The Proverbial Man-Bites-Dog Story
A news story you can really sink your teeth into
THE Old Editor, when I was young and learning, frequently instructed me that when the man finally did bite the dog I was to get his name and spell it right. It was Frank O'Brien, city editor of the New York Sun, who first promulgated the verity that dogs bite men often and we needn't get excited about it, but that when a man bites a dog - that is news.
So off and on in my now considerable career as a hack, I've pondered on how I would write the story of a man who bites a dog. It is well to be ready, and a good reporter will have thoughts in advance.
Alexander Woolcott once prepared his remark should he ever be served applesauce with a hair in it. He would order applesauce in restaurants hoping to find a hair when he would rather have prunes. Then, after a long time, he found a hair in his applesauce. He said to the waiter, ``Please take this away and bring me some made from Baldwins.''
In the same way, I waited 18 years to see a horse in Troy. Every July when Bill and I go for our meditative week in the Maine wilderness, we drive through the small town of Troy, which is next to Detroit and Plymouth.
It was my frivolity to have a quip ready, as with the applesauce, but as we went back and forth through Troy I saw no horses. Plenty of cows, but no horses. Then, after 18 years, a horse.
``Aha!'' I said to William, ``a Trojan Horse!''
Bill said, ``How long have you been waiting to pull that one?''
It happened that I never got to write any story about a man who bit a dog. My jolly witticisms, ready on demand, never got used and have long languished in desuetude. Not only that, but I haven't seen any stories about man-bites that got written by other reporters.
Until now. And I am not happy with the outcome.
The man-bites-dog story finally needed attention, and it turned out to be a great deal less newsworthy than Editor O'Brien had foreseen. Our local newspaper didn't even put it on the front page, but buried it on Page Three under a colorless report that the Town of Thomaston has a new flag.
It's hard to believe. After all these years! What breed of journalist do we have today that isn't hep on dogs that get bit by men? What in heaven's name do our schools of communications teach nowadays? What does an editor say to his fledglings to fetch them along in the secrets of the trade? Gracious!
The headline (and only 24-point type!) missed the whole thrust:
Police Identify Woman;
Charge Man With Dog Bite
That was it. Who was this woman who took precedence? She threw a cup of coffee in a man's face on Elm Street in Camden, and gave the police four false names when they asked who she was. When she gave her right name, she was released.
There she goes, the heroine of the year, the lady with five names who is more important than the man bite. Can you believe that the incompetent reporter and the sleeping editor gave us only one name? And didn't tell us the name of the man who got the cup of coffee?
After telling about the lady, the story says, ``Also on Wednesday ....'' Also on Wednesday? Also on Wednesday, I quote: ``According to the court complaint, (George D.) Seldon entered the home of Michael and Patricia Skaling on Norumbega Drive in Camden on July 30. Police found the man inside the home and biting the Skaling's dog.''
That's it! July 30, was, indeed, a Wednesday, and we must commend the reporter for his accuracy. But what kind of a dog, and what was his name?
The failure of an established newspaper to handle the man-bites-dog story when it finally came about should not only fill us with aghast at the intellectual erosion of journalism and the decline of the media, but should leave us wondering what should have been done.
It's been many a year since I handled a big story like this, and I realize times have changed, but I think I would have kept my composure and been a credit to the craft.
First, I would have called the editor so he could send a photographer. Then, I'd have cut the telephone wire so the competition, if any, couldn't do the same. An ``exclusive'' on the man-bites-dog story should fetch a bonus.
Then, if I could wangle it, I'd have got the pooch to a vet where I could have him in a cage and be ready to negotiate from strength with the TV crews when they came. And so on. They'd know about it after my story appeared on Page One with a banner.
But it's all over now. The ancient adage isn't true at all. Editor O'Brien, who basked in the same sun as C.A. Dana, E.P. Mitchell, and even Mr. Munsey, can be horrified all he wants to - but his man-bitten dog made only Page Three, and remains unnamed.