Richard Reeves

What's New? Not the News

LOS ANGELES -- Our kids made sure that the book of New York Times front pages from the past hundred years was the last Christmas gift opened at our place; otherwise, certain people -- a euphemism for Dad -- might have dropped out of the cheers and jokes to scan each page. Which is exactly what I began doing the minute everyone left.

The first four pages in the giant volume of the 20th century concerned the end of the 19th, most notably the death of Queen Victoria -- called "the most respected of all women, living or dead" -- reported on Jan. 23, 1901. Then came the assassination of President William McKinley on Sept. 7 of the same year. The end of an era in Victoria's case. Perhaps the beginning of a new kind of America with the rise of Theodore Roosevelt in the second.

I was hooked, deciding to see what had been reported as the top 10 stories of what began as the century of newspapers, passed by radio and television and ended as the century of personal computers and the Internet. The last two front pages were dominated by a federal judge's ruling that Microsoft was a monopoly and a survey headlined: "Computers Prevail in the First Hours of '00." The year 2000, that is.

The idea was ridiculous, of course. There were millions of biggest stories, public and personal. But there were patterns and there were also a couple of huge stories that did not emerge whole on one great day, most important the triumphs of what we now call "public health," beginning with magnificent efforts to improve water quality and sanitation. That was arguably the biggest story of the century, doubling the life span and remaking totally the health and productivity of billions of people.

The other overriding story, the technology explosion, which empowered humans in ways that changed the lives of each and all of us, did make news as it happened. Breakthroughs in medical science were not always apparent at the time. But inventions in physical sciences did lend themselves to headlines, beginning, on Oct. 18, 1907, with: "First Wireless Press Message Across the Atlantic." The story, as Cole Porter later told it in song, was that Marconi was no phony.

Then, almost exactly one year later, the Times headlined: "$100,000 Is Gained by Airship Flight." Wilbur Wright had stayed in the air for 64 minutes over Le Mans, France. He was no phony, either.

Then came the rights revolution, beginning, at least in this volume, on Oct. 13, 1911, reported under the headline: "California Farmers Give Vote to Women." The story was that women won the right to vote in state elections, even though men in the great metropolis of San Francisco voted heavily against the idea whose time was coming. But, said the paper, there was "an avalanche of votes from Los Angeles and other rural areas."

Then, more then 50 years later, on Oct. 2, 1962, from the University of Misissippi: "3,000 Troops Put Down Mississippi Rioting and Seize 200 as Negro Attends Classes."

Finally there were the headlines of war and depression, more closely linked than many realized as they skimmed the morning paper:

June 29, 1914: "Heir to Austria's Throne Is Slain With His Wife by a Bosnian Youth to Avenge Seizure of His Country."

March 16, 1917: "Revolution in Russia; Czar Abdicates"

Oct. 30, 1929: "Stocks Collapse in 16,410,030-Share Day" March 6, 1933: "Roosevelt Orders 4-Day Bank Holiday,Puts Embargo on Gold, Calls Congress"

Aug. 2, 1934: "Von Hindenberg Dies at 86 After a Day Unconscious; Hitler Takes Presidency"

After poring over those old pages for hours, I looked out to see the papers in the driveway to try to guess which headlines might mean something in a year or a hundred years. The ones I saw last Thursday concerned some of the same old, and ever new, subjects: economics, religion, technology and growth. The New York Times headlined: "Sharp Shift for China's Economy as Entrepeneurs Woo Investors." The Los Angles Times had two that might resonate: "The Chilling Goal of Islam's New Warriors" and "Electric Utilities Seek up to 30 Percent Rate Hike."

China is more open to the West than it has been in half a century. Islam seems destined to confront the world and ideas that have spread from the West for 10 centuries or so. California is trying to deal with a calamity that followed deregulation of its public utilities just this year.

So life goes on. We grow, we change, but still there are the same old stories. Happy New Year.

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