The Lord Nelson used to say, "Never mind the meneuvers. Go straight at 'em."
The same thing can be said in the news business. When a big story breaks, when hard news belongs on Page 1, it ought to be stated as directly and prominently as possible. Featurized leads then are not the answer.
This is pertinent this weekend, because once again the New York Times has trumped the Los Angeles Times by covering hard news in a consistently prominent and hard way, and the New York Times is stylistically right and has served its readers better.
I'm speaking of two stories in particular, the deaths of 24 elderly citizens on a bus that was part of the evacuation from Hurricane Rita in a fire on a Texas highway, and the sudden resignation of Lester Crawford from the top post at the Food and Drug Administration just two months after being confirmed to the job.
In both cases, front page New York Times stories put the news starkly and simply.
On the fire, the NYT lead was: "HOUSTON, Sept. 23 -- A bus evacuating frail residents from a suburban Houston senior-living center burst into flames and was rocked by explosions on a traffic-choked highway south of Dallas early Friday, leaving behind a charred and grisly wreck and two dozen dead."
The headline was, "Bus Evacuating Senior Center Burns, Killing 24 Near Dallas."
Also on Page 1, the FDA resignation lead was, "Washingtion, Sept. 23 -- Lester M. Crawford, the commissioner of food and drugs, resigned abruptly on Friday, causing further upheavel at an agency that has been in turmoil for more than a year."
And the headline was, "Leader of the F.D.A. Steps Down After a Short, Turbulent Tenure."
In these cases, the Los Angeles Times story was either less prominently displayed or less direct. I suppose this might have been more the editors' fault than the writers.
The bus fire lead in the LAT, by Maria La Ganga and Elizabeth Mehren, said, "Houston --As Hurricane Rita barreled down on the Texas Gulf Coast, threatening the low-lying region and winds of more than 100 mph, nursing home operators faced a life-or-death decision: to evacuaste their frail and elderly charges -- or not."
The headline said only, "Leaving Poses Its Own Risk."
Not until the third paragraph was there word in the LAT that there had been a bus fire and 24 were killed.
In the LAT, the drug commissioner resigning did not make Page 1. It ran on Page A24. In fairness, the story by Ricardo Zaldivar was just as direct. The lead said, "Washington -- Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester M. Crawford resigned Friday, a move that stunned agency staffers, lawmakers, industry and the medical community."
The headline said, "FDA Chief Crawford Resigns 2 Months After Confirmation."
It should be noted that the New York Times, which is an inch wider in its pages than the L.A. Times, sometimes prints more stories on Page 1. On Saturday, the NYT had six main stories on Page 1 and nine reefers to other stories, while the LAT had six stories and reefers to six more.
Still, I believe the drug story should have appeared on Page 1. It could have replaced one of the two features on Page 1, not counting the featurized lead to the bus story.
The 24 killed on a burning bus was a fact that reflected on the evacuation plan for Hurricane Rita, and the fact that, after New Orleans, things went bad with this evacuation too, with a million more people taking to the roads than authorities had planned for, causing a desperate traffic jam and many vehicles to run out of gas altogether.
The New York Times has a much-deserved reputation for covering disasters more dramatically and comprehensively than any other newspaper. This goes back to the Titanic sinking in 1912. LAT coverage of the hurricane disasters in Texas, Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast has also been comprehensive, but probably less pointed and dramatic.