Two big stories happened 41 years ago today. One would affect the nation’s politics for decades to come. But it didn’t lead the front page of the next day’s Omaha World-Herald (or very many morning newspapers, I suspect).
I’d be interested to know how many morning newspapers made a similar call that day. The story by Eileen Wirth (now chair of the Creighton University Journalism Department) says the initial reaction in Nebraska was a promise to keep their abortion laws as strict as the Supreme Court ruling allowed. (I’ll send Eileen a link to the story and invite her to add any memories of that story and that paper.)
Update: See Eileen’s response toward the end of this post.
But I doubt any of her sources or the editors who downplayed the story had any notion that we’d still be fighting about Roe vs. Wade in our fifth decade after that ruling.
A president’s death trumps almost any story, especially one that gains importance over time. It was still at the top of the front page; it’s not like it was overlooked. It’s notable, though, that Eileen’s story was not accompanied by a wire story explaining the national importance of the ruling, which was a big national deal, even at the time. Inside the paper — on the same page as the jump but not even adjacent to it — was a brief saying that the ruling came too late for “Jane Roe” (later identified as Norma McCorvey), who already had given birth.
Also worth noting here is that the World-Herald had (still has, in fact) an evening paper, which I presume led with the Roe vs. Wade story on the 22nd. (The paper, as noted in the upper right corner, is the Iowa edition, a morning edition delivered to my parents’ home in Shenandoah. My father saved it, probably for the LBJ story, not the Roe story.) LBJ died at 4:43 p.m. on the 22nd, so he was fresher news for the morning story, not to mention huge news.
It’s worth noting, though, that the story didn’t have the Iowa reaction. In my time at the World-Herald, we always had to get the Iowa angle when localizing such a story.
Abortion became a big and recurring story in my journalism career. I covered 1976 campaign appearances by Ellen McCormack, a single-issue candidate who ran for election mostly to draw attention to the abortion issue. I directed a reporting project on abortion access and availability in Iowa when I was an editor at the Des Moines Register. As an editor at the Kansas City Times, I directed a year-long project on abortion leading up to the Supreme Court’s Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services decision, which abortion opponents hoped might overturn Roe (instead Justice Sandra Day O’Connor upheld Missouri’s restrictive abortion law, saying it did not create an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions). As a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, I covered the issue regularly, including a story on six women and the decisions they made about troubled pregnancies.
I can’t make a list of top-five issues in our nation over the past four decades that doesn’t include abortion. I wonder how many papers that day played it above LBJ’s death or even equally. Or, granting that the president’s death was fresher and deserved bigger play, I wonder how many newspaper stories, wherever they were played, came close to reflecting the importance this ruling would have in the life of our country. (If you have a Jan. 23 front page, please say in the comments how it played the stories or email me a photo of the front page at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.)
A few other notes on the front page:
A local sidebar recounts Johnson’s various visits to Nebraska. I’m puzzled why it started with a 1962 visit as vice president, rather than his 1965 or ’66 visits as president. A photo of the ’65 visit and a few paragraphs about the ’66 visit were on the jump.
Nebraska has not been a popular destination for presidents or presidential candidates. With only five electoral votes and having gone Republican in 18 of the past 19 presidential elections, Republican candidates take it for granted and Democrats regard it as a waste of time. If candidates visit at all, they come during the Iowa caucuses (which weren’t a notable part of the presidential race until 1972, four years after LBJ’s retirement). But you know who was the only Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to carry Nebraska? That was Johnson, with only one campaign stop in Nebraska, judging from mentions in the story that accompanied his obit.
A frequent call when I was editor in Cedar Rapids complained about our “proofreaders.” Once, when a woman said we needed to fire our proofreaders, I responded that we had fired them years ago. Newspapers generally dropped their full-time proofreaders in the 1970s either when or not long after they moved from linotype to computer typesetting.
When I was a copy editor at the Des Moines Register in 1977, the copy desk proofed pages before publication, but we had no professional proofreaders. Knowing how slow the World-Herald was in later years to adopt new technology, I’m going to guess that it had proofreaders in January 1973 (correct me if you know otherwise, World-Herald vets).
But here’s my point: Today when newspapers do stupid things like repeating headlines, old-time journalists are quick to blame the cuts in staffing, particularly on the copy desk. But look at this front-page large-type repetition in the LBJ headline: In case you missed it the first time, they repeat that really the nation is without an ex-president now:
That oddity was a result largely of Dwight D. Eisenhower‘s advanced age as president and John F. Kennedy’s assassination as a young president. We had an ex-president the next year when Richard Nixon resigned, and haven’t been without one since. Today we have four living ex-presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and both Bushes. And we’re likely to have living ex-presidents for many years to come: Carter and George H.W. Bush are in their 80s, but Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama were all relatively young when elected.
This front page was a trifecta of historic stories, with Watergate represented above the fold, too, in a story about a Watergate trial (though it was a turn-of-the-screw story, not a big development).
The World-Herald consistently had one of the most hideous front pages in the newspaper business back then, with a checkerboard layout laden with trivial filler. The wire briefs about a construction strike in New York, a trial in Sioux City (a nod to the Iowa edition, I’m guessing) and a deadly flu outbreak in California are at least newsworthy.
But what’s up with these one-paragraph wire briefs from Athens and Karachi? Such briefs were common fillers throughout newspapers back then (we called them “8-heds” in Des Moines), but I can’t remember another paper that used them on the front page. They were beneath the New York and California wire stories, which certainly had more type available. It just mystifies me why they were used at all. (If anyone reading this used such briefs on the front page, either in Omaha or elsewhere, back in the day, I’d love to hear an explanation.)
That was a newsy week. Dad saved the next day’s paper, where big news relating to the cease-fire in the Vietnam War surpassed the LBJ funeral plans. Note that, even though the page is pretty ugly (look at those Lady Bird Johnson and Henry Kissinger photos below their stories, not squared off), it didn’t have the excessive use of filler that we saw the day before. I’m wondering if some deadline issues contributed to the chaos of the Jan. 23 front page.
A final note on LBJ: He was a flawed president, brought down by his escalation of the Vietnam War and his failure to pursue it to victory. You have to say that poverty won the War on Poverty, but LBJ led Congress in building an important safety net for the poorest Americans, and what president has made a more sincere or successful effort to fight poverty?
But Johnson did one of the most selfless, courageous things of any president in my lifetime: spending his political capital to urge passage of the Voting Rights Act. Outrageous discrimination was blocking African Americans from voting and this law ensured the right to vote. It also turned the South into a Republican stronghold for generations to come. Today’s Supreme Court struck a blow for bigotry by overturning part of the Voting Rights Act, but the law remains the keystone achievement of the Johnson administration. What has any president since done that was both as important and as politically courageous?
Update: Doug Thomas (a World-Herald colleague some 20 years after this front page) noted on Facebook that a historic sporting event took place the same day as the Roe vs. Wade ruling and LBJ’s death: George Foreman knocked out Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, to win the heavyweight boxing championship. That fight is probably best remembered for Howard Cosell’s emphatic “Down goes Frazier!” call.
In an effort to downsize my collection of historic newspapers (which has taken up a lot of space for many years), I have stripped away sports and feature sections and the inside pages of A sections of most of my historic newspapers. I’m on a train at the moment, so I can’t check to see if I still have the sports section of this paper. I’ll check when I get home.
Update: Eileen Wirth, who wrote the Roe story that day, sends this memory/observation:
When the Supreme Court announced Roe vs. Wade, we knew it was a major decision but I don’t think any of us could have imagined that the battle lines that were drawn almost from day one (as evidenced by my story) would remain pretty much unchanged 40 years later.
First, I hope you realize that I must have been a mere child when I wrote that story!!!! It is set in the context of some local efforts to liberalize the Nebraska abortion law and fierce resistance to such ideas.
I’m struck by the parallels with state battles today over gay marriage. That’s what abortion was like at the time. A number of states had already liberalized their abortion laws, more were doing so and others were fiercely resisting. A sort of crazy quilt of laws and restrictions was developing much like we have now with some states allowing gay marriage but others not recognizing it. Roe ended that crazy quilt but not the opposition to it. Indeed, as we all know, it hardened it.
Both sides have used the abortion tool as a great fundraising and rallying tool for their sides although polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans remain conflicted on the subject. Many who want to restrict abortion but allow some loopholes are considered sellouts by no-compromise pro-life people while hard line pro-choice forces staunchly oppose any restrictions.
We’re no closer to any consensus on the issue than in 1974 but maybe we have learned that allowing a crazy quilt of state rules on wedge issues such as gay marriage isn’t such a terrible thing. I predict that 40 years from now gay marriage won’t even be an issue while both sides could well be holding abortion marches.
Want to share a historic front page?
I’m enjoying sharing observations about historic front pages that my father and I saved over the years. Most of my focus in this blog is on digital journalism and how our business is changing. But I’ve spent most of my print career as an ink-stained wretch (one of the few clichés ink-stained wretches tolerate). I’m happy to mix some appreciation for our print past with my exhortations to embrace the future.
So I’ll be going regularly through the historic newspapers that Dad and I saved, sharing the images and some observations.
I’d welcome blog posts on your historic front pages, too. If you have a favorite historic front page to share (along with your observations about the event or the page), I welcome your guest post. Email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.
Here are some other posts where I’ve featured historic (at least to me) front pages: