David Crisp: Mortification, then sweet vindication

Twain

Mark Twain was ready to commit suicide after delivering a supposedly humorous talk that elicited not a single laugh.

Well, I screwed that up.

Such was the eloquent sentence that I imagined last week might begin this column. I had just written a piece on the closing of Lee Enterprises’ Capitol bureau, and in it I had made what I thought was the original observation that none of the Lee papers in Montana had reported the closing.

Crisp

David Crisp

I put the paper to bed on Wednesday morning, then I put myself to bed. Wednesday afternoon, at the Geriatric Writers Kaffeeklatsch, I asked whether my fellow coffee drinkers had heard the news.

Two of them replied promptly that they had, indeed, heard about the closing, and, worse, they had read about it in the Billings Gazette. They were a bit vague about exactly when and in what part of the paper they had seen it, but they were quite certain it had been there.

Apparently, hearts really can sink. Mine did. If the story had appeared in those papers, it would not only catch me in a factual error, it would undercut the entire premise of the column, which was that the internet age was both causing drastic layoffs like these and also making it harder for media behemoths to suppress news about them.

How could I have missed Lee’s version of the story? I had read the Gazette. I had spent an hour or so Googling all the relevant search terms I could think of. I had read blog posts and comments from all over the state. Nothing had turned up. But still.

When someone claims that something did not appear in the paper, and I find a copy of the article, I can bask in the sunshine of righteousness. But when someone claims that something did appear in the paper, and I say it didn’t, I can never be totally sure I’m right.

I finished my coffee and rhubarb cobbler, headed home and went through the week’s newspapers page by page, story by story. Nothing. Somewhat comforted, I went to bed thinking of an old editor’s wise observation: The chief form of exercise among newspaper editors is sitting bolt upright in bed at three o’clock in the morning.

Before falling asleep, I opened Volume I of Mark Twain’s two-volume autobiography. As it happened, I opened to the page where Twain was describing a disastrous speech he gave in 1877 at a banquet in honor of John Greenleaf Whittier’s 70th birthday.

In the speech, he made fun of three 19th-century literary icons: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes, he said, “had double chins all the way down to his stomach.”

As joke after joke fell flat, expressions in the audience, he wrote later, turned to “a sort of black frost.” He delivered the speech with a gradually perishing hope “that somebody would laugh, or that somebody would at least smile, but nobody did.”

“When I sat down,” he wrote, “it was with a heart which had long ceased to beat. I shall never be as dead again as I was then.” So toxic had the atmosphere become that the next speaker, a young novelist named Bishop, couldn’t even get through his remarks.

Twain’s friend William Dean Howells ushered both of them out of the room. He told Twain, “consider what you have done for Bishop. It is bad enough in your case, you deserve to suffer. You have committed this crime, and you deserve to have all you are going to get. But here is an innocent man. Bishop has never done you any harm, and see what you have done to him. He can never hold his head up again.”

Twain wrote, “All Boston shuddered for several days. All gaieties ceased, all festivities; even the funerals were without animation.” He lived in shame for a year or two, he wrote, until the memory gradually faded.

Late in his life, he obtained a copy of the speech and concluded he had nothing to be ashamed about. He would take the speech down to Boston, he said, and read it without warning to the Twentieth Century Club.

“If they do not laugh and admire,” he wrote, “I shall commit suicide there. I would just as soon do it there as any place; and one time is as good as another to me.”

I fell asleep chuckling and feeling better, only mildly fearful of what it would be like to spend the day on Thursday delivering a paper tainted by a suicide-inducing column.

Then I recalled a time, early in my career, when the Texas daily I edited ran a story that I feared might blow up in our faces. As I drove to work the next morning, crippled by anxiety, I was amazed to see life going on normally. People idled in their cars; children played on the sidewalk; the radio cranked out classic hits. Didn’t they know that disaster had struck?

But as it turned out, I wasn’t wrong—not at the Texas daily and not last week. No Lee paper had printed the story.

Not only that, but Ed Kemmick at Last Best News received reports of an email in which editors were directed not to print the story—a finding that enhanced the crime of ignoring the story to a felony.

There were a few letters and guest opinions. The Lee-owned Helena Independent Record even ran an official editorial mourning the loss of Capitol bureau reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison. The editorial read as if no human agency had been involved; the reporters might as well have been raptured into eternity.

I smiled inwardly over Sunday breakfast as I read the piece. Even Willie Mays occasionally dropped a fly ball, I thought. But I had this one secure in my glove.

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.

 

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