In this age of “fake news” and a president who is a “Russian clone,” with aluminum foil protecting his “tiny brain,” it’s time for an old news editor to “come clean” about all the “sneer quotes” in his “closet” (“” “” “” “” “”“ “” “ ”). So here are some lies I snuck into print when I was a newspaper editor.
Although this column is about lies, everything in it is true.
Back when I was editing The (Here the Papyrus is Torn), in (the orpiment has faded), the last thing I had to do to put out the Sunday edition was to cram the AP National Weather Report onto Page A2 at 12:01 a.m. But the weather report was always too long to fit, so I had to cut a few dozen cities out of it.
“Don’t cut a lot of cities in a row or people will notice,” my predecessor advised me, his eye on the door out of there, in what we may loosely describe as training. “And never cut Billings, Montana.”
“Why shouldn’t I cut Billings, Montana?” I asked — a tyro, a pup.
“Because we’ve got a subscriber whose daughter lives in Billings, and if you cut it she’ll call the publisher.”
Aha! Newspapers serve(d) their readers!
Even in that B.I. (before internet) era, newspapers were whacking staff with meat cleavers, to protect their 10 percent profit margins.
That was just the beginning.
For The Daily Papyrus Sunday edition, I had to edit and lay out all the stories in the Local section, read the news wires (National, International, State, Financial, Opinion), cram all this into the A section, write the Sunday editorial, edit and lay out the Letters to the Editor and the Op-Ed page, read what our sister papers were reporting and deal with whatever our Saturday reporter turned up.
On a good newspaper, in the old days: I was doing 10 people’s jobs. But not Sports. The Sports section had four guys on Saturday. Football, man! Basketball!
So by midnight, dear reader, when the Sunday edition was all but done, awaiting only the AP Weather Report, can you blame me if I had a bit of fun?
To preserve Billings, Montana (High 39 – Low 14), I killed weather from entire cities, until the report was a few lines short: then I invented cities of my own and created weather.
Turtle Flats, Nev. – High 99, low 87. Take that! you bastards in Turtle Flats.
Crustacean Corners, Ala. – High 92, low 55 – Rain.
Coal Endives, Ky. – High 66, Low 79 – Mixed Precipitation.
No one ever caught me at it. And if they had, so what?
It’s not like I was trying to subvert the Constitution, or impugn the FBI.
I also wrote (briefly) a garden column, under a new phony byline each week: Ditmar von Binderbinder, Zipper T. Horbanz, Arpad Snath. I invented their lives and deaths, appended in italics at the end of each column, until their italic adventures overwhelmed the column, and the publisher caught me, marrying one garden columnist to another.
“What’s this?” he said, throwing down the Saturday edition, folded twice and opened to the garden column, onto my desk.
“I was only trying to help,” I said.
As city editor at another paper, I wrote a fictional history of the ice cream cone and imperiously instructed editors above me not to cut a word of it — and they did not. I followed it up with an equally bogus (can things be equally bogus?) history of wine, with the same haughty instructions, which my editorial overlords obeyed again, for I had already established my credentials, as an expert on ice cream.
Finally, I wrote a law and submitted it to the governor of Texas. My law required every newspaper in Texas to subscribe to my column, and pay me for it.
Here is how this came about.
A Republican lawmaker in Oregon had written a law requiring every Oregonian adult to have a gun. He admitted that he let a gun lobbyist write it for him.
I know that because I called the dude up and talked to him. He didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with that law, or the way it had come about.
So I wrote my own law and faxed it to the governor of Texas. The governor counter-faxed me the same day, and followed it up with a real letter on letterhead, signed by herself, which I treasure to this day.
It said, in toto:
“I never say I will veto a law until I have read it.
“In your case I will make an exception.