Tragedy and Media Irresponsibility

Posted: Aug 22, 2006 12:00 AM

When I was a reporter for the MILWAUKEE SENTINEL (now the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) we had four deadlines. The first was 6:00 PM. The papers printed after that deadline were trucked to places such as Superior and Ashland, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Since I covered City Hall, I often had a difficult time writing stories about what happened at a City Council meeting which had concluded only an hour earlier. Our last deadline was midnight. Most often no change was made after the final deadline but if a late-breaking story made it to the newsroom by 11:30 PM or so it could be quickly written and inserted in lieu of another article. I saw this happen only twice while I was at the paper. Most often I wrote for the 10:00 PM deadline, as did most of the reporters. Life was laid back. Even though our City Editor, Bob Wills, had the reputation as the toughest boss in town, I led a comparatively relaxed life forty-three years ago.

Then came an opportunity in television. The News Director at WISN-TV, then the CBS affiliate, Bob Herzog, had read a couple of the stories I had broken from City Hall. Someone told him I had been in radio. He called and asked if I would do an audition. WISN was beginning a morning news/talk half hour and going from 15 minutes to a half hour with other WISN newscasts. I got the job. So I had three deadlines.

The first was my newscast in the morning, which usually consisted of leftover news and clips from the night before and a few short items rewritten from the Sentinel's Midnight Edition. Then we had our 6:00 PM. deadline for the newscast which followed Walter Cronkite, who also was switching from 15 minutes to a half hour. And then the 10:00 PM newscast. Most of us who worked in the daytime were long gone before the deadline of 9:30 PM. One lonely soul was left in the newsroom to watch for late-breaking stories or to fix the film if it broke. Again, no pressure. On weekends we had only the 10:00 PM news. I was the anchorman but I also wrote the newscast. We billed it has a half hour newscast but in reality it was 15 minutes of news. There were five minutes of commercials, a five-minute Sportscast and a five-minute weather segment. Basically I had all day to prepare a single 15 minutes of news-hardly a difficult deadline.

Thereafter, I became News Director of a Denver Area radio station. We had news every half hour in the morning and evening rush hours and hourly newscasts in between. However our big newscast was at 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM. Those were each a half hour. After the major newscast was prepared (for which I had to arise at 4:00 AM each morning) I simply watched the wires for new developments and then used an actuality from the 8:00 AM newscast one at a time for the rest of the morning and into early afternoon. My colleague Gordon Bishop took over from me for the evening news. Despite hourly and even half hourly deadlines, in reality there were two deadlines, one at 7:30 AM and the other at 5:00 PM. Upon a few occasions we were tracking a major story, one which produced breaking news throughout the day. But I could count with my right hand only the number of times we had to do that. So what seemed like vastly more pressure than the newspaper or television was not. I prepared one of those major newscasts, Gordon the other. We used material from the major newscasts both before and after the half-hour presentation.

I apologize for going through this litany. There is a point to all of this. Beginning Wednesday, the media has been agog over the supposed killer of JonBenet Ramsey, the six-year old who was murdered on the day after Christmas almost ten years ago. We now have seven 24-hour news operations. Two are slanted toward economic news but cover other stories and certainly do not hesitate to break in with bulletins when they feel it a requirement to do so. Three of the six are news/talk stations. Following newscasts the news is discussed by experts the network chooses, by panels of reporters or by hosts of one or the other particular News/talk hours. The 6th network and 7th local all-news stations really do have half-hour deadlines. So when there is a breaking story they will do almost anything to induce you to remain tuned all day. As soon as it was suggested that a murderer had confessed in Thailand last Wednesday the cable television news operations went wild. They are now the equivalent of the kid on the street corner, yelling out some blaring headline which was inflammatory enough to warrant a separate edition of the newspaper. Perhaps in old movies you see kids on the street corner yelling "Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Mayor ducks shots at City Hall!" In big cities with many papers there were often scenes of kids from competing papers trying to yell the loudest to get the attention of the folks on the street.

Newspapers have declined to the point that even in large metropolitan areas there are only two papers. Afternoon papers are a relic of the past-fewer and fewer each year. Now the big cities have morning papers competing with each other. In the afternoon you can turn to television.

There is a major problem with the story of John Mark Karr being tried and convicted for JonBenet's murder as soon as the story comes in. I heard "Breaking News" perhaps a couple hundred times in flipping channels when the story first broke.

I recall getting what I thought was a huge story. I brought it to the City Editor at the Sentinel. He questioned me as if I were on trial. I did not know many of the answers to his probing questions. In one aspect of the case he found my source contradicting himself. At the end, he told me "You can't go with this story until we clear up all the facts and contradictions." I pursued the story and guess what? It fell apart. My source had lied to me about certain details. We never used the story at all, even though there was some truth to it.

Had we had a news/talk television station I'll bet we would have had my story on the air the minute I brought it in. There is no one to check facts, no one to assure that the story is corroborated by others knowledgeable about the story. When you have 24-hour deadlines you want to get the story on as fast as is possible. Never mind whether John Mark Karr is the real killer or not. Is this man looking for his 15 minutes of fame? Is he looking for a prepaid ticket back to the United States (which he received, business class)? JonBenet's father and the Boulder County Colorado District Attorney both pleaded with the media not to jump to conclusions. There appear to be huge holes in Karr's story. His ex-wife says maybe he was with her in Alabama when the murder took place but, astonishingly, she cannot seem to remember. He told Thai authorities that he had picked up JonBenet from school. There was no school that day; it was Christmas vacation time. Now the media, having already tried and convicted him, looks foolish as it blares across the screens that Karr may not be the killer after all but rather somebody seeking a trip home and publicity.

I must admit I like having the news available to me at any time of the day or night I want it. And if I am driving there is an all-news radio station which covers the entire Washington Area. In addition there are five news/talk stations. But there is a tradeoff. That is especially true when stations are rated. That is when all of them, on television and radio, tend to be most prone to hype. I have no problem with news/talk stations raising all sorts of questions about a news story. That is in a way their job. Callers to these programs often have greater insight into the story under discussion than has the show host. Fine with me. What I object to is the kind of coverage John Mark Karr got from Wednesday through late midday Thursday. The media initially had this fellow getting the death penalty. They were speculating about charges against him and so on. Unless his DNA matches he likely would not be charged with murder. He would be charged with making up a phony story. It may develop that the news media ought to be charged with the same crime.