Saturday, August 15, 2009

I wasn't at Woodstock

Few things in journalism bear as strong a sense of inevitability as the anniversary story. Point a writer to an event, ten, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, forty, or fifty years in the past, and you can lay out the page before the text is in hand — none of those messy contingencies with stories that don’t pan out.

No doubt such articles appeal to a “Hey, I remember that” nostalgia among readers, especially my fellows in the boomer generation, our waistlines expanding as our hairlines recede, as we struggle to see through our trifocals to the golden haze of youth.

But the real reason for the proliferation of anniversary stories is that they are easy.

Very little real reporting is involved; much of the information can be retrieved readily from the archive — rather like the partially masticated rodent tissue that owls deposit in the beaks of their young. Beyond that it is only necessary to round up a few people with a peripheral connection to the event and record their incisive comments: “Like, it was heavy, man.” And because our visual age demands images with stories, the photo archive is just sitting there to be exploited. Nothing could be easier.

I was at The Cincinnati Enquirer for the fifth-anniversary commemoration of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.* The most notable contribution to the literature of anniversaries that year came from one of the suburban papers, which published a first-person account by a reporter who had been in the club when the fire broke out. This “I was there” article recounted how he got out of the building, was told by a police officer to clear out, and got in his car and drove away, listening to the sirens of the approaching fire trucks as he left.

Yes, a newspaper reporter — a newspaper reporter — left the scene of the biggest story of the decade. Then he wrote about leaving the scene with witness-to-history pride. And his newspaper put this account on the front page. Thus does American journalism honor its own.

So when you round up a couple of people whose feebly firing synapses produce some half-coherent account of what went on in the mud at Max Yasgur’s farm in 1969, make the most of it. But I wasn’t there then; I’m not much interested now.

*The fire on May 28, 1977, in Southgate, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, killed 165 people. (You can read The Enquirer’s twenty-year commemoration here.) It was a touchy subject at The Enquirer, because the Courier-Journal of Louisville won a Pulitzer Prize for covering this story in The Enquirer’s back yard. The Enquirer attempted to compensate by producing an interminable series on aluminum wiring, which was determined to be the cause of the fire. This series was undoubtedly submitted to the Pulitzer judges, who promptly rolled over and went back to sleep, but it did produce a bon mot from a copy desk colleague: “This is the only paper I’ve ever worked for that had a wire editor and an aluminum wire editor.”