Here's the story behind the story


An anonymous reader with a major attitude problem writes: "How come you jerks never print any good news? Everything in that fish wrap of yours is negative, negative, negative."

As soon as the letter crossed my desk, I was on the phone.

Blinking back tears, I said: "Mom, that stuff about us being jerks was way out of line . . ."

But my mother, in a rambling 10-minute conversation, insisted she had never mailed an anonymous letter in her life, with the exception of a brief note to Sean Connery in the mid-'60s, offering to have my father weighted down with cement blocks and thrown into the river if it would bring the handsome Scottish actor calling.

The fact is, though, that reader complaints about negative journalism are being increasingly directed toward this fish wrap and many other fish wraps throughout the country.

Perhaps this is a good time to explain how stories actually find their way into the fish wrap you're thumbing through now.

Each morning, a sullen group of a half-dozen editors shuffles into the newsroom.

These editors are a wretched lot, suffering from near-sightedness, hacking coughs, shaving nicks, cramps, dyspepsia, jaundice and a variety of other ailments too numerous to mention here.

One or two are on fairly heavy medication for depression, from what I understand. At least one is usually in the throes of a painful divorce.

After swilling a few cups of the vilest coffee you have ever seen, stuff that would melt the tarmac markings off an aircraft carrier, these editors are ready to work.

Bent over their tiny, cramped desks, in a corner of the building with poor lighting and little or no ventilation, they begin the task of deciding what the next day's paper will look like.

Obviously, given their medical histories and working conditions, the mood here is hardly cheerful.

There is not a great deal of chatter as they cull through wire service stories and the local news "budget." (Then again, I don't think any of us would be in such a swell mood if we sat at a video display terminal coughing up blood into a handkerchief, as most of these poor people do.)

Given the bleakness of their lives, is it any wonder these editors are not drawn to stories about cute babies, teen-agers involved in volunteer work with the elderly, neighborhoods that organize fund- raisers for orphanages recently burned to the ground, good Samaritans who rescue a shivering family of four snowbound in the High Sierras on Christmas Eve?

Is it really that hard to see why these same editors would lean more toward accounts of triple homicides, train wrecks, mine shaft cave-ins, hit-and-run accidents, typhoons ripping the unprotected coastlines of Third World countries and horses taking horrible spills during the fifth race at Santa Anita?

I hardly think so.

In any event, soon it is time for lunch. Rising as one, the editors form a shabby parade to the rear of the building.

Using a service elevator that has not been inspected since the Eisenhower administration, they ride in silence to the ground floor, each clutching his or her stomach and emitting a soft moan as the elevator finally jerks to a stop.

Commandeering a rickety back table at a nearby greasy spoon, they gaze listlessly at the menu. Most are on bland diets due to bleeding ulcers, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems and the like.

Stories of hard-drinking newspaper people are the stuff of legends, but these poor souls, pale and dissipated from years of overwork and family problems, generally shun alcohol.

Lunch is likely to be a bowl of tepid chicken broth and an English muffin, lightly buttered, which is about all their ravaged systems can handle.

Back at their desks a half-hour later, the process of sifting through the news continues until 5 p.m. or so, with a break around 3 p.m. for medication or a quick smoke for those whose lungs are not too far gone.

This, then, is the dreary life of those who decide which stories you'll read in your daily newspaper.

There is one more point the reader should consider here.

If all newspapers ever printed were sunny stories about national spelling bee winners, taxi drivers who find wallets bulging with money and return them intact to their rightful owners, heroic firemen who rescue wide-eyed kitty cats from 15th-floor ledges, etc., there is an excellent chance that the reader would become bored to tears.

Pretty soon, there is every reason to suspect you'd be begging us for a good gangland shooting story, or a few grafs about an illicit affair between a Fortune 500 CEO and his daughter's cross-dressing nanny.

I'd be getting letters that said: "How come you jerks never print any bad news? Everything in that fish wrap of yours is upbeat, upbeat, upbeat. God, it just makes me sick!"

And you'd be the first to write in, Mom.

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