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Excerpt: American newspapers don't have to be boring

By Tom Plate
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Editor's Note: Tom Plate, former editorial pages editor at newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, teaches media and policy at UCLA, and writes a syndicated column on Asia. This is the second excerpt of three from his book, "Confessions of an American Media Man." Read Part 1 here; Part 3 will follow on Friday.

Those who are fortunate enough to embed themselves for a time in the lively revelry of the British newspaper tradition -- as I did once at The Daily Mail of London under David English, the legendary Fleet Street editor -- are never again able to blindly accept the solemn tenor of its American counterpart. There is method to the madness of the British method --- though no one should underestimate the measure of madness. Even so, their way is often so much fun.

To quote the great British playwright and wit Oscar Wilde: "Life is too important to be taken seriously."

The crusty old curmudgeons of the US press had realized one day, however, that other folks liked to be entertained, so they begrudgingly began to allow gossip in the paper, just as long as it was clearly labeled for what it was.

As a deputy editor of late and sometimes lamented Los Angeles Herald Examiner paper, back then under the editorship of Jim Bellows, I occasionally was asked to look at gossip items before they went to press. This was a wise thing to do, particularly in the case of the newspaper's gossip columnist, because not only was he a wildly imaginative (!) fellow, but he had been trained in the British tradition, where almost anything goes (i.e., if a story item cannot be conclusively proven to be false, it may just be true -- and thus is inherently and imminently publishable).

And so one morning at the struggling Hearst paper, trailing as it was in the deep shadow of the mighty Los Angeles Times, I arrived bright and early at the office to the sound of the great Bellows bellowing out to me, "Tom! Good Lord! Look at PAGE TWO!" This was how we had labeled our gossip page.

I immediately figured that the commotion had something to do with some amazing item! I grabbed the paper on my desk. There, shouting out from page two, was one of the weirdest headlines one would ever get to see: "Hit a Pet!" Next to that was a picture of the cutest little dog ever, and then the caption: "Are you having trouble sleeping at night because the dog in the alley thinks he's Pavarotti? Has the cat next door made your favorite petunia bed his personal potty? Hit-a-Pet can help! No more frustrating exchanges with pet owners who just don't care. Hit-a-Pet takes care of all of your furry problems. Call us and you'll soon be sleeping free and easy through the night. Squeamish about using our service? We take care of pet problems quietly and under the cover of darkness. And we take Visa, Mastercard and American Express. Just telephone us at 213 237 7000."

Jim shouted at me through the wall, "Tom, call that number, I don't have the nerve."

I dutifully dialed it. A ring or two or three, and then the human voice representing the institution said: "Los Angeles Times, how may I help you?"

By then, the Los Angeles Times (our competition) had been absolutely flooded with outraged phone calls from pet lovers and animal rights organizations alike. It was two hours until we could remake the edition. Being the serious, ethical American paper that we were, we of course published a formal apology and publicly retracted the item, as well as reprimanded the gossip writer.

Well, I did not reprimand him (I thought the gig was absolutely hilarious but, then again, I had worked a little stint on Fleet Street!) but I think Jim Bellows might have warned him not to do anything like that again but had to try hard not to die laughing.

The truth is, the "Hit a Pet" stunt was damn funny. It was the kind of gleeful absurdity that you rarely got in American newspapers. In America, you are virtually guaranteed a spanking from the boss for even attempting to pull off something like that. What dull lives of quiet desperation most US journalists live!

Excerpted from Tom Plate's "CONFESSIONS OF AN AMERICAN MEDIA MAN: What they Don't Tell You at Journalism School," which has just been published by Marshall Cavendish Editionsexternal link.



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