Absence of Motion, a story that’s not about Paul Newman

September 6, 2012 at 9:04 am Leave a comment

One of the best movies ever made about American newspaper journalism was a potboiler called “Absence of Malice.” And it had one major thing in common with “All the President’s Men.” It had somebody running up to a car. In the one movie, Paul Newman’s character ran up beside a car to find out who was following him. In the other, Dustin Hoffman ran to the corner where Robert Redford had stopped to pick him up. Neither scene had much to do with the plot of the movie, but both showed up in the movie trailers. In each case, the scene was used because somebody moved.

And there should be a law, and it should have a name, and it should be named after somebody who edits movie trailers for a living. It would say that in order to suggest or promise that somebody will actually move in a film about a profession where people talk on the phone and type, you’re going to have to pull something out of context.

Which is an expression newspaper reporters hate. Sometimes when a source says something was taken out of context, it means he wishes he hadn’t said it. But more often than most writers are willing to admit, it means the reporter didn’t get the full quote, or didn’t get the meaning, or just didn’t get it. And they’re going to fall back on the tape. “We’re gonna have to raise taxes.” Major lede. Pull quote. Political implications. Right there on the tape.

The source is pissed. But the editor sees the notes, knows the source wishes he hadn’t said it, plans to listen to the tape later if he has to, but it looks like the reporter has it right. Back the reporter and keep an eye on him or her. And destroy or file the tape, whatever the policy is, because unless there’s a suit, and there won’t be over a quote like this, nobody will ever have to listen to it again. The editor knows a dispute like this could always go either way, unless he or she just started yesterday, or works for the DNR.

Because reporters don’t just make things up. “If we go ahead with this project, we’re gonna have to raise taxes, and you know we can’t do that.” Reporter’s got his quote, and he didn’t want to be here anyway, because this meeting isn’t on his beat. He knows the gist of the story, of the project being discussed by the board or council or commission, because he’s read the clips, and they’re never wrong. Nut grafs don’t live and breathe and take root unless there’s something to them. And now you’ve got this guy wanting to raise taxes, and the TV’s there, damnit, so somebody will have to tell folks what really happened, so it’s time to start thinking about deadline because this one can’t sit and cook for a day. And just when you’re stuck in a meeting you don’t really want to cover you’ve got to deal with the problem of being distracted by a TV person. They are usually small, or at least thin, and they carry a huge amount of equipment, and even if they’re not attractive, although most are, you’re going to spend some time looking at them wondering how someone that small carries that much equipment. You are now anyway.

But the guy running up to the car is not the best thing about “Absence of Malice.” The best thing is when the Melinda Dillon character sits on her porch waiting for the newspaper to arrive, and she looks at it, and then she begins running from house to house in her neighborhood picking up all the newspapers so people can’t read what it says about her. Any reporter who can see that scene and can really get it is going to be a better reporter. Because what they have to get is that those few words they write about somebody might be the only words the vast majority of the people in her town ever read about her. And if the story’s not really about her, but she’s just a point that explains something else in the story, then there’s going to be even less there to add some body and nuance and character and context to the only thing most people will ever know about her. The only thing. That’s it. End of story. 30.

That’s something I’d often sum up by telling a reporter, “You’re going to write eight stories this week, but that person will only be in the newspaper once (in their life) (this year) (this month).” Too often the reporter heard how many stories he or she was going to write and stopped listening. There are 40 or so cars dropping kids off at the elementary school in the morning, and the people in each one know each other to talk to, and all the others know about one of them is caught up in those 300 words in the newspaper last week. The sanctuary of the church holds 800 people, and all that most of them know about the guy sitting over there with his family is what was in the newspaper. Dozens of people cross the parking lot every morning, and one day one of them notices another and knows it’s that woman who was in the newspaper.

And the source knows that. And maybe they’re proud of what was in there, or maybe they’re not. Maybe what was written could have stood another sentence of explanation, or maybe the source is relieved that the reporter didn’t ask just one more question. Maybe the source was the main course in the story, or a side dish, or maybe just a condiment whose moment of local fame comes from the editor asking for some more color in the story.

Morning finds the reporter, like Frost’s breeze in “Wind and Winter Flower,” already one hundred miles away. The source may feel as cool as Paul Newman. He or she may feel just brushed by the breeze. Or they might be running from lawn to lawn picking up the newspaper and wondering who you see about taking something back.

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Entry filed under: Commentary, Memoir, Newspapers.

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