Requiem for a redhead


SO NOT ONE but two newspapers died in Baltimore this month. Flame-tressed Brenda Starr's paper, The Flash, was dropped from the comic pages. I am happy to report that The Sun's switchboard lighted up with outraged protest.

Can't these (no doubt, well- intentioned) protesters understand that killing The Flash, like killing The Evening Sun, was a business decision, and therefore as necessary as the law of gravity? When the morning and evening features were merged we kept 37 comics -- more than most newspapers have. Something had to go, so some number-crunching wizard gave Brenda the pink slip. Eight others were canceled, too, but nobody is calling about "Quality Time" or "Overboard." (You hardly remember them, do you?)

Brenda herself would understand. Increasingly her own newspaper, The Flash, was ruled by business decisions. Just this summer, a hostile takeover brought in a new publisher, who proposed to improve the paper with bigger pictures and more celebrity gossip. He singled out Brenda's series on working-class women as the sort of snoreworthy journalism The Flash would no longer print.

Of course, "Brenda Starr" was a soap opera. The latest episode was a tale of murder and financial intrigue. Did the estranged wife of B. Babbitt Bottomline, the ousted publisher, connive in his financial ruin? Did the new publisher, the even more odious C. Craven Cruncher, bump off Babs Bottomline to silence her? Most important of all, will Brenda be scooped on the story by her rival, the snide and tubby Gabby Van Slander? Alas, we'll never know.

(Actually, you can find out whodunit. The Sun will send copies of the rest of the current story to all who ask. Phone 332-6120 and leave your address on the voicemail.)

The genius of "Brenda Starr" was its insight into the foibles of journalism -- the venality of news tycoons, but also the vanity of reporters. Brenda frequently rereads yellowing clippings limning now-forgotten events, and winces at her trite and overwrought prose: "The air was as wet as a baby's kiss."

Last spring, when Bottomline still was boss, he instituted a salary-saving policy of hiring only reporters under age 24. Brenda, who may be approaching 40, the age when Frenchmen say a woman becomes interesting, finds herself teamed with a journalism-school graduate named Callow Kidman.

A fruitful partnership

To the skeptical Brenda's surprise, it turns out to be a fruitful partnership. She tames his impetuosity; he teaches her how to work computer databases -- something only young reporters know.

Just as Callow and Brenda are about to uncover a parking-ticket scandal, publisher Bottomline gets a new cost-cutting brainstorm. The Flash uses too much computer paper, so reporters henceforth may print out only five pages a day. Beyond that they will be assessed $5 a page.

Oops! Before she sees the notice, but after it was posted, Brenda uses her new computer skills to download the entire files of the parking-ticket bureau, surrounding herself with a waist-high pile of computer paper.

You think that's fanciful? When I started at The Sun in 1965, we had to see the managing editor's secretary for pencils. We were allotted two a week. In fact, two pencils were enough, but we callow kid-men smirked and shook our heads at management's pennywise approach to cost control.

In the end Callow and Brenda break the parking-ticket story -- just in time for the Pulitzer Prize awards. The brash Callow assumes that the Pulitzer committee will recognize his brilliance, just as his mother and teachers always did. Brenda hopes at last for overdue recognition.

But someone else wins -- for a snoreworthy story about suburban zoning. Brenda and Callow put on game, heartbroken smiles and congratulate the winner.

And I, too, smile gamely and salute the ratings-counter who decided that lively, intelligent media criticism has no place on a newspaper comic page.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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