An Unending Stream: History One Day at a Time.

An Unending Stream: History One Day at a Time.

Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar

Vol. 11, No. 6, 1989, pp. 20-23

The News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, (Friday, November 17, 1989, five sections, $0.25).

We are swamped by information. The least of us knows, sort of, things that the wisest of old could hardly imagine; nor the most pessimistic know to dread. Historians are the reporters of what of the past is important to keep in memory; news reporters are historians of the instant, digesting for our minds each day’s memorable happenings.

I am a word man myself, and so I get nearly all my “news” from reading, not from television. I suppose, though, it is all the same: the stream is unending and unrelenting. Usually we take it passively, absorb what we can or want to and go on about our business. Every now and then, however, the weight of it jolts one into awareness. It is like catching a cold in the winter; there are germs swirling about all the time, but only sometimes are we vulnerable. The news of November 17 may not have been more overwhelming than on many other days, but it was one of mine for being vulnerable.

My morning paper is the Raleigh News and Observer. It is a good newspaper. Compared with what was for years my daily, the New Fork Times, it covers local and state news more adequately and its editorials are typically more intelligent and stimulating (even when wrong or annoying). National and international news it mostly cribs from the big national dailies, and does that very well. It carries probably too many columnists, and as the contemporary preoccupation with “balance” demands, selects them from a range of opinions; also in contemporary style, it pretty well ignores the left. Conservatives such as Safire, Kilpatrick, and Georgie Anne Geyer are not truly “balanced” by a centrist such as wicker–more closely by the occasional Mary McGrory but she is outnumbered several to one. Admittedly, America political opinion has not much “left,” but it should not really be hard to find pro-labor or pacifist or Marxist commentators. Nevertheless, the News and Observer is a paper of quality, has a manifest integrity about itself, and no one outside its home-town owns it; not yet at any rate.

Back to November 17. Look at the day’s front page, the mounting of the flood that was to break over me. The “top” story was that five Jesuit priests plus a lay one (later we would also learn that he was Jesuit), their cook and her daughter, were murdered in San Salvador, almost certainly by thugs in the employ of our side in a civil war which seems on the brink of turning El Salvador into another Lebanon, where death is an individual’s and the national society’s realistic expectation.

There was more on the front page. In one of the state’s towns, a twenty-year-old black mother of three children, ages two months, one year and two years, killed them all with a steak knife; no one seems to know why. In East Germany, non-communist parties entered the Cabinet; in South Africa beaches were de-segregated; and in the United States the House of Representatives “balances” reforms of its ethics by pay increases.

A political horror. A private horror. An advent of liberty. A small murmur for equality. A decaying of a once

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proud American institution. The news of November 17, 1989, would go on this way; one could sense history trembling in order to rise and claim it all.

In the following pages, George Bush, Jesse Helms (in the manner of a playbill, I am picking up characters in order of appearance), the five Senators who took the coin of a rotting savings and loan, Admiral Poindexter (does anyone believe that the subpoena he got, as this day reported, for Mr. Reagan to testify at his trial will actually be fulfilled?), Phillip Morris (that’s a corporation which will subsidize the government’s celebration of the Bill of Rights’ bicentennial), and Ms. Donna Bazemore–all these stride toward us.

Ms. Bazemore, not so incidentally, is a black woman of Ahoskie, North Carolina, who told a Congressional subcommittee what they (and probably the rest of us) would just as soon not hear; our enormous poultry factories are unsanitary places. Picasso came into the news, too; one of his paintings brought $40.7 million. (We were later to learn that a Japanese businessman was the buyer.) Congress surrendered to Mr. Bush on abortions for poor women, and Democrats there abandoned expanded child care for this session. The Navy was insistent–in a gloss on the meaning of loyalty–that one of its own seamen, not itself organizationally, caused the deadly blast on the USS Iowa, an old battleship brought out of its mausoleum by the Reagan administration to parade around the planet, “projecting power.”

I stop, even though I am only at page 14 of the first section. Read farther, and there will be news of Israelis and Palestinians. Bulgaria. Lebanon. Brazil. China (as I am swamped by news, that country is awash in too many cabbages). Nicaragua. Afghanistan. Lech Walesa. There will be editorials about oral sex, national youth service, and a state officeholder straying among the flesh pots of NewYork. Columns about Mr. Helms, Mr. Walesa, France’s children’s policies, fetal tissue research; and there will be Mr. Safire chortling over the USSR’s reported economic difficulties. There will be a cartoon about Mr. Bush’s “secret” plan to overthrow Noriega, another reminding us that it was labor unions which brought about change in Poland.

One “Letter to the Editor” affectionately remembered the Rev. James Reeb, murdered in Selma, Alabama, at the time of the 1965 march; another lamented threats to the state’s environment implicit in the $9 billion–that’s it: billion–road building program adopted by the legislature earlier this year; another by the manager of the huge Shearon-Harris nuclear power plant near Raleigh assured all that, as regards a recent fire at the plant, “at no time was the public in danger.”

Then there are Sports–lots–and Business. But it is enough. On the other hand, I suppose I should not leave out that there was a panel discussion of business ethics at the University of North Carolina, with several very important persons participating in this the concluding session of a conference on international competitiveness; or that Burroughs Welcome, a British company which has a big laboratory in the state’s Research Triangle Park, reported

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a bullish year, much of its profits coming from its AIDS drug and its antiviral drug for genital herpes; or that the Navy suspended IBM (!) from bidding on new contracts because of the revealed fraud of selling used equipment for new.

As said, enough, even though I am omitting the most interesting section of the whole paper today: the local news. But a reviewer should not tell everything. Buy the book.

How does this belong among book reviews?

First, for readers who want to know about the present United States or its southern region, what book would tell more? Granted, that from the above, and the yesterdays’ editions, everyone must be his or her own historian, must give it shape and meaning, must somehow contrive the formula that would put it all into understandable equation.

Second, the daily newspaper–if a good one such as the News and Observer–is in fact a standard of measurement, or seen from another angle an evaluator of the non-fiction that analyzes and interprets our place and time; for fiction too, that attempts that. The maddening complexity the journals report stands as a measure of what a book ought to represent, to “stand for.” A book cannot embrace it all. Somehow, though, the good book has to reflect an awareness of that same impossibility complicated, often chaotic and hurtful, occasionally fine, always on-rushing world and region which the good newspaper reports. Contemporary Southern writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, are often so intent on depicting (and typically these days unlike past ones, celebrating) the uniqueness of the South that any very lively sense of the region’s immersion in a larger world drifts and vanishes. Possibly that is a holding action, a clinging to what is still here yet is firmly on a one-way passage away.

A dozen or more novels could be made from the local news–the Section C news–of this day’s papers: University of North Carolina student precariously perched atop a radio tower protesting the CIA; eight North Carolina State University wrestlers on trial for brutally assaulting two men and a woman annoyed over having their lawn urinated on; an FBI agent convicted for drunk driving after wrecking an FBI-owned car; more on the trial of Eddie Hatcher, of Robeson County newspaper office fame; a citation of Duke Power Co. (!) for toxic contamination of ground water. Novels could be written, and no doubt similar ones will be. Their quality will depend on how well they connect their stories to the world beyond Section C, how well they are “of this world” as well as at home.

Third, the fact is there is some awfully good stuff in the region’s papers. I have for the past two years been a judge in the Institute of Southern Studies journalism competition. Some of the “feature” writing and investigative reporting around the region, from Texas to Virginia, is

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outstanding, and some series are (as I’ve wearily discovered) of almost book length.

And so finally, and for all these reasons, Southern Charges herewith invites reviews of your local newspaper. A friend–one who is often subject to fits of dear and therefore indignant observations of society–angrily remarked to me recently that there are three bodies of people who are never told to go jump in the lake (he used a more vivid expression; federal judges, foundation executives, and the editorial board of the New York Times. I’ll pass on the accuracy of what he said about judges, affirm that he is right about foundation executives (I was one for fifteen years, and no one–or hardly anyone–during those years spoke a cross word to me), and cannot here do anything about the Times. But if you, our readers, want to submit a review talking about your local newspaper, praising or damning, we shall read what you send to us, in the hope we may publish it. Can you write clearly and interestingly about the home-town paper, and not too lengthily? If you can and are moved to do so, we would like to see your work.

Encores, of November 17, 1989.

A crew of Marines rescued in bad weather five men from a sunk tugboat, eight miles at sea off Cape Lookout. Brave men there are still.

An old Woolworth’s lunch counter once sat-in in Salisbury, a videotape of the historic Greensboro sit-in of 1960, and a videotape of the killing of five by the Klan in Greensboro in 1979 are joined with an original draft of the Constitution in an exhibit at the state’s Museum of History.

The family of an Israeli soldier killed by Palestinian guerillas donated his heart to an Arab; the widow said, “If it is possible to save a person, I think it is a religious commandment.”

Hope is still ours by right of such as these, and of that young man, 175 feet aloft.

LESLIE DUNBAR is the review editor of Southern Changes.