A news story can crackle like an oak log in a fireplace, producing light and heat and the texture of a fine October evening. The reader distinguishes that kind of story by reading it through and feelng satisfied that his information and insight have been improved.
A news article can also be a wild thing, jumping and fighting in the hand and mind of a reporter until it is barely possible to keep the beast under control. Unless it is carefully edited, that kind of story can convey more questions than answers to a reader.
Occasionally, in that latter variety, the impression given the reader is wide of the mark, far different from what the reporter and the editors intended.
The Post had such a story last week.
The article was about the struggle between domestic and foreign auto makers. Manufacturers, distributors and salesmen of foreign cars don't want import quotas placed on their products. The story described briefs that had been filed by Datsun and Toyota before the Intermational Trade Commission, which is now considering the problem. The briefs set an early tone for the resistance to quotas.
In making their case, foreign manufacturers decided to describe the advantages held by American manfacturers. American cars, they said, are technologically advanced, are fuel-efficient, are roomier and combine desirable features with American styling Domestic cars, the briefs pointed out, are cheaper and require low maintenance.
The Post's reporter decided to lead the story with these Japanese compliments for American cars. It was a perfectly sound journalistic judgement. The question raised in the mind of the reader is, "Why?" What are the Japanese up to? Are they subsidizing American manufacturers' ad campaigns? The interested reader keeps reading.
Down in the story, and again later, the article answered the questions. The information was all there. The Japanese were making a case that their products are not a threat to domestic manufacturers. With all their advantages, the Japanese were maintaining, domestic auto makers have nothing to fear. The U.S. economy would recover. The stumbling American auto industry would complete its retooling, and foreign cars would no longer keep Americans out of work.
The story's problem developed because the reporter tucked away the main point of the Japanese argument. Editors failed to clarify the point and either rewrite the story or ask the reporter to do so.
Now the headlines writer was called on to complete the editorial process. With a three-column headline and size type chosen, that meant condensing the story's 600 words into 10 words.
The headline read: "New Japanese Auto Trade Twist: Toyota, Datsun Say Buy American." Neat. Clear.And it fit the space.
But the Japanese never said, "Buy American." It was not the pitch they made. They didn't even suggest that Americans should buy their competitors' products.
Instead they were saying that, in time, U.S. auto buyers will purchase American cars, so quotas are not necessary and, if imposed, will throw even more Americans out of work.
The Japanese may have been dancing a clever minuet, but The Post Distorted it into a foot-stomping American hoedown.