Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Is the Sun-Times off-kilter in DeKalb coverage?

I will concede that everybody has somebody who loves them.

Nobody is completely evil. And it probably is good not to automatically demonize people, even if they do something repulsive.

BUT THE CHICAGO Sun-Times is taking that logic to an extreme with its coverage the past couple of days of the shootings by a former Northern Illinois University student that left five current students dead, several others wounded and hundreds more mentally injured.

I thought it a bit strange when Mark Brown, the primary hard-news columnist for the Sun-Times, did a piece for the Sunday newspaper where he talked to people around campus who knew Steven Kasmierczak when he was a NIU student and were having trouble believing that the calm young man they knew would be capable of planning, then carrying out, a shooting spree.

Kazmierczak was a star of the sociology department who graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average and who went on to work on a master’s degree at the University of Illinois in Urbana – not exactly the type of person who fits the profile of a heinous criminal, except that Brown found some people who noted that Kazmierczak was having trouble coping with the additional expectations put on graduate-level students.

It was unlike other pieces of reporting I had been reading, most of which were the stereotypical story that gets written everytime some violent crime takes place – the perpetrator was a loner who “creeped out” everybody who had any slight contact with him, and reminded many people of Travis Bickle, the character Robert DeNiro played in “Taxi Driver.”

I HAD TROUBLE accepting the notion of Kasmierczak as an “ideal student,” but I am willing to give Brown credit for doing some serious legwork to track down these people and use his column to tell a different story than what everybody else had.

But the Sun-Times on Monday crossed over a line in trying to humanize Kasmierczak, and I’m still trying to figure out what their motivation could be.

A big huge full-page cover with the screaming headline, “He was anything but a MONSTER” and a second full page inside provided ample space for the story of an interview with Jessica Baty – Kasmierczak’s girlfriend of two years.

She talked of their last time together on Valentine’s Day, and their last telephone conversation just hours before the shooting took place. She also talked of the package she received the day after the shootings that contained some of his belongings.

“HE WAS PROBABLY the nicest, most caring person every,” Baty said.

Now as a former reporter myself, I fully understand the notion of giving big play to a shocking story. The first-person reminisces of a criminal’s girlfriend certainly count. While somewhat pathetic, Baty’s feelings for her boyfriend (whom she was living with in Champaign) can be news.

But such treatment would usually be reserved for a story that the newspaper dug up on its own, and that it had to itself. What a newspaper wants to do in such a situation is create a dramatic front page image that makes people want to plunk down their two quarters at the newsstand or in a newsbox and buy a copy of the paper.

Then, they want that front page to get photographed and used as a background shot over the head of the news anchor on television newscasts across the country as part of their own coverage of the Dekalb shootings (most of which will consist of reading wire service copy while shots are broadcast of police milling around campus).

BUT THERE WAS nothing “exclusive” about Baty’s interview. She talked to Cable News Network, which has been airing excerpts over and over and over both yesterday and today. Even as I write this Monday night, CNN is still playing the interview, and Baty’s tears continue to be choked down.

The Sun-Times is hyping a story that really isn’t their story. As far as I can tell, the story was put together from information compiled by four reporters, and most of it came from the person who took notes while sitting in the newsroom in front of a television set hooked up for cable.

Now there have been times when I, as a reporter, took notes off a television screen, then wrote them up into copy for a news story. The time that jumps immediately to mind was an incident nearly two decades ago when rumors were floating about that Oprah Winfrey and her longtime fiancé, Stedman Graham, were involved in an incident that involved police being called.

It didn’t really happen, but the talk had become pervasive enough that Oprah felt compelled to use a few minutes of her syndicated television show to address the matter. Hence, I wrote a few paragraphs based on what she said. It was a minor contribution, and it certainly wasn’t something I tried to hype into a major story the way the Sun-Times did in Monday’s paper.

IN ALL FAIRNESS, there are a few paragraphs that indicate some signs of actual reporting taking place. It appears someone actually went to the Baty family home in Wonder Lake to try to talk to Jessica, and get some original quotes for the Sun-Times. But that attempt apparently failed.

She isn’t talking anymore to anyone else, which is her personal right.

So all the Sun-Times got for having a reporter make the 70-mile drive to Wonder Lake was a colorful bit of detail that the Baty family had set up a sign in front of their home basically telling people to leave them alone while they “grieve and mourn” for what happened last week in DeKalb.

Now the Sun-Times was not alone in stealing quotes from Baty’s CNN interview. Jessica is also quoted on the front page of Monday’s editions of the Chicago Tribune.

BUT THE TRIBUNE’S approach was just to write a few Baty-related paragraphs saying that she had talked to the Atlanta-based news channel, and work them into the larger story that many students at Northern Illinois University were turning to local clergy people to try to cope with Thursday’s acts of violence.

In fact, I had to go looking very closely at the Tribune story before even realizing the same quotes from Baty were in both newspapers. The Sun-Times smacked me even before I paid for the newspaper with a full-page image of a tearful Baty, and a smaller photograph of Baty and Kasmierczak appearing to be the cute, adoring couple.

Now why does this bother me so?

It is because I do not understand why the Sun-Times is so willing to try to make Kasmierczak appear to be so typical.

ADMITTEDLY, HIS PHYSICAL appearance would not have attracted much attention unless he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, in which case his heavily tattooed arms would have stood out. But tattoos, in and of themselves, are not a criminal act.

But Baty, in her CNN interview, admits Kasmierczak’s final farewell to her during their last telephone call was different in that it was so final. She also noted he had stopped taking his prescribed medications a few weeks earlier, and had also begun purchasing more firearms – two of which he kept stored in the Champaign apartment they shared.

To my sense, this indicates someone who is planning a violent outburst. In his mind, he was plotting last week’s events for some time. While I can understand how Baty would not notice changes in his behavior until it was too late, to me it makes last week’s acts in DeKalb all the more premeditated, and repulsive.

Yet the Sun-Times wants us to think he’s almost as much a victim as anyone else who died last week.

IT HAS MADE me wonder. Would Kasmierczak be getting such a sympathetic view if he weren’t a “scrawny white male” (the original description offered by NIU campus police when the incident first happened)?

I can’t help but compare the view to the demonization being given to the, as of yet, uncaught gunman in a quintuple murder at a southwest suburban Tinley Park shopping center. In my mind, the only difference between Kasmierczak and the uncaught gunman was that after killing five people, Kasmierczak turned the gun on himself, while the Tinley Park gunman drove away.

We have seen multiple police sketches of the Tinley Park suspect, who clearly is an African-American man with elaborately-braided hair. We got to hear the eerie audio tape Monday of the store manager whispering into her cell phone while trying to tell police what was happening – just before she was shot to death.

VARIOUS CLERGY PEOPLE on Monday came forward to urge the man to surrender, saying he would suffer even more if his time on the run lasted much longer. Political people are trying to turn him into the poster child for resurrecting the death penalty, even before he is arrested.

Police are emphasizing that the man is a threat to everyone around him, and that people who are not giving up his identity to the police are really criminals themselves. I’d argue that Kasmierczak was just as much a threat by stocking up on firearms, although I’m not sure what legal methods could have been used to restrict him from owning so many pistols.

Were the actions at a suburban Lane Bryant store (a robbery attempt that got violent when the store manager tried calling police) really that much more heinous than what happened in DeKalb?


EDITOR’S NOTES: Northern Illinois University’s student newspaper found students who remembered living (http://www.northernstar.info/article/2354/) in an apartment building with Kasmierczak. They gave the stereotypical responses of a loner who they paid little attention to.

The Chicago Sun-Times tried to boost their own newspaper’s circulation with this pickup Monday (http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/799650,CSTNWS-NIU18.article) of an interview by CNN. Columnist Mark Brown did some serious reporting in coming up with this column (http://www.suntimes.com/news/brown/798118,CST-NWS-brown17.article) in the Sunday newspaper.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

/What is offsetting to me is the way that the NIU police and administration congratulated themselves after a job well-done. The president pontificated about the way the country was coming together and offering support, as well as, how the students were brave, no, they were victims, unwilling victims. I feel the same that this crime was premeditated and this guy (not a nice guy, who had too much time to plan this and made some fairly rational calls during his process). He was on med's which, by the by, when are the pharmecuetical companies going to start taking responsibility for these drugs. Stopping these drugs cold can increase symptoms by one and a half to two times the previous diagnosis, with intermittent psychosis. A lot of these drugs give patients violent dreams, suicidal, and homicidal ideations. Children have died from liver failure and they have a 40% effectiveness rating at best. And what the hell is this guy's cross doing on the memorial hill for these students. Not a victim, he made a choice. The president of NIU did not mention the students during Friday's conference. It was mostly ASS coverage. And if their reaction time was so great what did they do with the minute and a half after arriving at Cole Hall? This coverage is a big deal for the college that sits in a cornfield. A lot of the coverage was so sensational and lacking empathy with so many people looking for their 15 minutes. VA tech is there helping with a plan, Why, do they have anymore experience.....what about metal detectors, 35 years ago they had them in MD at some of the high schools. And are pastors really going to convince a black murderer to turn himself in? What is he religious? Did he hate women, they don't have anything on this guy. People are really depressed and fearful. A woman reported that she went to a Lane Bryant in Rfd. and the security guard actually went into her dressing room b/t changes of clothing. (head shaking) could we have more egotistical-retarded security people? Kind of symbolic of how our country is running. White men playing tag with killers. It's part of the ever screwed up political system. What values, who is valued, what is valued, maybe you know.