By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
11:22 AM EDT, May 8, 2012
There's a fallacy that reporters detest being in the spotlight. If that were really true, articles would be published without bylines. But print journalists have found that it's easier and more fun to ask questions than it is to answer them.
Nonetheless, there have been times in the past 175 years when the newspaper itself has made news and Sun staffer members have found themselves on the other side of the spiral notebook.
Below are just a few examples:
• The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904
It might have begun when someone discarded a burning cigarette in the basement of a downtown office building Feb. 7. Thirty-one hours later, when the conflagration was finally brought under control, an 80-block area of downtown Baltimore had been destroyed, causing more than $150 million in damage — in 1904 dollars.
The city's newspapers, which were located downtown for easy access to governing institutions, were hard-hit, including the five-story Italian palace at Baltimore and South streets known as the Sun Iron Building. The much-admired edifice had been the first structure in the U.S. to use cast-iron beams and columns, and they framed row after row of gleaming glass windows.
The Iron Building was abandoned 12 hours after the fire broke out, as embers fell on the roof. A chartered train took editors and printers south to the Washington Star, which had volunteered the use of its offices and presses. The Sun was distributed the next morning on schedule from the Camden station.
• The Scopes Monkey Trial (1925)
In 1925, when Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was arrested on a charge of teaching his students about evolution, The Sun's reporting made the case a national cause celebre. As was the norm in those days, the paper made no pretense of being dispassionate. Nor was the publisher concerned that a Maryland newspaper was seeking to influence events unfolding in Tennessee.
Sun publisher Paul Patterson put up $500 for Scopes' bail. The paper defrayed part of the legal fees for defense attorney Clarence Darrow (above left), and also paid the $100 fine when Scopes was convicted.
H.L. Menken's coverage of the court hearing for The Evening Sun* included two new terms: "Monkey Trial" and "Bible Belt." Less admirably, the Sage of Baltimore also derided prosecutor William Jennings Bryan (above, right) and his "palpable imbecilities," and characterized local residents as "yokels" and "primates."
In the 1960 film "Inherit the Wind," the dapper Gene Kelly was cast to portray the character based on the notoriously unfashionable Mencken, while The Sun itself was called the Baltimore Herald.
• The death of Mussolini (1945)
During the final days of World War II, Howard Norton, a war correspondent for the Sunpapers, took a 200-mile dash by Jeep in the hopes of interviewing the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini while the despot was still alive.
Norton arrived one day too late. But his story, published April 30,1945, scooped the world with the first eyewitness verification of Il Duce's death.
"The body of Benito Mussolini lies in the mud in the Piazza Loreto here this morning, and thousands of Milanese are fighting their way through crushing crowds for an opportunity to spit on it," Norton wrote.
"The enormous shaved head and loose meaty jowls of the fallen Duce are resting on the breast of his mistress, Clara Petacci, ... daughter of a Milan doctor, who, with Mussolini and about twelve other high Fascists, was given a hasty trial and shot by Partisans near the town of Dongo yesterday at 4:10 in the afternoon."
A few weeks later, Sun war correspondent Price Day was the only reporter for an individual newspaper to witness the surrender of German forces and the end of the war in Europe.
• Fun and games under the JFX (1987)
Advertising executive Don Schnably's "Where's Waldo"-style cartoon purporting to show the layout of the forthcoming 1987 City Fair soon had the city in an uproar. Alert readers noticed that a carousel in the center of the illustration contained a most unusual "ride": a woman on all fours and a man standing behind her, with a huge grin on his face and both arms thrust skyward.
The ad caused aroused worldwide hilarity, much of it at the Sunpapers' expense. News agencies as far away as London, Peking and Bangkok ran stories, and the illustration of the couple enjoying their own, private merry-go-round was reproduced in Playboy's "The Year in Sex" for 1987.
Schnably later left the agency, though he maintained for the record that the woman on all fours was really a drawing of a lion. That would have been a lot more credible if the "lion" had possessed hind legs that bent backward like hocks instead of forward like knees, front paws without thumbs, and a tail.
In addition, Schnably admitted to a mischievous streak. As he later told a Sun reporter: "It's fun being an impish, 50-year-old kid. You try to get away with something and if you do, you feel good."
• Proving the existence of slavery in Sudan (1996)
In 1996, Sun reporters Gilbert Lewthwaite and Gregory Kane demolished a lie. The Sudanese government was roundly denying reports by human rights organizations that slavery was rampant in the African country. Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan had challenged journalists to prove the horror stories were true.
So in June, Lewthwaite, who is white, and Kane, who is African-American, traveled to the Sudan, sat under a mango tree and bought two slaves for $1,000. The young half-brothers, 10 and 12 years old, had spent the past six years living in servitude on a cattle ranch.
Though the reporters freed the boys within minutes of making the purchase and returned them to their father, the three-part series caused a ruckus nationwide.
Critics accused the paper of sensationalism and questioned the journalists' conclusions. They claimed that, by paying money for the boys, The Sun was indirectly supporting the practice that it condemned.
But the majority of commentators thought that The Sun had performed an important public service. Lewthwaite and Kane were finalists for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting.
• Showbiz and The Sun (1993 + 2008)
HBO's television show"The Wire" was one of the most critically acclaimed dramas of the past decade, and the show continues to attract new viewers in the U.S. and abroad four years after it went off the air.
For better or worse, watchers of "The Wire" can't help but be familiar with The Sun, because much of the fifth and final season takes place inside the newsroom where creator David Simon formerly worked as a police reporter. The series examines various factors, such as the ouster of veteran editors and reporters and a perceived over-emphasis on winning journalism prizes, that Simon thinks prevents the print media from fulfilling its watchdog role.
Still, the series was a useful corrective to the 1993 movie "Sleepless in Seattle," in which Meg Ryan portrays a perky Sun reporter named Annie Reed. When Annie falls for a complete stranger, her editor, played byRosie O'Donnell, sends the young journalist across the country on the company dime and the company time to check the guy out.
Yup — exactly what Mencken would have done.
*An earlier version of this article did not specify that Mencken reported on the Scopes trial for The Evening Sun.
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