This is a serious story about a comic strip.
It's all about the day Brenda Starr ventured into a thicket known as the First Amendment -- and got lost.
It happened yesterday, right on these pages.
I should warn you that I've never been a Starr follower. I knew Brenda had the misfortune to work in the newspaper business. But if anyone had ever asked me the name of the rag that employed her, I wouldn't have guessed The Flash in three hours of trying.
Still, I didn't have to be an expert or a veteran to figure out yesterday's three panels.
Some fellow inmates of The Flash were discussing Starr's personal problems. They were wondering whether dreaming up a hot story for Brenda to cover would shake her out of the blues.
But in the third panel, a female Flasher becomes outraged at that suggestion. Her face contorted with intensity, she says:
"Creating a false news story would be so unethical that The Flash would lose its license to print a newspaper!"
That panel appeared in The Washington Post. But it didn't appear in more than half the papers in the country that subscribe to Brenda.
What did appear was a new third panel, ordered up from Starr's distributor, the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate.
The new panel showed the same woman, with the same contorted face. But the substitute bubble said:
"Creating a false news story would be unethical . . . No newspaper would even consider doing it."
Why didn't The Post print Version Two?
Because it didn't arrive from New York in time, according to Mary Lou Beatty, the assistant managing editor whose responsibilities include the comics.
And why was Version Two deemed necessary by the syndicate?
"Because we felt that, in the comic strip business, we shouldn't be rapping the newspaper business," explained Bob Reed, the syndicate's president.
The better reason, whether Reed knows it or not, is that the syndicate would have been deluged with complaints from editors if it hadn't moved to correct Version One.
American newspapers, of course, are not licensed. They pride themselves on not having to be.
They thank their lucky stars every day that they print in a country where there is no official secrets act, no party line that colors coverage and (at least theoretically) no prior restraints on what can and can't be published in light of national security.
But does the American public realize how license-free its press is? In my experience, not always.
In lecturing to a high school class about the First Amendment last year, I had waded through the usual parade of What's-Jimmy-Carter-Really Like questions when a young man raised his hand.
"Which agency do you work for?" he wanted to know. "HEW?"
After setting him straight, I couldn't resist asking where in the world he had gotten his HEW notion.
"My father told me the government regulates everything even newspapers," the boy said.
If Brenda Starr isn't careful about creating false impressions, the boy's father will be right before we know what hit us.
Now that we have plenty of time to prepare for next summer, Elizabeth Ewing and Bill Burton would each like to air a gripe far in advance.
"Why is it," Ewing asks, "that the D.C. weather forecast calls 90 degrees 'warm' when the forecasts for other cities call it 'hot?'"
And why is it, Burton asks, that sports pages continually misreport how many games above .500 the Orioles are?
As I write this, the Orioles have won 90 and lost 46, which the sports pages call 44 games above the break-even mark.
But Burton correctly points out that the team's record is really only 22 games above.
"I love the Orioles as much as the next person," Burton writes, "but this is ridiculously wrong."
All I can say is that any day in the 90s is hot -- and I'll settle for any number of games over .500 as long as the Orioles win. Without question, they're the most interesting team in sports right now.
My recent lament about the state of American tee-shirts brought forth a report brom Barbara Hughes, of Alexandria, of a worthy his-and-hers set.
Hughes' husband wears a shirt that reads:
"I May Not Be Perfect/But Parts of Me Are Excellent/I HAVE A KIDNEY TRANSPLANT."
Out of gratitude, Hughes wears a shirt that reads?
"Recycle Yourself/Carry a Kidney Donor Card."
Bill Gold is on vacation. His column will resume on his return.