Friday, September 7, 2012

Journalism 101: Sometimes what doesn't happen is news...

By Jim Heffernan

With both major political parties’ national conventions out of the way, and Labor Day consigned to history, the 2012 presidential campaign pitting President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is in the “home stretch,” ending on election day, Nov. 6.

So for a couple of months we will see almost nothing but politics on newscasts, in the papers and online. I enjoy it, although it’s a little nerve-wracking because -- at least at this writing -- the polls all say it’s close. I’m a strong supporter of one of them; you can guess which.

Barry Goldwater
In my lengthy newspaper career, I only got close to a national campaign once, and it was a long, long time ago. I was still a fledgling reporter in 1964 when Barry Goldwater, the Republican, faced off against incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. 

The only national attention Duluth got in that presidential campaign came from the Republican side. Goldwater’s running mate, William E. Miller, a congressman from New York, made a fleeting trip to Duluth, spoke briefly to the media and hardly anyone else at UMD (on the lawn outside Kirby Student Center) and high-tailed it out of here, all on a sunny October day.

In those days, as with today, the designated candidate for vice president had a large retinue following him around the country, including representatives of major media organizations, although none of the big names. I was assigned to be part of the Duluth press corps covering this major political event.

So, I got to ride on the press bus with all of the national correspondents, who, it seemed to me, were a particularly unfriendly bunch. They could spot a hick reporter (like me) from the sticks (Duluth) from a block away and simply ignored us. Didn’t even look at us.

The national press people seemed perpetually bored with their assignment, and didn’t smile at all. I suppose they wanted to be assigned to cover one of the presidential candidates, and felt that it was beneath their talents and dignity to be chasing a vice presidential hopeful around. Maybe they were hung over. Maybe all of the foregoing.

That was the year, of course, when Minnesota’s own Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey was Lyndon Johnson’s running mate, but I don’t recall him coming to Duluth during the campaign. He might have. I did cover him several other times during his lengthy career.

William E. Miller
But back to William E. Miller, a man of average build, pleasant features and ultra-conservative political credentials, just like Barry “Extremism in Defense of Liberty is No Vice” Goldwater. (I need hardly point out that they lost the election.) 

It so happened that the very week of Miller’s Duluth visit, a huge scandal had erupted in Washington. A top aide to President Johnson, Walter Jenkins, was arrested at a YMCA in Washington, D.C., after being discovered engaged in a homosexual act. Believe me, in 1964 such charges were less common than they are today, and considered more grievous.

When Miller spoke in Duluth, he didn’t mention the Jenkins scandal. I don’t recall what he said. I took my notes and rushed back to the newspaper and wrote my story, turning it over to a city editor.

The city editor scanned it quickly and asked me if Miller had mentioned the Walter Jenkins scandal. I said he hadn’t, and, therefore, there was no mention of it in my story.

He responded by cranking a fresh sheet of copy paper into his own typewriter – always a dreaded sight to a reporter – and wrote a new top to my story. It went something like this:

“Republican vice presidential candidate William E. Miller avoided the Walter Jenkins sex scandal today in a whirlwind campaign visit to Duluth.” And after a couple more sentences, it picked up on my story with a “meanwhile” -- one of the handiest words in all journalism.

I learned a lot from that city editor, but that lesson stands out: Tell what didn’t happen. Sometimes that’s news too.

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