Nineteen years ago today, on Sept. 11, 2001, I had been working as a newspaper copy editor for a month. We were going to put out the first edition of a new paper, the New Trier Times, because the one we already had, the Evanston Express, also came out on Tuesdays. When I hear the expression “famous last words,” I think of the meeting when we settled on when to start the Times. Tuesdays, so just one day was deadline day, and after Labor Day. Nothing big ever happens after Labor Day.
Now, when “nothing big happens,” I’m accustomed to recognizing the habit I saw at the papers and before that, when I was editing news releases for a wire service that also had reporters covering stories. When things got quiet, the city editor would tell people to get out the morgue (i.e., library) files and look for anniversaries. Anniversary stories filled in the space and time when nothing new went on.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Similarly, if what you do is tell stories and nothing is happening at the time, you go back to what used to happen. What happened on “this day in history?” (OK, silly question today — but I grew up hearing older people fill in the quiet before Thanksgiving and my birthday with stories about Nov. 22-25, 1963. That’s part of how I learned the importance of storytelling.)
I remember that my father would get angry when some Dec. 7s passed without very many anniversary stories about 1941. “A date which will live in infamy” — which, as far as I’m concerned, has company now — needed to be remembered every year, even after decades. Every five- and ten-year mark brought new stories about Pearl Harbor, which didn’t exactly please Dad, but certainly seemed like what the news should be covering that day. The date just didn’t turn back into an ordinary day, and for me, I don’t think it ever will.
Yesterday’s news — the Bob Woodward tapes and the debate about how soon he should have told about them, the progress (or not) in the search for a virus vaccine, the search for economic and social justice — is all on hold today in a similar way that such stories can wait on Dec. 7 or Nov. 22. The ceremonies may get more attention in the media because they can’t get attendance directly — restrictions and social distancing must keep people apart. The differences in the ceremonies will make them newsworthy in the way that other odd-number anniversaries may not be. Those differences should bring up the stories to go along with any new revelations about the tapes, the vaccine, and present-day life.
Sometimes anniversary stories need telling even when the present day’s news won’t stop to give them much room.
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