Sunday, March 22, 2015

Little Reporters Have Big Ears

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the episode of the Andy Griffith Show that first aired 50 years ago tonight, "Opie's Newspaper."

I'm sure that the fact that journalism has played such a significant role in my life has a lot to do with it. But there is more to it than that. It was a matter of — for me, at least — art imitating life. Or maybe, since the episode aired long before I was first hired by a newspaper, it was a case of art foretelling life.

Anyway ...

Opie did something that I did for awhile when I was a boy. He tried to put out his own newspaper. Some kids have lemonade stands to make pocket change; Opie and I put out our own newspapers, and he learned the same lesson I did. It isn't easy to put out a newspaper — even for adults who have all sorts of advantages that children do not have.

Of course, Barney (Don Knotts) always had the answers — or thought he did. Opie (Ron Howard) was having trouble selling his newspaper, which was almost exclusively dedicated to the goings on in his grade school. Barney thought he wasn't getting the right copy ("Copy — that's newspaper talk," he told Opie), and he advised Opie to widen his scope.

But, while Barney and Andy were trying to be helpful, the message that Opie got was that their paper had to be more like the local newspaper so he and his pal Howie went through the latest copy of the Mayberry newspaper looking for inspiration, and they found it in a gossip column, "Mayberry After Midnight."

And they agreed that they needed to do the same thing that was done in "Mayberry After Midnight" so they went about eavesdropping on conversations around town.

They overheard Barney saying that the young wife of an older man was a "blonde out of a bottle."

They overheard Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) criticizing the food that was served at a luncheon and describing it as "wallpaper paste."

And they overheard Andy describing the local minister's sermons as "dry as dust."

And they put it in the paper, which Andy and Barney and Aunt Bee discovered to their chagrin. See, Opie and Howie were giving away the first edition of their new newspaper as a get–acquainted special, and they had distributed copies all over town. They had put them in mailboxes and under windshield wipers. In some cases, they hand–delivered them to people.

Andy, Barney and Aunt Bee fanned out over Mayberry seeking to retrieve the copies of the paper — and each one ran into the person of whom he/she had spoken so poorly, which was a bit of a lesson in itself. Be careful what you say. You never know who might be listening.

Of course, as Andy pointed out, just because somebody said something does not mean it should be printed up and circulated. It isn't surprising that Opie and Howie failed to grasp the concept. Sadly, there are a lot of adults who struggle with the same issue.

Andy was trying to explain to Opie and Howie why they shouldn't print stories like that. "You don't circulate stories that are mean and unkind about people," he said. "There are too many other stories to put in. Nice stories."

"But, Pa," Opie protested. "When we put in the nice kind of stories, nobody wanted to buy the paper." There is the conundrum.

It's been many years since I worked for a newspaper, but I have had that discussion so many times that I know every angle by heart. People who aren't in the news business always criticize newspapers and news broadcasts for focusing on the negative. But that's what readers want. Nobody wants to read about who sold the most Girl Scout cookies — except maybe the Girl Scout and her family.

The truth is, newspapers can't afford to be crusaders all the time. They have to give the readers what they want part of the time — or else they would go out of business. Quite often, that means providing the tawdry and sensational at the expense of things that may be more uplifting.

It's a complex thing, really. The nature of news is to be negative — wars, natural disasters, economic collapses — and human nature often veers to the negative. Many people — not all but many — are greedy and selfish. It isn't news when people are civilized with each other because that is what is expected. It is news when they are uncivilized with each other.

Or, as we are frequently told in journalism school, it isn't news if a dog bites a man. But it is news if a man bites a dog.

There was a valuable lesson in the episode, which was articulated best by Aunt Bee. When she, Andy and Barney concluded they had retrieved all the copies of the paper, and Andy said he hoped Opie and Howie had learned from the experience, she observed that perhaps the adults could learn something from it, too.

"We're responsible for all this loose talk going around town," she said. "If we want the boys to behave better, we'd better set them a better example."

That's good advice, and it would have been quite effective — if Opie hadn't mentioned that he and Howie had had so much material that they had printed up the next week's edition in advance. He assured them that all those copies had been taken to the dump so no one would ever read them.

Except for Aunt Bee, Andy and Barney who went to the dump on a late–night expedition to find the papers and read what other gossip the boys had picked up.