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Missing the story

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Every journalist has stories they wish they could have back--to fix an error, to write differently, to include something they left out. I have several. But one of them goes back to my days as a copyboy at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans (in the days when there were both copy and boys in the newsroom). It was 1973, a summer job after high school, and I hung out in the wire room, a glass box filled with the clatter of teletypes. There also was a Telex machine, a keyboard that allowed you to call another machine across the country and type out a message. One day it cranked up, and appearing on the yellow Western Union paper was a message from Edgar A. Poe--not a ghost, but the newspaper's long, long, longtime Washington correspondent (the White House Correspondents Association even gives out an award in his name). It was addressed to the newspaper's publisher, Ashton Phelps, and said something like: "Congratulations anent today's beautiful penned and signed front page editorial." I remember because I haven't seen the word "anent" used since. The editorial was in support of President Richard M. Nixon in the midst of the Watergate scandal. I was appalled. It helped explain why the newspaper wasn't taking Watergate seriously.

I called the editor of the crusading, local newsweekly, the Vieux Carre Courier, and offered to give him a copy. He was thrilled. Then my father got wind of the offer. He told me not to do it. So I didn't.

Sorry dad, but I wish I had. It's important for people to know what's going on at the institutions they depend on to know what's going on. That's why we're including this week a series of E-mails to and from The News & Observer (where I used to work) and members of its community panel. They're not meant to embarrass anyone, particularly not Lorenzo Perez, a good reporter who drew the short straw on a dreadful 8 a.m. assignment and used it as an opportunity to do some writing with voice and attitude that's difficult to get in the newspaper.

They're meant to point out that The News & Observer, like virtually every other daily newspaper and television news operation in America, failed to emphasize the real story behind the invasion of Iraq (as Project Censored found), and did not take criticism to heart when confronted with it. It's a tragedy for so many reasons--first and foremost because if articles leading up to the war had been placed in the proper perspective, Americans might have realized that Iraq had nothing to do with Sept. 11 and everything to do with a radical turn in foreign policy. And it's a shame for otherwise good newspapers with the journalistic pretensions of The N&O, because if they'd broken from the pack and applied the same critical eye they use on local and regional news, they'd look like heroes today.

Instead, the war is a story that, years from now, many editors will wish they could have back.

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With this issue, Kirk Ross becomes The Independent's managing editor. Readers in Chapel Hill will know Kirk from his six years as a reporter at The Chapel Hill News. Music fans in the Triangle will know him from his killer guitar playing for the past 11 years in the band Lud. At the Indy, Kirk will be in charge of music coverage, special sections, and whatever else he comes up with. It's great to have him aboard.

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