No place for a revival of 'The Great Dictator'


February 22, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

When I was a rookie reporter, I had to learn a unique and difficult skill.

It was called "dictation" and this is how it worked: When away from the newsroom and filing a story on deadline, you picked up a telephone and dictated the complete story off the top of your head.

I do not mean that you dictated facts to a rewrite man, who then fashioned it into a story. Nor do I mean that you wrote out the story longhand and then merely read it into the phone.

I mean that you held your notebook in one hand and the phone in the other and you began talking, composing the story in exact, word-for-word order as you spoke.

The most difficult part for me was remembering what I had already included and what I had left out. It was possible to ask the person who was taking the dictation to read back what you had dictated, but this took up valuable time.

I was never terrific at dictation, especially if the story went more than a dozen paragraphs or so. I simply found it too hard to keep that much stuff straight in my head.

The problem is that writing is almost always a visual act: You write in longhand in a notebook. You type on paper. You electronically put words on a computer screen.

But dictation eliminated the visual and made the writing process entirely mental.

I don't think anyone dictates anymore. With portable computers there is no need. You can type the story and then plug the computer into a telephone and do the entire job more elegantly, accurately and quickly than dictating.

But I have always wanted to think that I have never lost my old skills. That, like ice skating backwards, I could do it again if I really needed to.

The last time I had to dictate was on a hillside outside Beirut, watching an Israeli tank column blast its way into the city. I turned to the Israeli radio operator with me and asked him for a line to the United States.

Within minutes, I was connected with my city desk and was able to say: "This is Simon. The dateline is Beirut. And I'll be dictating." (Yes, I was a hot dog even then.)

But that was long ago and far away. Now, I write all my columns on computers.

When the computers are working.

Last week I find myself at the Hyatt Regency Hotel inside Union Station in St. Louis. I am covering Bill Clinton's cross-country sales trip.

The press "room" is a bunch of tables set up in the lobby bar of the Hyatt. A high school band is standing approximately 10 feet away and playing its interpretation of John Philip Sousa at full blast.

No matter. Why should reporters need quiet in order to work? Quiet would imply the need to think and the White House press staff doesn't believe we do that.

So I sit at a table, turn on my computer and watch the screen flash and then go black. The battery, which I had tested the night before, has now failed.

In the old days, when I used a Radio Shack computer powered by ordinary AA batteries, I could have raced into the Hyatt gift shop and purchased them by the handful.

But now I write on a sophisticated Toshiba computer, which takes very expensive batteries not usually found in the lobbies of hotels.

I struggle with the computer for several minutes; I phone our computer expert in Baltimore, but nothing works. A dead battery is a dead battery. So I call my desk and explain the problem to an editor.

"Can you dictate?" she says.

Can I? I stop to think about that. All I would have to do is dictate about 40 paragraphs. Forty paragraphs that not only tell a story, but contain devastating insights conveyed in a wry, human manner. And I would have to do do this with a high school band playing full blast in my ear.

But think what it would mean: It would mean that old skills, once learned, are never forgotten. It would mean that I could still ice skate backwards.

I open my notebook. I clear my mind. And then I clear my throat. And I scream: "Has anyone here got an extra Toshiba battery?"

A startled producer from NBC does. He gives it to me on the condition that I never scream like that near him again.

I slam the battery into my computer and write out my column in the usual way.

Why? Because at the last moment a simple thought occurred to me:

If I tried to ice skate backwards today, I'd break my damn fool neck.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.