MADMAN BITES OFF LOVER'S FACE
BOY, 3, SAVAGELY BEATEN
LEGLESS DRUNK SUES FOR $600M
TWO TONS OF COKE SNAGGED
CRACKHEAD CHARGED IN SLAY
Those are recent New York headlines. None of them has the lasting popularity of the New York Post's famous "HEADLESS MAN IN TOPLESS BAR," but they at least show some initiative.
The big difference between Washington journalism and New York journalism shows up in the area of crime. New York has great crime reporters. They hit the streets running, round up witnesses, photograph crime scenes, spin the story with swagger, follow up the story, and manage to always find a clucking neighbor to comment on the tragedy of it all. It's a long proud tradition practiced by a fraternity almost as close-knit as the cops they cover.
For guys like Ernest Tidyman, the former Cleveland crime reporter who became editor of the New York Times Magazine before writing "Shaft" and "The French Connection," murder was always a form of New York street theater, fascinating for the absolute uniqueness of each crime. More than a 100 years ago, Lincoln Steffens, working for the New York Post, created a "crime wave" simply by reporting the burglaries and robberies that none of the other papers were interested in. His series of articles created envy in the other newspapers, forcing the great Jacob Riis of the Evening Sun to match him story for story. All the other papers then reluctantly followed, until the cries for police action became so loud that the reporters all agreed to knock it off because it was causing everyone to work too hard.
I tell this story because crime is one of the most manipulated parts of the newspaper. You can visit some of the most crime-ridden cities in America and, by reading the newspaper, think that the most shocking thing that happened the day before is that a mangy malnourished dog was found by the side of the road. And you can go to some of the safest areas in America -- like Wheeling, W.Va., -- and find papers that read like detective novels every day of the week.
Crime is sort of the ultimate test of a newspaper's reporting ability, though. It's Breaking News 101. It happens fast, and it usually involves people about whom nothing is known. By its nature crime reporting is full of land mines -- lots of chances to get facts wrong or fail to get the story behind the story. A lot of the reporting has to be based on hearsay. A lot of the witnesses are biased and enraged.
The police are both your friend and your enemy -- they provide the leads, but they always have reasons to withhold information. The families you interview are always either grief-stricken or suspicious, and rarely in the mood for questions. In the cities that have organized crime or gangs, the great crime reporters normally have as many sources among the bad guys as they do within the police force. To do it right, you have to be both sneaky and charming.
But the main difference between a good crime story and a great one always comes down to the question "Why?" Anybody can describe the body and the bullet-holes. Very few can find out how and why the body got there in the first place.
Anyway, I've been having these thoughts for the past six months or so, ever since I started reading The Washington Post every morning. After a few weeks I had this gnawing feeling of "What's wrong with this picture?" And then I realized -- no crime!
Of course, I don't mean literally no crime. They cover the Chandra Levy case. They cover corporate malfeasance. Every once in a while a criminal oddity will make it to page B1, but almost never to the actual front page. It's almost as though they're EMBARRASSED by crime. If you're in the market for good murders and con games and armed robberies, you'll have to look very long and hard indeed. At first I thought this was just the nature of the city -- boring commuter bureaucrats, windbag politicians, foreign diplomats, think-tank careerists. You don't really think of the place as Damon Runyon Land.
But then I found this little unremarkable column on an inside page of the Metro section called "Crime & Justice." The reason I didn't notice it right away is that it has THE most mind-numbing subheadings in the history of headline writing.
Here's one random example:
"Victim of Fatal Shooting Was SE Man"
The whole story is exactly three short paragraphs. You have to read it slowly because it's packed with so many addresses, ages, "police saids," and the like, but what happened is that, at the corner of East Capitol Street and Southern Avenue, THREE men were shot all at the same time. Two were wounded, one killed. And then the gunman left in a "vehicle."
This is something out of the Wild West! THREE GUYS on a street corner, gunned down by a lone gunman? If this happened in Manhattan, the headlines would be:
BLOODBATH ON 96TH STREET
MAD KILLER SPRAYS LEAD
"HE HAD THIS LOOK IN HIS EYE," SAY WITNESSES
I mean, the cop-shop guys would just be ALL OVER this. But "Victim of Fatal Shooting Was SE Man"? Are you kidding?
At any rate, once I found this little column, I started reading it every day, line by line, very slowly, piecing together the sketchy details on each crime report, and I have to conclude after several weeks of this that Washington has GREAT CRIMES. Washington has AMAZING crimes. What Washington doesn't have is great crime reporters.
Here's a typical story, in its entirety, from the Post:
"Police arrested a 23-year-old Southeast Washington man yesterday and charged him in the April 19 slaying of a Northeast Washington man, police said.
"Stanley Holmes, of the 5100 block of H Street SE, allegedly shot Michael A. Corley Sr., 32, several times. The shooting occurred in the 4400 block of Quarles Street NE, police said.
"Corley, of the 1500 block of Anacostia Avenue NE, died shortly after the attack."
You see what I mean about having to read it slowly? It's basically just a list of addresses, dates, neighborhoods, ages, and somewhere in there -- oh yeah, almost forgot -- a MURDER. No motive. No speculations! No interviews with survivors. (We know the victim has a son because he uses "Sr." after his name.) No quotes from the suspect's lawyer saying it's a case of mistaken identity. I would say half the murders reported in the Post include the phrases "found shot to death" and "no suspects and no motive." And yet nobody ever runs over to the neighborhood and tries to FIND THE MOTIVE!
OK, so maybe it's a couple of nobodies. Maybe the crime was motivated by something mundane like a two-bit drug deal or a street robbery. But reporters such as Jimmy Breslin have spent entire careers taking the deaths of nobodies and turning them into poetry. Even on just the "murder of the day" level, a major national newspaper ought to be able to do better.
Let's take a random "small murder" from the New York Daily News and see how they handle a mundane shooting:
"A 25-year-old man has been arrested in the slaying of an immigrant carpenter who was gunned down in his Bronx apartment building on Good Friday, cops said yesterday.
"James Paige shot Nicholas Srikishun once in the head on March 29, during an apparent robbery in the lobby of 265 E. 176th St. in the Tremont section, cops said. Paige was nabbed Saturday, police said.
"Srikishun, a 35-year-old Irish-Indian immigrant from Guyana, had just been paid that day in cash, his family said.
"'Somebody must have asked him for money,' his father, James Srikishun, said. 'I don't think he wanted to give it.'
"His family buried him with his tools.
"'He was born Christmas Day, and he died on Good Friday,'
James Srikishun said yesterday. 'Just like Jesus.'"
Now THAT is somebody who knows how to report and write a crime story. All great crime stories either break your heart or make you furious. This one is a little masterpiece. (It was reported by Alice McQuillan and Maki Becker.) A Christ-like CARPENTER being buried with his tools far from his homeland -- that breaks your heart AND makes you mad.
The Washington Post is not ALWAYS inept at crime. Sometimes a little item in "Crime & Justice" will grow and expand and end up as a full-fledged news article. You'll still have to search for it, but it will be, say, 10 paragraphs instead of two.
One of the best recent Washington-area crimes started with a couple of tourists who disappeared while vacationing in Ocean City, Md. It turns out they were dead, but nobody would have KNOWN they were dead if the alleged killers hadn't tripped a burglar alarm while robbing a Hooters.
This bungling married couple was busted while loading Hooters T-shirts, hats and cigarettes into their Jeep Cherokee, and police then found items in the Cherokee that belonged to the missing people. When they searched the condo of the Hooters thieves, they found evidence of foul play, and shortly thereafter they got a confession from the wife -- her husband had shot the tourists, butchered their bodies, stuffed them into garbage bags, and dumped them in a Rehoboth Beach dumpster. But here's my favorite detail. The alleged killers live in Altoona, Pa., where they run a scrapbook-assembling business called Memory Laine.
Great story, right? I had to do a LOT of work to piece that sucker together. The Washington Post doesn't use words like "foul play," "butchered," "stuffed" or "dumped." The Post's policy is apparently to squelch all the Sam Spade detail out of every crime story. There's probably much more to this story, but we'll never find out, especially if they plead guilty and there's no trial.
But if you search through the Post Metro section like a medieval scholar looking for clues, you'll find all kinds of stuff. Three guys go at each other with tire irons on the Capital Beltway! Racial brawl at a high school! (You don't know it's a racial brawl until the fifth paragraph.) A 19-year-old Asian student at Montgomery College vanishes, Chandra Levy-style! A carjacking leads to a double murder that leads to a guilty plea that leads to two consecutive life terms plus 70 years! The defensive line coach for the Baltimore Ravens opens a can of whup-ass on his neighbor after they start arguing about their children! A 14-year-old shoots and kills another teenager in broad daylight on the streets of Temple Hills, Md!
And here's one of my favorites. A man named William M. Cronan Jr. of Clifton, Va., walks up behind his wife while she's working at her computer, shoots her twice in the back of the head, puts the gun down on a chair, dials 911, tells the operator he's killed his wife, waits for police, confesses, and pleads guilty. And no reporters ever ASK HIM WHY HE DID IT!
A whole lot of people in Washington are shot in their cars. A man in the passenger seat of a Honda Accord shoots a 17-year-old driver in the face. A 28-year-old is found dead in his 1992 Chevrolet Corsica, shot several times in the body and head. A 20-year-old is found dead behind the wheel of his Ford Thunderbird. (Notice we always get a description of the car, but we rarely get any context for the crime.)
One story that did make it to the front page of the "B" section was the murder of a modeling agency owner named Michael J. Myers, who was found beaten and stabbed to death in his offices on March 17. Again, it's hard to piece together the whole story, but eventually a guy named Markus Johnson was arrested. Apparently Johnson had gone to the agency at night to "retrieve clothing and money." (All KINDS of questions raised by that phrase, but they're not answered or speculated on in any of the coverage.)
When Johnson got there, Myers asked him to pose for pictures. While Johnson was putting his clothes on, Johnson claims that Myers told him how attractive he was and then "rubbed against him." At the same time he was rubbing against him, Myers allegedly asked Johnson to kill a woman who threatened to take over his business. (Makes no sense, but again, no speculation allowed in the Post.)
There were pushes and punches. Myers threw a bottle. The assault grew violent. Johnson hurled a piece of shelving, a floor buffer and a computer monitor (!) at Myers--in self-defense, he says! Johnson then went to the kitchen, got a hacksaw (!) and slashed Myers' neck with it. After that he went BACK to the kitchen, found a knife, and used it to do some more slashing and stabbing. In his final act before he left the building, Johnson tacked the hacksaw to a corkboard with two pictures of the woman Myers allegedly asked him to kill. He was arrested three days later and says he was only defending himself.
OK, one more and then I'll stop.
The entire lingerie department at Bloomingdale's went up in flames. But that's not the story. Here's the clincher, though. On the SAME day an arsonist set a rack of women's clothes on fire at J.C. Penney, and a shopping cart full of clothes was set afire at a nearby Ames store. All three fires occurred within a one-hour period. My only regret about this is that it didn't happen in New York.
BRA BURNING BAFFLES BLOOMIES!
BOUDOIR FIREBUG STRIKES THRICE!
COULD IT BE A SPURNED CROSS-DRESSER? "THE PANTIES WENT FIRST, THE CHIFFON ROBES SMOLDERED" You gotta know what you're doing when this stuff happens.
(Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for United Press International and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)