ByR. J. HICKS
THERE has been a good deal lately about the Freedom of the Press. A three-man commission has just returned to this country, after looking into the situation in foreign parts, checking up on how free the Press was here and there, and generally squaring off against intolerance, suppression, and state control.
Here at home, meanwhile, an insidious ill has crept across the fair white columns of the American Press. I refer to the growing threat of the bracketed interpolation, known in China as Worship of Parentheses. If an Atlantic Charter of the Press ever gets itself written, I can only pray that one of the top Freedoms listed will be that of Freedom from Brackets.
Until twenty years or so ago, a newspaper retained about itself an aura of beautiful certainty. In its editorials, it pontificated — reverberatingly and with never a backward glance. In its news columns, it bluntly stated the facts, as communicated by its well-trusted corps of home and foreign staff men. Very occasionally, the newspaper might get scooped by a rival; but this was a purely professional, esoteric matter which scarcely affected the reading public.
Imperceptibly, there came a change. At first it hardly mattered. It was like that scratchiness, only about a centimeter square, at the far back of the throat, heralding the head cold. The newspapers took to running little stories — very apologetic, and not amounting to much — as tailpieces to the big stories of their own staffs. The staff man’s piece, a terrific color story, would start on the front page and cut over to page six, column two. It might well run on to column three — perhaps four - and end in a blaze of glory. Then, as a kind of shamefaced epilogue, the men on the desk would add a sad little stick from a wire agency, contributing some faintly apropos fact to the staff man’s rodomontade.
That situation continued for some years. Foreign correspondents and local reporters went on turning in their stories. Now and then, as tiresome appendices, these afterthoughts might appear at the end of the main stories. Nobody cared very much. The writers of the big stuff might cast a tolerant glance at these minuscule stragglers. The Reading Public might or might not have got that far before turning to the sports pages.
Then the horror happened — the brackets began. Right up near the lead paragraph of anyone’s story nowadays the bracketed material is likely to take over. I haven’t yet found the lead paragraph itself in brackets, but I am waiting tensely for that culminating degradation.
Let us see how a contemporary news story reads in any paper we happen to pick up, be it tabloid or dignified: —
“BY HORACE CLEMENTINE BAMBERGER
“PARIS, Friday, June 22 — A stout German police official, grilled mercilessly by Allied interrogators, revealed today that a small black box, found yesterday beneath the camp bed of Marshal Gregory K. Zhukoff, Commanding General of the Soviet Forces in Berlin, contains the mortal remains of Adolf Hitler, former Chancellor of the Nazi Reich. According to the German police official, whose name was not disclosed, Hitler was shot and killed by his bride of a day, Eva Braun, lithe artist’s model and long-time favorite of the Reichschancellor, and then burned to ashes in an impromptu funeral pyre when the chromium cigarette lighter, donated her by plump, medal-loving, narcotics-dominated Hermann Goering, ignited in her hand May 1st.”
So far, so good.
But now, the brackets. The story continues: —
“(A Japanese broadcast, quoting the Japanese official Domei agency, and monitored by OWI, stated, according to the Associated Press, that Eva Braun was still alive May 3rd. On that day, Martin Bormann, Deputy Leader of the Nazi Party ever since Rudolph Hess flew to Britain in May, 1941, encountered Eva Braun outside the Fuehrer’s private bunker, seventy feet below the pulverized Reichschancellery. Bormann, according to the AP report, quoting the OWI monitoring of the official Domei [Japanese] agency’s broadcast, asked Fräulein Braun whether the Fuehrer was still alive and, if so, whether he was prepared to retire by airplane to Bavaria. Fräulein Braun made no direct response, according to several German police witnesses of the scene, but silently handed Bormann a blazing pocket cigarette lighter.) ”
At this point, as a devoted and dogged member of the Reading Public, my faith in Bamberger has been a little shaken. I was quite prepared to take all of him on trust; but his own paper has, rather cynically it seems to me, drawn a hefty red herring across the tracks of Bamberger’s prose.
However, we continue — only to encounter immediately another bracket.
The story goes on: —
“ (A UP dispatch from Stockholm said tonight that Norwegian underground fighters, who had been permitted by the Swedish Government to operate on Swedish soil in one of the best-kept secrets of the war, arrested early yesterday morning a bearded man wearing women’s clothes near Malmö. After maintaining an obstinate silence for several minutes, the prisoner dramatically turned on his captors and announced, according to a Stockholm broadcast, later rebroadcast by the BBC in its overseas service: ‘I am [Martin] Bormann.’ Tough field service police moved in on the suspect, according to the usually unreliable Brussels Radio, and wrenched from him a small glistening object tightly clasped in his hand, thought to be a phial of poison. Examined later by experts, it turned out to be a chromium cigarette lighter, engraved with the legend: ‘To Eva from Adolf.’ Top Scotland Yard officials, who have been engaged on one of the greatest manhunts in history [fruitless, according to the Soviet-befriended Vienna Radio] and flown to Malmö, dramatically revealed, through unnamed sources, that Bormann was Eva Braun, thinly disguised.)”
And it goes on like that. Perhaps we have formed an attachment to Bamberger. We want to see something of him again. But he is very badly treated. If we want to be with him at the finish, we must turn to the Society Page (foot of column seven) and there we find the old original Bamberger cropping up finally behind all those agency interruptions, just where they used to crop up behind him.
What would happen if this diffidence, these qualms and self-criticisms, ever should spread from the old quavering Press to the brash and brassy Radio?
It is hard to imagine, but let us try.
COMMENTATOR: “Good evening, everybody. Well, there’s good news tonight. Down in Florida, men say, they have discovered a way to breed a double blood-orange; that means twice the amount of orange and four times the quantity of blood. . . .”
Another voice breaks in while the commentator is still talking. It is crisp, cool, collected.
THE VOICE: “Social Registerites, wintering in exclusive Florida resorts, according to a semaphored message from Key West, picked up by the lookout men of the giant liner, Queen Mary, and relayed to International News Service, declared that the orange most likely to appeal to our troops overseas is the Blueblood orange. Squeezed in any ordinary housewife’s squeezer, this orange not only produces brightblue juice, but its volume is eight times that of the ordinary orange.”
COMMENTATOR: “From Moscow comes a late flash. Men tell me. . . .”
THE VOICE: “From Moscow, according to a far later and more accurate flash, monitored and remonitored by BBC and OWI, comes news that whatever men may tell your commentator will be instantly modified by this station. . . . We do not pause for station identification.”