Good, I mean terrible, morning.
Now here's the news:
In the United States unemployment soars to the highest point since the middle of the last decade, and the economy will get worse before it gets better. In Europe demonstrations continue against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the debate goes on about who will win a nuclear war, the Russians or us, with them, the Europeans, in the middle.
Not to worry, it will be a limited nuclear war.
Now, for the human side of the news.
There's a "body dump" in the Salvadoran lava fields, a report about which nationality group gets fewer cases of cancer and, here in the nation's capital, an item of interest to subway riders. Those fares are going up again, for the third time in 17 months, and they'll probably keep on rising. As they keep increasing, the number of riders keeps dropping, so, naturally, they have to keep on boosting them.
Now, a commercial break before more of the same.
Each afternoon, around 3 o'clock, a news aide brings the paper's "budget" of stories being prepared for the morning editions. And each afternoon, out of habit and professional curiosity, I scan them to see what humanity and fate have been doing to us that day.
Nothing good, you can be sure.
The budgets are, by their nature, the briefest of summaries of a reported event, whether foreign, national or domestic, and they come with a convenient shorthand label. In the trade we call it the "slug," or word that identifies each news item.
Some are dull and prosaic. WORKING tells us we have a story about retired people who would like to return to work. Some are brutally to the point. BURN concerns a report that a man "either burned himself or was torched in Metro station at 17th and I NW." Some are standbys used day after day even if nothing of great import has occurred: CONGRESS, PRESIDENT, COURT.
Over the years I've become fascinated by these slugs, much as Hemingway was supposed to have been by his early exposure to cablese. That's the art of abbreviated writing practiced by foreign correspondents in which articles, verbs and prepositions are ommitted from sentences and words are run together to cut the high costs of cable dispatches from abroad. Hemingway, as a young correspondent, thought cablese something of a new spare language form that taught the practitioner the virtues of writing simply, directly and tightly.
The study of the day's news slugs doesn't accomplish such grand goals, but it does tell us what we think newsworthy and how we propose to report it. In a larger sense it reflects our values, what sorts of things we deem important.
These days, what we regard as newsworthy always seems to be equated with heaviness, with solemnity, with deadly seriousness. There's hardly ever a light touch to be found.
In years's past, newspaper readers could turn to celebrated humorists Frank Sullivan, a Don Marquis or FPA for daily pleasure and daily laughs. They came out of a long tradition of having Mark Twains, Robert Benchleys or Dorothy Parkers around to liven the grimness of life. In today's press we have few such spirits to brighten our daily chilling mass.
Lack of humor has become, sadly, a sign of our times, and not only in the newspapers. The true print humorists who remain, the Buchwalds and the Bakers, are so rare as to be endangered species. As for the rest of the mass media, forget it.
Television news becomes characterized less by a light or wry touch than by performers distinguished by their bland manner and blow-dried look. Local newscasts especially put a premium on sound, frenzy and portentousness. They seek to create the impression of high drama in rendering the day's news, and succeed only in making the daily horrors more so.
A notable exception, the new CBS morning news team of Charles Kuralt and Diane Sawyer, catalogues the world's events in intelligent, unassuming fashion. They're the most appealing addition to network TV news in years, conveying more warmth, humanity and, at times, a welcome lighthearted approach than anything else on the air today. But so far they don't seem to be faring too well in competition with their morning counterparts on ABC's Good Morning America and NBC's Today show. Those programs seem to be more products of the entertainment divisions, who aim for the lowest common denominator, than of the news.
As for TV entertainment, the network programming grows more sterile, leaden and tasteless from season to season. What pretends to be liveliness on the tube comes from the canned laughter.
Producers know their insipid fare won't spark a genuine audience response, so they provide a fake one. Presumably they hope some people will be fooled into thinking that others believe what they're viewing is funny, and keep watching in the hopes that some real humor finally will arrive.
I keep hoping too, as I scan our news slugs day after day, looking for the one that will brighten our heavy daily news offering. So far, no luck.
I even look at the slugs of the obituaries in hopes of finding one that brings something more than another mordant item to public attention. For a moment the other day I thought I finally had found one, but it fell flat too.
"CHASE, Mary Coyle. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who wrote 'Harvey' and other hits. At 74, of unreported causes."
Unreported causes, my eye. Why, anybody who knows anything knows exactly what happened and who's to blame. As Mary Coyle could have told us, it was a clear case of pookas at work.
Pookas, in case you've forgotten, are those mischievous sprites who appear from time to time in various forms to bemuse or bedevil us. Mary Coyle's Harvey emerged as a tall white rabbit, although some have seen pookas as horses prancing along foggy marshes or as elfin-like figures dancing back in isolated mountain hollows and valleys.
They are, generally, harmless. Usually they give pleasure. In Harvey's case, they provide down-to-earth philosophy mixed with flashes of gentle humor.
Unfortunately, most of the time they aren't around at all, and they never seem to frequent newspaper offices.