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THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Headlines make for good stories

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, two giant pandas gifted to the United States by China after Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing, arrived to much fanfare at the Smithsonian Zoo in April of 1972.

There was, by media accounts, “panda-monium.”

The zoo wanted to breed the two pandas as part of a program to protect the species. But there was a problem. Baby Ling Ling (the female) and baby Hsing Hsing (the male) had never seen pandas mate. They were clueless.

The zoo tried everything, including showing panda porn in hopes of inspiring the young sters. Finally, with the world waiting anxiously, the zoo admitted nothing was working.

Larry Lovelace, a copy editor at the now-defunct Houston Post, wrote the perfect headline: “Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing can’t can’t.”

Copy editors are the unsung heroes at newspapers. They edit stories for grammar, accuracy and fairness. They write headlines that can bring a smile or a tear. And they reminisce and tell “war stories” about memorable headlines that made the paper … and unprintable ones that didn’t.

Here are a few more memorable headlines from my 45 years at the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle.

In 2003, the Rice baseball team won the College World Series. It was the first national team title in the school’s 91-year history.
Chronicle copy editor Bill Gould was tasked with writing a headline that rose to the occasion. His offering – “Rice guys finish first” – not only dominated the front page but ended up on T-shirts throughout the city.

On the day of the first game of the NBA Championship playoff series between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks in 1994, New York Post columnist Wallace Matthews wrote a critical article about Houston. The New York Post headline called Houston a “hellhole.” Houston residents were offended. How dare those Yankees!

That night the Rockets won the first game of the playoffs. Copy editor Glenn Redus wrote the front-page headline for the next morning’s paper. “Hellhole 1, New York 0.” This is the only time I remember TV stations coming to interview a headline writer.
One headline is memorable for not making the paper.

The Chronicle had a headline on the page and ready for the presses to roll when it looked as if George W. Bush was going to edge Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. When Gore appealed the Florida results, I remember actually yelling “stop the presses” so we could change the headline. It was almost 2 a.m. The headline we had to kill? “It’s Bush with a W.”

Notice I refer to these headlines not as the best, but as memorable. That’s because the most memorable headline is one I wish I could take back.

In 1973, then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger engaged in “shuttle diplomacy” to help end the Yom Kippur War. Well after midnight, having just completed our last edition, we were all about ready to head home when the wire service moved a bulletin: Kissinger had reached a Mideast peace agreement.

Newspaper headlines - unlike those on websites - are limited by space considerations. So with the pressroom screaming at us to hurry, we set about writing a headline. We had “Kissinger__?__Mideast peace pact.” We needed a verb.

“Signs”. No, not yet accurate. Hurry.

“Develops”. No. It was further along than that. Hurry.

“Hammers out”. That’s good, but too long. Something similar. Hurry.

Someone had an idea, and it fit. Under pressure from the pressroom, I let it go.

I was proud of myself until the next morning when I picked up the paper to admire our work.

There in big, bold type was the headline: “Kissinger forges Mideast peace pact.”

To this day, I shudder thinking about it.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)