s a journalist, I never liked sensationalism. Not in newspapers, where it found a home in tabloids. Not on television, where, as the medium grew, a shrillness of tone grew with it, soon coming to permanently obliterate any attempts at cool-headed detachment. Not now, certainly, on the internet, both its professional and amateur denizens schooled to apply the words “historic” or “unprecedented” to any event that might stir public emotion, which on a planet weaned on drama means anything unexpected.
Mine is not a rant. Tabloids have been around for well over a century and playing on street-corner emotion goes back centuries, when hangings and beheadings kept daily drudgery at bay. Time and again Ecclesiastes is proved right: there is nothing new under the sun, useful apps notwithstanding.
In some fifty years of work I had but one opportunity to make this view of mine felt in a very public way. It came about this time, forty-one years ago in April.
At the time, I was editor of the Rome “Daily American,” the city’s English-language daily founded by a troika of GIs just after the end of World War II. By the time I took charge, in 1981, the paper was deep into its twilight, its 1984 death throes already looming.
Still, the group of us that formed the paper’s staff, some thirty employees in all, put on a brave front. We still had a prestigious address, on Via Barberini, twenty meters from Bernini’s Neptune statue, and all involved took their work seriously.
Despite the “American” name — many insisted the paper was funded by the CIA, which it briefly had been in Cold War days — we had come through the worst of Italy’s terrorist days unscathed, too small for state-hating masterminds to target.
That April was like any other save that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had outdone herself by declaring war on Argentina over a tiny group of islands in the South Atlantic which the South American country, governed by a military dictatorship, had invaded and declared its own. As Newsweek wrote at the time, sensational in its own right, THE WAR IS ON!
It became a war in earnest when a British submarine sunk an ancient Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano, a pre-war vessel bought from the United States. Hundreds of sailors drowned.
We covered this war through news dispatches, lacking a correspondent who could be our eyes and ears. How could we afford such a figure when our own salaries were always at monthly risk?
All went ahead, fraught more with repetition than anything unprecedented, let alone historic.
Then it happened.
One morning in early spring, shaving cream still on my twenty-nine year old face, I was pulled away from the mundane by a call from my managing editor. The first thing he said was, “I think you better sit down.” I did.
That morning, he told me, sometime between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. an estimated ten-kilo explosive device had been detonated in our lobby, a long hall filled with mirrors. All was now in shambles and the police and fire department on the scene. Apparently, three members of our Italian staff, who came in very early to power up our primitive computer system – it did no more than read perforated tape – had entered the office, flicked the “on” switch, then gone across the street for a morning coffee. The last man out left the door cracked.
They were away some twenty minutes with the bomb exploding in their absence.
No had been injured.
I arrived soon after along with the publisher and we surveyed the considerable damage, which did not, however, stand in the way of gathering the staff to put out the next day’s edition.
But the publisher balked. He wanted the offices closed for at least a day. Police and fire officials agreed.
I did not.
I guided them past the mounds to shattered glass to the lower floor that housed the mechanics of the operation. All was sound, I told them.
All the while radio news was busy reporting a “major” explosion at the paper. Major or not, I insisted, our duty was to get back to work, if we could, and we could. My stalwart managing editor agreed, and so did most of the staff.
The publisher and the authorities ultimately yielded, the publisher agreeing mostly because he wanted police out of the building as soon as possible – he ran illicit activities on the side and none of the employees were legally allowed to work by strict Italian labor law. More probing would have made this all too clear.
So it was that a clutch of staff members got back, a rubber mat placed over the mounds of shattered glass and wall in the passageway above the “basement” newsroom.
But the biggest decision of my then-young life came later: how to “play” the story, which in journalism-speak meant how much emphasis to attach to what had happened. The publisher imaged a front page filled with images of the damage and words of outrage. I wanted no such thing.
This had been an isolated event. There had been no casualties. The country had already had its share of terrorist-related headlines. I had no wish to give the perpetrators fodder and even less of a wish to tumble into self-indulgent historic-style moaning.
I shared this view with my managing editor, who agreed, and with the staff, who agreed there was no need for bugle calls. Stiff upper lip was in order.
I made the final call, so the emphasis was on the raging Lebanon war, the latest from the Falklands, and finally, in a small column on the right, the story of our misfortune. The four-tiered headline read
An imaged was published, but not prominently.
The publisher, unhappy, made his dissent known. Fire me, I told him. He didn’t.
A few days later two groups, neither one especially credible, took responsibility for planting the bomb. The first was a radical Palestinian faction no one had ever before heard of, the second a group of self-styled avengers who told police in an anonymous call that they had acted to strike a blow against “British Imperialism.” Apparently no one had told them we were the Rome “Daily American,” and though the U.S. was a British ally, it had not become involved in Thatcher’s heroics.
A few weeks later I met informally with Italian journalists, most at least two decades my senior. One of them was the famed if outspoken writer and editor Indro Montanelli, who’d been shot and wounded by the Red Brigades in 1977, an incident that left him livid because they’d shot from behind. “Next time,” he’d written in an open letter, “have the balls to look me in the eye.” He hadn’t used the word for genitalia but his meaning was clear.
Montanelli had not a word to say to me until we were walking out of the room. As the others filed out, he held me back with a bony hand. “You’re Winner, no?”
“Good for you. You didn’t give them the satisfaction and the publicity, which in the end is what they depend on.”
What we all depend on, I thought, thanking him.
Today, my decision would have been unthinkable. American paper? Rome? Many U.S. employees? A big bomb? Imagine the breaking news.