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The Biggest Story Anyone Can Remember poses a conundrum for any hometown newspaper from a hometown that isn't New York or Washington, D.C. On one hand the story of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath is epic, moving, and deeply relevant to every American. On the other hand it is strangely limiting from a news standpoint. Daily life in the two brutalized cities will be disrupted for a very long time, and that's important there. But real news outside the Northeast became scarce only days after the World Trade Center fell and the Pentagon burned. From Tuesday's vantage point, America's New War remains issue-rich and news-poor.

And that's the kind of story most daily newspapers -- long ago relegated to third-tier status behind TV and the Internet when it comes to breaking news -- are ill-equipped to handle. After the news plays out, there's an inevitable slide into maudlin sentimentality. For proof we offer two of our beloved hometown newspapers, the Sun-Sentinel and The Miami Herald .

Both papers got off to strong starts by focusing on national news, relying heavily on wire copy and on-scene reports from journalists in New York and Washington, D.C., and stuffing the pages full of graphics, lists of victims, and photos. To their credit editors recognized early that their readership had a new thirst for international news. Prior to September 11 dispatches from abroad were given less space than comics in many American newspapers.

No daily editor worth his middle-management paycheck, however, can resist the urge to localize a big story. That's where things fell apart.

Mawkish coverage took longer to get to South Florida newspapers because of the astonishing fact that most of the hijackers lived and trained here -- i.e., real news to report. But after dozens of "he drank at my bar!" and "he used our library!" stories, even that glass was drained, and now we're down to the dregs. Sun-Sentinel columnist Rekha Basu went to the empty Hollywood apartment of suspected hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, and wrote a September 20 think-piece on their "normal" lives, a journalism cliché so time-worn you can't even get a laugh out of it as a joke anymore. The same day The Miami Herald gave prominent ink to a jingoist in Pembroke Pines who hung Osama bin Laden in effigy from a tree in his front yard. They "balanced" the story with a report of three Opa-locka firemen who took heat for objecting to an American flag on their fire truck. In those two stories reside the two possible reactions to the attacks, at least in the shorthand of daily news reporting.

Both papers are guilty of endlessly retelling the "South Floridians lose loved ones" chestnut, which is the equivalent of grief as pornography. Then there's the laughable "South Floridians find manners" story, flogged in both papers, which anyone who has driven I-95 in the last few days knows to be a myth.

But Undercurrents is not one to gripe about a problem without offering a solution. This rogue tide suggests readers looking for thought-provoking journalism skip the local coverage in both papers and spend time with Salon.com, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times, all of which have risen to the occasion without sinking into the morass.

Back in the other world for a moment, Undercurrents extends a hearty congratulations to the Broward County Archaeological Society on its triumphant return to the South Florida Museum of Natural History.

After being voted off the museum's board of directors in June 1999 and then denied access to the area's preeminent repository of artifacts from the past, the BCAS, in the person of president Patricia Flynn, marched back into the boardroom earlier this month with lawyer Norliza Batts at her side. (Undercurrents was there too, but got kicked out of the meeting. Museum attorney Karl Adler gave this watery menace the boot, saying the organization is private and not bound by sunshine laws.)

Batts won a protracted court battle before Broward County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld. She and Flynn were all smiles when they walked in the door. "It's great to be home," Flynn said.

Look for more legal action in the future. Batts says she will file motions to get the BCAS full access to the museum and its collections, and force the board to change the name back to the Graves Museum of Archaeology.

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Bob Whitby

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