the production routines to a library whisper, and if you get drunk more than once a year in what used to be the most notoriously hard-drinking occupation on the planet, the bosses will force you to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. Old timers I know – white men my age or slightly younger who have managed to keep their jobs through all the feminist purges and affirmative-action layoffs – say that today the only difference between a newsroom and an insurance office is there’s probably a lot less back-stabbing in the insurance business. The band-of-brothers newspapering I knew is thus gone forever, but I feel about it the same way I do about the steam locomotive and the 1903 Springfield rifle -- I am infinitely grateful to have been on extended intimate terms with it, and the world without it seems a diminished place.

Returning to the point from which I distracted myself by nostalgia, the basis upon which I pick stories for this blog – especially the links that go into “Focal Point” – is an updated version of my old preference for choosing items people are not likely to find anywhere else. Though I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought until this weekend, the common denominator in these stories is that they show us some aspect of our world we might not otherwise see. Sometimes this is merely some new research about our environment or the creatures we share it with – the link in “Dog Story” is a good example. Sometimes it is an infuriating disclosure like two of those linked below, a nonexistent “endangered species” and a desperately needed technology obstructed by environmental absolutism. Sometimes it is the advent of a potentially revolutionary technology – one that could literally change the world -- just as the new Zeppelins described in another of the following links might someday do. And sometimes it is the story of a person felled or jeopardized by undeserved misfortune – or perhaps someone who has been outrageously failed by America – like another of the links below.

Of all these kinds of stories, the last are typically the most controversial. Over the years I have written dozens of them myself, and with the notable exception of the disclosures of my own somber circumstances (the results of which it is much too soon to judge), the people I have written about were always profoundly helped by my reporting. For example, in the case of a newly widowed woman who was hadn’t worked since her teens, had three school-age children to care for and was being forced onto “welfare” by complications in settling her late husband’s estate, my stories generated several offers of jobs, one of which turned out to be the beginning of a new and lucrative career. Having witnessed that cause-and-effect relationship many times, I finally persuaded myself that my own circumstances deserved the same opportunity and indeed were just as newsworthy in terms of illuminating the fact that life in America does not always work out as planned. The risk – and I knew this from the very beginning – is that in every community there is a small, flint-hard subculture of people who revel in asserting their alleged superiority over the less fortunate, and these self-proclaimed ubermenschen invariably wrote letters to the editor demanding to know why we were wasting newsprint writing about “worthless trash,” or as one correspondent said, “baby-breeding bums just looking for lots of pity and a free ride.”

I have always wondered at the unique fury such stories evoke, and this weekend – probably because of its synchronicity with President Ronald Reagan’s funeral – it occurred to me that the answer is that stories like the widow’s prove the Ronald Reagan vision of America (as a perpetually happy Disneyland) is both hollow and false. Before I go further, let me make it very clear I recognize President Reagan’s greatness: his victory in the Cold War marks him as the greatest commander-in-chief of the 20th Century, just as the Asia Times columnist Spengler said (Focal Points, June 8). But in terms of Reagan’s attitudes toward the poor or afflicted – note especially his lethal indifference to AIDS victims – he was probably the most heartless president ever to occupy the White House. I suspect the similarly heartless people who wrote antagonistic letters in response to my “widow” story in 1980 held a similar cotton-candy theme-park view of America -- and they were enraged to frothing frenzies not at the socioeconomic malfunctions that had brought the widow to the threshold of the “welfare” office, but rather at me for disclosing that our society sometimes fails to perform as promised – and that sometimes (usually for no apparent reason) it turns viciously on our own people. Unlike those who view Disneyland as the microcosm of the American macrocosm, I take America’s socioeconomic failures as a given – and I believe that part of our true greatness is that disclosure of those failures often ameliorates them at least – and many times remedies them completely. Thus I do everything in my power to facilitate that process – even for myself.

Today’s links are more numerous than usual:

ENVIRONMENTAL FOLLIES R US: When you read the first of these links, about an allegedly endangered mouse that never existed at all, remember the infamous Washington state Lynx Hoax, in which state and federal biologists (in service to an environmentalist/ecofeminist anti-hunting, anti-trapping agenda) were caught planting lynx hair in places lynx had never lived. The story of the phantom mouse that was so powerful it put house cats on leashes is here. Then when you read why neither California (nor any other place in the United States) is building petroleum refineries, remember the mouse that wasn’t, and reflect on the outrageous prices you’re paying for gasoline and diesel. The no- refinery report is linked here

DER ZEPPELIN BEDERBACKENKOMING: The Germans are once again refining the concept of lighter-than-air flying machines, incorporating the lessons of the ill-fated Hindenburg (including the use of non-inflammable helium) for the possible development of a new energy-efficient mode of trans-Atlantic luxury travel, as reported here.

MORE ON THE FIGHT AGAINST CANADIAN SHARIA: The campaign against the forcible imposition of sharia on Canadian Muslims is gaining support and momentum, as updated here.

ABANDONED BY HER GOVERNMENT: Dawn Marie Wilson was busted by the Mexicans on utterly trumped-up drug charges, thrown into a typically filthy Third World prison, and is in dire need of medical care she is methodically denied. But the greatest most damning outrage of all in this case is the fact her plight is being deliberately ignored by the U.S. government – though it remains to be seen whether this is just another part of the Bush Administration’s disgraceful concessions to Mexico, an especially vicious manifestation of the administration’s undeclared war on Americans who go to Canada or Mexico for cheaper prescription drugs, or perhaps both. An infuriating report on the Wilson case is linked here.

posted by on June 14, 2004 02:21 PM

From the article it appears that Barbara Boxer is to blame. Boxer's pathetic non-effort to free Wilson should be a rebuke to anyone who voted for Boxer.

That SacBee article was very poorly written, more an emotional tug-o-the-heart than an attempt to relate factual information. I wonder what was left unsaid.

Posted by: Bilbo at June 14, 2004 07:22 PM

Bilbo, many of the same questions occurred to me.

I didn't get the same "blame-Barbara" sense you did, but there's never been a time I didn't think California would be better off without Boxer in office. Too bad about her name; there's a real danger it might besmirch the reputation of a truly wonderful breed of dogs.

Don't know anything about Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), and Googling him turned up nothing outrageous -- he's yet another anti-Second Amendment, environmentally radical Democrat, but he apparently locked horns with President Clinton over some foreign trade issues, so he may have a streak of genuine independence nevertheless.

As to the columnist Marjie Lundstrom, I'm not at all familiar with her work, so I don't know if she's always that scatterbrained or if maybe she was just having a bad day. But her style of writing -- injected into mainstream journalism by feminists as a protest against the alleged "patriarchal oppression" of logically developed prose -- is an expression of our deteriorating literacy, something I see entirely too much of.

The unjustified imprisonment of Americans in Mexico -- usually so corrupt Mexican police can drain gringo bank accounts -- is much more commonplace than people realize, so I take Lundstrom's claims pretty much at face value. When I was at Oakland Army Terminal in 1961 awaiting shipment to Korea via the U.S.S. Mann, there were at least a dozen people who were AWOL from the troop contingent of approximately 3200 soldiers. I heard every one of these men were later found in (and rescued by the government from) Mexican jails, where they were all being indefinitely held without charges; apparently they had decided to spend their last few days of pre-overseas leave south of the border, and were essentially kidnapped for ransom by Mexican officials. For that reason alone -- and I know a lot of similar horror stories from other sources too -- Mexico has always seemed to me like a good place to avoid.

Posted by: loren at June 15, 2004 11:17 AM