Last week, I was listening to NPR and heard a reference to the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, a toxic gas leak that killed thousands and injured more than 500,000. I thought to myself: "Then it's 30 years since my grandfather died." Maybe most people would not connect those two things, but they had been linked indelibly in my mind by my father, Theo Lippman Jr., in one of the eponymous columns that appeared twice-weekly in the Baltimore Sun from Jan. 1, 1976, until Sept. 14, 1995.
On Saturday, my father died — 30 years and one day after his father's death. Perhaps the timing is just a morbid coincidence, but I immediately thought of this Jan. 2, 1985 column, which I have always considered timeless. Yet rare, too, for my father almost never wrote about anything personal. Over those 19 years, I think my father might have conceded that he had a wife, two daughters and a fondness for martinis. And I could be wrong about the daughters. So, out of respect, I will leave it here and let Theo Lippman Jr. have the last word.
— Laura Lippman
Janus, the two-faced god who looks back and ahead, is the journalist's guide this time of year. Today, back at 1984. Saturday, ahead at 1985.
"Ronald Reagan's landslide victory, while no surprise, was the top story in 1984 in a poll of Associated Press member editors and broadcasters," AP's John Barbour wrote last week. That the story was "no surprise" means the editors and broadcasters flew in the face of ink-stained tradition in naming it the No. 1 story of the year. The surprising, the unusual, that's news. "When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often," said John Bogart, city editor of the New York Sun in the 1870s and '80s. "But if a man bites a dog, that is news."
But for a long time now, editors and broadcasters have chosen as the top stories of a year major political and military events, natural and man-made cataclysms, scientific and technological breakthroughs — things that often are normal and predictable.
I've been mulling over the AP Top Ten list. Was Reagan's win a bigger story to me than Bhopal? (No. 2) Bigger than Geraldine Ferraro's unprecedented candidacy? (No. 3) Would I rate as No. 1 the assassination of Indira Gandhi? (4) The embassy annex bombing in Beirut (5)? The African famine? (6) The summer Olympics, heart transplants, the U.S. economy, the San Ysidro McDonald's mass murders? (7, 8, 9, 10)?
My No. 1? None of the above. My father died December 5.
The real news of a year is what happens to us and our families. One death in the family can have greater impact on an individual than 20 or 2,000 or scores of thousands of deaths far away.
A wedding or a birth affects one's life more than any Page One headline event. A new job. A promotion. A move to another city. A new home.
Or a plant closes and a career vanishes, a marriage fails, a crippling disease strikes. A friendship ends. A home burns or is flooded out or razed by a tornado. That's the news to those involved.
Christmas is the time of year when many of us get (and deride) those "the year to date" Xeroxed family histories. Mary's engaged, Fred's vice president of the Kiwanis club, the twins got their braces off ... These are easy targets of derision, because it's clearly not important news to the recipient. But it is to the sender.
Harry Golden, I think it was, once said you find the real news in the little stories on the back of the clippings of the stories about wars, elections, catastrophes. That's true, and in many, many cases the real news never gets in the paper at all.
It is, of course, a newspaper's important job to chronicle elections, wars, sensational crimes and punishment, social, economic and intellectual developments and men biting dogs and we will continue to. But we know as you know that that's not always the news.