On the morning of July 5, The Washington Post told its readers about the Fourth of July fireworks display that had been held the night before.
Our story said the tourists and townspeople who turned out to see the show had shared vantage points "in generally peaceful coexistence" with hundreds of Yippies who were demonstrating against marijuana laws.
The essence of a news story is usually in its first paragraph (which is known as "the lead"), so headlines are often based on the wording of the lead. In this instance, the headline said, "Demonstrators For Marijuana Mostly Orderly."
The story below that headline and lead reported that there had been a confrontation between 3,000 Yippies and more than 75 policemen protecting the White House. At one point, "A hail of bricks, bottles and firecrackers flew out of the crowd toward the line of police," but "the rain of missiles soon subsided with few if any hits."
Two person were charged with assaults upon police officers and 14 others were charged with disorderly conduct. But most of the four-hour demonstration in Lafayette Park was marked "by sometimes uncommon but generally orderly conduct," we said.
A reader who was near the White House when violence erupted has protested to me that the Yippies were not "mostly orderly" as our headline said, and there was precious little "peaceful coexistence," as the lead said.
He wrote, "These animals had no camping permits but nevertheless erected tents, in some cases using the wooden slats from trash cans, and trees they cut down for use as tent stakes and poles. They heaped verbal abuse on police officers and threw missiles at them. If everything was so peaceful, why was it necessary for the Park Police to call for assistance from the Metropolitan Police Department? Guns and knives were confiscated from these 'peaceful' people. Small children were endangered by the firecrackers they threw. Later I saw some people who had chartered a bus and had made arrangements to park at the Lincoln Memorial to watch the fireworks. They finally asked their bus driver to try to find some other place to park. They were afraid to stay there. Is that The Washington Post's idea of 'mostly orderly'?"
On-the-scene legwork for our story was done by Keith B. Richburg and Martin Weil. Weil wrote the story, but not the headline. Copy editors write headlines.
Richburg is young but extremely bright and a good observer. Weil is a careful pro who resists the temptation to "overwrite" or stretch facts.
Remember the fable about the three blind men who couldn't describe an elephant because each had examined a different part of the beast? A newspaper's reporters cannot describe everything that happens in a large crowd because each is limited to what is visible from his vantage point, and collectively their knowledge is limited to an official summary of police arrests and hospital casualty lists.
So the best a newspaper can do is send out veterans who have covered everything from small disturbances to large-scale riots and then let them grope for words that give an accurate description of what they saw and were told. This we did.
If Weil erred in his first paragraph summary, it was on the side of conservative statement rather than exaggeration. In the body of his story he included enough information about arrests and violence to let the reader know that there were some lapses in the "generally peaceful coexistence."
It is Richburg's opinion that the key factor in keeping the peace was the quick show of force by police. "As soon as the first bottle flew," he says, "the Metropolitan Police moved in to reinforce the Park Police, and they were really impressive. The Yippies were led by a few over-30 types, but mostly they were high school kids. The appearance of all those policemen in riot gear took the wind out of their sails, and they backed off."
No doubt if our headline had said, "Police Show of Force Cools Off Yippie Violence," readers would have gotten a different impression from the story. The trouble is that the story stressed facts, not opinions, and the suggested headline will not fit into a 1-column space. The headline writer had room for only three lines of type, 13 letters in each. When that short a headline is written on deadline, getting every nuance exactly right isn't a skill, it's an art.
It is much easier to criticize headlines than to write them. I've done both, and I know.