The deaths of six Massachusetts firefighters last month never made the front page of The Post. Nor did a determination by a Memphis jury that Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination resulted from a conspiracy involving a Memphis businessman. Enough readers asked why that I am continuing a discussion about Page 1 decisions that I began last Sunday.
The tragedy in Worcester, Mass., was a round-the-clock story on cable news stations and figured prominently in the television networks' morning news programs. But the closest it ever got to the front of The Post was Page A3 on Dec. 10 -- the story about the memorial service for the firefighters that drew 30,000 people, including President Clinton. That day's front page included two stories from the presidential campaign, a story from Cuba about the family of the 6-year-old boy who was the subject of a tug of war between his father in Cuba and other relatives in Miami; a story about a Russian diplomat believed to have engaged in espionage in Washington; a story about Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's role in the quest for peace with Syria; and a plan proposed by the secretary of the Army to expand educational opportunities for enlisted men and women.
Of the breaking news The Post carried that day, the firefighters' memorial service was not considered a strong Page 1 candidate -- in part because of the saturation coverage the story had received in other media. Clearly geography was a factor: Had the loss of lives taken place in the Washington area, it would have been a bigger story for The Post no matter how much air time television had devoted to it. But to editors assembling in the news conferences on Dec. 9, the continuing story was "old" news. An option might have been to use a photograph on the front page while running the story inside, but the art wasn't considered particularly strong. That left Page A3, the main national news page, where the story could be displayed better: In addition to text, there were photos of the six firefighters and of the burning warehouse where they lost their lives. There was also a chart showing the toll of firefighter deaths and injuries since 1988.
"A story featured on A3 is the next best story that National has that didn't make it on Page 1," Leonard Downie Jr., the executive editor, explained.
What about the King story? The first Post story about the trial that began in the King family's wrongful-death lawsuit in mid-November was on A2 on Dec. 8; the jury's decision and its award of $100 in token damages was on A8 the next day. The story was not considered for Page 1, said Milton Coleman, the deputy managing editor, who was in charge of the Dec. 9 front page, because "it was hard to gauge the impact" of the verdict since the trial "didn't unearth any new information about the death of Dr. King."
Truth be told, hardly anyone took this civil lawsuit all that seriously. There was a "been there, learned that" ennui among journalists who have followed the King family's quest for answers to their questions about who was responsible for killing the civil rights leader in 1968. A Dec. 12 editorial was dismissive of the verdict in "a sham trial"; a Dec. 13 op-ed commentary said: "At times, the proceedings bordered on the absurd." All this, plus the fact that King is considered one of the 20th century's most significant figures, begged for a news analysis or some other explication. A story placing the verdict in the context of history, politics and legal maneuverings might have gone a long way toward dispelling confusion and setting the record straight. There's still time to do such a story.
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