Bad War Analogy 

Writing about the human costs of war has been our nutmeg.

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Last week, I wrote about the hopeless Salt Lake Tribune sports section and that Gordon Monson is a lazy sports columnist. On our website comment section, one person called me out, saying that bashing another newspaper’s staff is itself lazy. That person believes that this paper, and certainly I myself, spend too much time yanking the chain of The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, and that we shouldn’t bother since that commenter isn’t reading those papers as it is.

I’d give up on those newspapers, too, if they weren’t necessary to my livelihood. But, the commenter makes a good point: He calls what I wrote lazy. I actually admitted that in the column itself, pointing out that I recognize the laziness in Monson because it takes a lazy writer to know one. It’s a surprise, however, to learn that some readers also possess lazy radar—or Laydar, as we industry insiders call it.

It’s hardly news that hounding the dailies is a staple ingredient of the alternative-newspaper stew. In most cities with an alternative newspaper, you will find a relentless barrage of stories and columns about how poorly the daily newspapers serve local communities. It’s what we do, and incidentally, we sometimes point out the good stuff, too. Sometimes.

The trouble is understanding that if an alternative newspaper is indeed a stew, too much of one ingredient or spice can ruin that stew. I use that analogy knowing full well that folks in Utah aren’t used to eating stew. They generally like their news spoon-fed to them, they don’t like to switch brands, and if they see something different in the news pantry, they fear it as a child fears broccoli. Don’t even mention to them a stew can be flavored with any number of spices. Utahns are born spice averse.

Many years ago, I had a Sunday dinner at a girlfriend’s house, and her mother produced the toughest, blandest, most overcooked roast beef dinner known to man. If I had a conscience, I would have become a vegan on the spot. Not a grain of pepper or salt had been used to season the roast, a system of cooking that I now understand is the reason many Utahns abandoned home-cooking for McDonald’s. In contrast, the tender roasts my mother cooks are laced with flavor, thanks to heavy doses of garlic and oregano.

My girlfriend tried to cook like my mother one Sunday and ruined the roast by overseasoning it. It tasted like a weed patch. And back to the analogous alternative-newspaper stew, it’s a tough balance to know when to add one ingredient at the expense of another; when to know if you have seasoned just right or have nearly poisoned your readers. Like a bad cook, I confess to sometimes sticking too long to some tried-and-true newspaper stew ingredients.

I’ve been writing columns and helping with stories here for 25 years. I remember what the late Richard Barnum-Reece wrote over 20 years ago on these pages about the Deseret News. To wit: “The Deseret News is a gob of spit on the face of journalism.” Well, how do you top that? We can’t, but Richard would insist we keep adding our spice to his own. So, if writing about daily newspapers is our oregano, how do we know when we’ve used too much of it in our newspaper stew? We normally don’t until a reader pukes.

And if writing about the dailies is our oregano, maybe writing about gay issues is our fennel. Perhaps writing about the environment is our garlic, while writing about sleazy politicians is our salt and pepper. We can overdo any of them, and it’s plain that it’s going to happen often because we feel our news ingredients—our spices—are the important ones since we don’t cover temple weddings or high school reunions. I wish we did today, though, because writing about the human costs of war has been our nutmeg. With what follows, I’m completely out of nutmeg.

Today, it was announced that 1,000 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan, that the costs of that war are equal to the costs of the war in Iraq, that there is no end in sight and that the Taliban remains as strong as ever. Many people have no taste for nutmeg, anyway. To them, war is like my girlfriend’s mother’s roast—uninviting, not worth chewing on, and best left in the oven where no one can see it.

John Saltas:


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