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It was from NPR last week that I heard a story that by any traditional measure was an important one: a candidate for president of Brazil had died in the crash of his campaign plane. I opened Chicago’s dailies the next morning expecting to learn more about the crash and its impact on the country. But the Tribune and Sun-Times each disposed of the death of Eduardo Campos in a one-paragraph brief buried deep in the news section. These weren't stories—they were Post-it notes.
They might as well have been preceded by an advisory: Just for the record, as it’s no concern of ours . . . Our papers would have shown Campos and Brazil more respect by not mentioning the plane crash at all.
And over the weekend they reported that the governor of Texas had been indicted.
Not having listened to WBEZ the day before, I came to the story in the Saturday Tribune knowing nothing about it. The Tribune said Governor Rick Perry had been indicted by a grand jury for alleged abuse of his office: after the state’s attorney of Travis County had been arrested for drunken driving, Perry had tried to make her resign by threatening to veto $7.5 million in state funding for her anticorruption unit (which he did when she didn’t).
The Tribune story consisted of bits and pieces of a longer story from the Washington Post. Here’s what those pieces didn’t tell us: whether it was a federal or state grand jury; if the latter, whether it was a grand jury convened in Travis County; if so, whether this was simply the state's attorney playing tit for tat with the governor; and why Perry’s nose was out of joint over that anticorruption unit. For that matter, where in Texas is Travis County?
It turns out Travis County includes Austin, the very Democratic capital of Texas, and its anticorruption unit was set up to stick its nose in state affairs. But we don't learn that from the Tribune, which omitted roughly every detail that would have made the story intelligible. The Sun-Times did a little better with its editing of an Associated Press story, mentioning that a special prosecutor was involved, that the state’s attorney was a Democrat, and that her public integrity unit had led the investigation of Tom DeLay a few years ago when he was the majority leader of the U.S. House.
But it was the New York Times that did a comprehensive job of filling in the blanks (which is what it also did covering the death of Eduardo Campos).
Blanks aren’t much of an issue when Chicago papers cover a Chicago story because readers already know most of the details the papers forget to include. But nailing the details of a distant story requires extra reporting and careful editing; someone has to vet the copy carefully enough to recognize what it ought to be telling us but isn't.
And these days who has time and staff for that? As newspapers' print editions get more and more perfunctory, I suggest they revisit first principles. News is news, but at some point a story becomes so sketchy and slapdash that it might be better not to pretend you're telling it at all.