There was an excellent front-page story in The Post last week, an update on a strange and puzzling private plane crash last November in Virginia. It contained an innocent-sounding paragraph that stopped me dead in my tracks.
The single-engine plane crash took the lives of an experienced woman flight instructor and her first-time student, a man not unknown in the capital. He owned a gun store, was closely allied with the National Rifle Association and had received immunity to testify before a federal grand jury about an attempted import of 200,000 military rifles from South Korea to the United States, a man-bites-dog twist in arms deals if Iever saw one. Accompanying the article was a recent photograph showing him shaking hands with President Reagan.
What made the crash itself unusual was that it occurred in broad daylight in perfect weather, in a plane with a reputation for being so stable it could almost fly itself. Yet, it appeared to have plunged to Earth, nose first, in a power dive under full control. This immediately suggested either murder-suicide or a major malfunction of the controls -- or sabotage. Friends of both victims provided overwhelming evidence that murder-suicide was highly unlikely, and a foolproof plane like the Cessna 152 to have malfunctioned in this way just didn't make any sense. That left the possibility of sabotage as the most profitable course of inquiry, and it also leads to the point I'd like to make.
That innocent-sounding paragraph needlessly gave details of how the plane could have been sabotaged. At the same time, the story offered additional data turned up by investigators that minimized this possibility.
So what was the need to go into the minutiae of how a two-seater aircraft can be rigged in a way that control of the plane can be taken away from the pilot at will by a saboteur on the ground?
Details, even seemingly irrelevant details, can enhance the drama of a story, and good reporters develop a trained eye for such minute facts. But too often there is insufficient consideration given to including details that may have special appeal to sick minds. Worse, these details, as is the case in this plane crash, in no way helped to clarify the story for the reader. The particular offending paragraph was not exactly a how-to-do-it kit, but it gave more detail than was necessary. Why do reporters do this? This is an occupational disease which is known as showing off -- displaying the results of diligent journalistic digging, details that should have wound up on the cutting room floor or its computer equivalent.
This is not an isolated case. Breaches of good taste and good sense require some form of quality control, which sometimes is sadly lacking.
There was a first-class reporting job not long ago on the invasion of "crack" on the streets of the capital. The reporter couldn't resist sharing some of the knowledge picked up in the concrete jungle of the drug addict, such as the details of how anyone can concoct this deadly drug right in the kitchen.
In another story, the reader was given the brand name of a drugstore shelf item that could be fed to sea gulls with a chemical reaction that would turn the bird into a hand grenade, a little pastime practiced by delinquents at the seashore. Then there were the stories I recall of consummate bad taste, such as the report done with a gay light touch about the facial razor slashing of a New York model by hired hoodlums. Another story I recall is one in which a highly respected Washington executive was mindlessly and gratuitously humiliated.
If I may indulge a personal prejudice, I'll place the blame foursquare for all these lapses on the impersonal computer with its green terminal screen, which seems to have replaced the green eye shade worn by people who once edited the stories with a heavy blue pencil before they reached the reader.