Sunday, December 17, 2006

Copydesk radar

It's hard to pin down a lot that's overtly evil about today's story, but it feels funny. So perhaps this is a good chance to talk about the mystery of copydesk radar and whether it works (or, for that matter, exists). Pls consider the floor open for discussion. I think everybody will agree that the qualitative/subjective side of editing is the hardest to explain or teach.

It's not always the side your colleagues want to hear about, either. If your editing radar suggests that something's amiss with a story, you'd best be able to talk in detail about why that blip represents a reporting blunder with foils locked in attack mode, rather than just another flock of ivory-billed woodpeckers doing the Hokey Pokey. Because if you ask the city desk which of those phenomena has produced the most recent confirmed sighting, the answer's going to be "woodpecker."

Some excerpts, then, and some attempts to quantify what it is about them that sets the radar off:

'Forgotten soldier' remembered at last
Home buyers discover memorabilia linked to WWII Army private


They call him the forgotten soldier, killed on an Italian battlefield 63 years ago.

Forgotten, that is, until Janice and David Bentley bought his sister's house in the Stanly County town of Norwood.


Two things at the outset. One, orphan pronouns make me nervous. Especially plural ones. I don't know if "they" means two people in Stanly County, the whole Third Infantry Division or some total in between. But it usually implies a big number or a collective understanding, as in "They call the wind Maria." Two is "until," for pretty much the same reason. The poles are 1943 and 2006, but there's no signal about how much of that span "forgotten" covers. Between them, they suggest that this story has been cast into one of the narrow set of themes newspapers use for war retrospectives. It's shaping up as a remembrance-and-forgetting tale. We're being left to wonder about rather a lot.

In October, cleaning out the house to begin renovations, the Bentleys found a Purple Heart medal, a 48-star American flag and battlefield letters from Army Pvt. Robert Lee Barringer -- the last written 16 days before he was killed on Sept. 22, 1943. He was 24.

Today at 10 a.m., Barringer will be forever remembered during a memorial service behind the Harrisburg Town Hall in Cabarrus County.


Uh, no. He can be remembered today at 1o, or he can be remembered forever, but he can't be remembered forever today at 10. But do you see the theme solidifying?

After that, his flag, medal and copies of the letters will go to the G.I. House Memorial Museum in Kannapolis, dedicated to preserving post-World War II history. The real letters and local newspaper clippings announcing his death will be preserved by archivists at the Cabarrus County Public Library.

How come letters from 1943 are going into a museum of postwar history? Just asking.

"I'm looking at a man who's basically been forgotten, who paid the price before he had a wife and children," said David Bentley, an Air Force veteran whose wife grew up in a military family.

... The Bentleys of Stanfield bought the two-bedroom Norwood house for an investment from Pauline Burris, Barringer's sister. Burris, who couldn't be reached, lives in a nursing home and is unable to make the service. All but one of her three sons, Barringer's nephews, were born after he was killed.

"Couldn't be reached" why? When did we start calling or visiting, and how hard did we try? Once again, I'm mystified. The reason could be anything: She could be in Tehran working on the coup. Or she could be in Branson. Or she could be long gone in dementia. We don't know. Which is convenient if the story's theme has already been decided on but pretty irritating if you're trying to figure out how well the facts fit the theme.

We can rough out an idea of how old she is: One son was born before Sept. 22, 1943. Let's say he was conceived at the beginning of the year. Let's put her toward the lower end of the possible age range and say she was 16 at that point. On those assumptions, she's pushing 80. And she could be older than the decedent. We don't know, and I'm starting to wonder why we don't know.

"They obviously didn't know these things had been left in the house," said Janice Bentley, who found the items stored with swatches of material. "They said they just didn't know him."

That damn pronoun again! Who's "they"? All three brothers, or one who's busy trying to finish up at work and get to mom's nursing home and doesn't have time to talk to nosy strangers about an uncle who died before he was born? What exactly did "they" say, and when did "they" say it? (And, of course, why didn't we try to get "them" to say it to "us"?) But a story on this theme has to have bad people who forget and good people who remember, so ...

Newspaper clippings report the Purple Heart was awarded posthumously to Barringer's parents, along with the flag. The Bentleys surmise those items were handed down to Burris.

Good guess. Also a pretty good sign that for at least some of the 63 years, he wasn't forgotten.

... The idea for today's service came from G.R. Bradley of Concord, commander of the Veterans Honor Guard in Cabarrus County. ... Moved by the story, Bradley offered to put together a service for Barringer and see that the items are preserved.

He has also launched a genealogical study on Barringer. They know from relatives that Barringer's great-grandfather died in a Civil War prison in New York. They are unsure where Barringer is buried.

Excuse me a second. Would this by any chance be the Robert Lee Barringer (entered service in North Carolina, died 22 September 1943) who's listed as buried in Plot C, Row 11, Grave 28 of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno? Just wondering.

That's the sort of thing that takes about three minutes (we're still on dial-up here at the Manor) to find if you're interested. But you have to be interested -- not set on writing another story about how the young generation forgets but a few stalwarts help us remember.

The service will include a 21-gun salute, taps, speeches and readings from the letters and clippings.

Copyeds? Here's a rule. Whenever an obit says the decedent will receive a 21-gun salute, head at once to the city desk and ask: "When was he president?" Presidents get 21-gun salutes. Kings get 21-gun salutes. Soldiers usually get something like three rifle volleys.

"This man was doing his duty, talking about coming home and then his life is cut short," said Bradley, whose group has performed 80 military funerals this year. "He never knew the joy of children or grandchildren. He needs to be honored by getting his items into a place where they can be seen."

OK. Our writer doesn't know a rifle from an artillery piece. Our expert is averaging almost two military funerals a week but doesn't know about a resource as basic as the Battle Monuments Commission. And we poor readers are about where we were at the outset. We have no way of telling whether this is a valid account of memory and forgetting or a badly misconceived tale about somebody who was remembered as much as the others who died in 1943 right up until his sister went into the nursing home. Or anywhere between.

If it's the latter, we've basically hijacked someone's life for the purpose of telling a socially congruent story, and that's not very nice. It's hard to argue for holding a story whose time peg is "today." But if we can't produce some evidence that we've checked all the plausible counterindications, we could rewrite the thing into a simple report rather than a grand symphony of cultural verities.

OK, over to you characters. How do you explain it when your radar is going off?

1 Comments:

Anonymous Denise Covert said...

The likelihood of my doubts to be listened to is inversely proportional both to the amount of time remaining before deadline, and to the number of Important People who have Signed Off on the story before it reached me.

Like at 10 p.m. on a former night desk, when reading a story on how housing isn't affordable, I come across the anecdote (in the lede) of a female firefighter who makes $50K a year, not counting overtime. She lives with her fiance, who works (but we don't know for how much) and between the two, they are unable to make their $1,000/month mortgage payment.

"Wow. The coke habit must be really expensive," I said. Because that's how much I was paying in rent, making a little more than half of their combined incomes (if I assumed he made only minimum wage), and gee, I wasn't doing drugs or anything.

Of course, my doubts received the best answer yet: "Well, it's 10 o'clock, and we're not holding that story." If only I had had the confidence then that I have now.

3:57 PM, December 19, 2006  

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