Paul (Race Horse) Mitchell, 57, of one address right after another, died on the street here yesterday -- expectedly and after a long illness, but mostly from two bullet wounds.
This gem of a news lead was the work of former Post reporter Harry Gabbett, one of a vintage breed who wrote news with the sureness of a railroad timepiece. For impact, imagination, immaculate wording and, above all, information, Post editors rate it ne plus ultra.
That it wasn't honorably mentioned in two Washington Journalism Review articles recently about some sinners and winners in news writing by Gerald Lanson and Mitchell Stephens, directors of the journalism department at New York University, and by Roy Peter Clark, director of the Modern Media Institute, says more for it, perhaps, than for them.
I put it in that top writing drawer with one by the late Ed Lahey of the Chicago Daily News, recalled by Mr. Clark. When "murderer/intellectual" Richard Loeb was stabbed to death after making a pass at a fellow prisoner many years ago, Mr. Lahey wrote: Despite his fine education, Richard Loeb ended his sentence today with a proposition.
The tersest lead in American journalism, I am told but have not confirmed, followed the great earthquake of April 1906: San Francisco was.
You learn to appreciate lucidity coming from a profession in which information is still disseminated along lines like:
Ammunition is not a lethal item because it's not an end-use item; it is a spare part for an end-use item, but because our policy prohibits delivery of lethal end-use items -- but not non-lethal end-use items -- ammunition is clearly not a lethal item.
It's easy to pay respect to anything that surmounts rapidly accelerating confusion. Worried about just that, the WJR authors feel that too much "Jell- O" or, alternately, excess "Macho" news writing is an offense to readers. Among their examples, which don't cite The Post:
The snow lies deep and fresh in the gentle valleys and hollows between the shadowed ridge line here, so that when game animals move in the woods they leave clear tracks for the hunter's eye. The town is a small splotch of population . . . .
Only after the author "interrupts" his prose, several paragraphs later, is one aware this is a story about a 15- year-old hunter who accidentally kills his best friend.
A snappier one: Emma and Alfred Mitchell are surrounded by broken beer bottles, crumbling cigarette packages and other rubbish. But even when trespassers start grass fires, the couple never complains. Maybe you guessed this is a story about a cemetery, but not everyone would.
This sensitive lead about concentration camps in Poland works: The most terrible thing of all somehow was that at Brzezinka the sun was bright and warm, the rows of graceful poppies were lovely to look at and on the grass . . . children played . . . . It would be fitting if at Brzezinka the sun never shone and grass withered because this is a place of unutterable terror.
If you were searching for a virile lead for a story about the dearth of blacks in the Mafia, you might write The Mafia is not an equal opportunity employer. It has been done.
This small sinner, outside WJR scrutiny, illustrates the occasional need for slowing things down: The Army was Ronald Alley's life, and even after they court-martialed him at Fort Meade for collaborating with the Chinese, who held him prisoner during the Korean War and sentenced him to 10 years of hard labor and disgraced him with a dishonorable discharge, he still believed in the Army and thought someday it would do him justice. A period midway would have avoided the impression that it was the Chinese who sentenced Mr. Alley.
At their best, news leads are exact and unpretentious. Those that are more wind-up than pitch fail. Former Post Executive Editor Russ Wiggins' admonition: "The reader is entitled to a clear view of the naked facts." One WJR author's advice: Keep them short. Don't forget the news. If the lead is delayed, give the reader a reason to continue. Keep the lead honest, but if you find a good one that violates these rules, use it.