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 V.18 No.36 | September 3 - 9, 2009 

Feature

Blue Reporter in a Red State

A journalist burns out and breaks down in Small Town, U.S.A

I reported on a murder trial that seemed open and shut when I walked in one Monday morning for jury selection. A Norman, Okla. man stood accused of killing his brother. He said it was suicide.

He was obviously guilty. The brother had taken a single shot from a .50 Caliber Desert Eagle, a more than foot-long hand cannon designed by the Israelis. The shot was in the back of the head, and police found the suspect standing on the front porch smoking a cigarette and having a drink. (That seemed cold to me, but if your brother’s head had just become a Jackson Pollock painting on the ceiling, what would you do?)

The trial was scheduled to last all week, but I didn’t see why.

And then I witnessed the power of a team of defense attorneys. They argued that the dead man was distraught, a lifelong drug addict and alcoholic whose parents had both died within the past year. He allegedly had given his girlfriend the dose of drugs that killed her, and he had recently fallen off the wagon. Suicide was the logical next step for this man.

I wrote feverishly over the next week, working 14-hour days, getting both sides of the story.

The prosecution called an expert witness from the state police and a local detective. They swore that blood stains proved the defendant was guilty.

The defense then worked its magic. A good defense lawyer bombards a witness with questions to make him stumble and appear less than credible. This worked well on the local cop, who appeared to be unaware of multiple important details. The state investigator was exposed as a “partisan advocate,” my favorite quotation ever.

It was beginning to appear that the police had thought this man so guilty they did a half-assed job investigating.

Then the defense produced its own expert, a man who investigated shootings in Haditha, Iraq. He said the blood stains looked like suicide. A psychologist testified that the dead man exhibited nearly two dozen suicide warnings. It came out that another brother had killed himself in the same manner, a gunshot to the back of the head. The accused’s family, among them a retired police captain, testified as character witnesses.

The prosecution countered with this stellar argument: Just because the victim was likely to commit suicide doesn’t mean he did.

It was beginning to look like the guy was innocent.

The jury took about three hours, including lunch, to return with a “not guilty.” When I spoke to the defendant after the verdict had been read and the judge released him, he said, “Three years of hell over in less than three hours.”

I loved covering a good murder trial and absolutely adored rifling through police reports looking for the moon-walking drunk driver or the man stealing panties from K-Mart. It was my bread and butter.

I learned something that day. Things aren’t always as they appear. That guy, clearly guilty a week before, now pranced out of the courtroom.

When I look back, this is the day I first ran afoul of the metro police (but not, interestingly enough, the prosecutor who lost the case). I covered both sides of the trial. This had largely not been done in the past. The television station was especially notorious for presenting stories that made the defendant look guilty and the police look like heroes, guardians of the community. Upholders of the law. Whatever.

I approached this trial as objectively as possible. Now, I don’t have no fancy journalism degree, but I remembered that on the first day at my college paper they said to be objective and not to take sides. I’m of the mindset that if people want a nice little positive story about themselves, they should buy an advertisement.

I made some enemies that day.

The Beginning of the End

Never move to a state that has its own ethnic slur named after it.

I did, and it nearly drove me insane. I worked the police beat at a small city daily newspaper in Oklahoma, the most conservative state in America.

After college and a brief stint in Alamogordo, I left the mountains and clear blue skies of New Mexico for the rolling plains of southwest Oklahoma, beautiful in their own right.

But eventually, like the Joads before me, I would leave Oklahoma, though there would be no Dust Bowl, no bank repossession of the homestead, no desperate search for employment. (Actually, scratch that last one.)

My Great Depression was not caused by a stock market crash; it was caused by living in Oklahoma.

I was a lefty cop reporter, a blue reporter in a red state. A bad combination.

I lived where driving a Toyota Yaris is a political statement, where people call Barack Obama a “Muslim” but don’t actually mean he’s an adherent to Islam. Where Mexican food comes with Texas chili slathered on top. What can I say about “Texas chili”? Another name for it is “brown sauce.” I’m not kidding.

Not that there’s anything wrong with bad gas mileage, thinly veiled racism and Mexican food that would get a person stabbed if he tried to sell it in Albuquerque. Not at all. If that’s your thing, more power to you.

I worked the police beat, the hardest, most thankless job in the history of journalism. I have occasionally met police officers who respected what I did as a police reporter, but not often.

I embarked on what I called “John Bear’s Backwater Nightmare Tour.”

Covering deaths and felonies, however, surely beat languishing in a city council meeting. Democracy is boring. Someone getting his face smacked with a hammer, now that’s entertainment.

The police beat satisfied some deep-down sense of civic duty and the need for laughs at other people’s expense. I loved covering a good murder trial and absolutely adored rifling through police reports looking for the moonwalking drunk driver or the man stealing panties from Kmart. It was my bread and butter.

I met lots of people, including murder suspects, sociopaths, and enough lawyers and police officers to ruin watching "Law & Order," or any other cop show, forever.

True, the pay is terrible, interacting with cops can be infuriating, and many reporters get hooked on Vicodin and Chardonnay and die, but not before getting yelled at by hundreds of people.

But it’s damn interesting work. In any given day a police reporter could get to see kilos of cocaine, meth lab leavings or a dead body.

One day an old man gets bludgeoned to death by teen hoodlums, the next a drunken tire factory worker demands a refund from a prostitute. The possibilities are endless, and anything can happen.

But there’s a problem with working the police beat: You make all the powers-that-be incredibly mad. They hate being exposed as the jerks too many of them are.

I eventually made the upper echelons of the police department mad enough that the chief banned anyone from speaking to me. (They didn’t really speak to me anyway, but when they are actively—as opposed to passively—being unhelpful, it can be an issue.)

The stress of walking into a police station where a large percentage of the employees wants to bury you in the desert takes a toll.

How to Be a Police Reporter, the Right Way and the Wrong Way

There are three ways to do business with the police.

One is from inside their pockets. The easiest way to get in and stay comfortable there is to write fluff pieces about them, like human interest stories about officers who teach martial arts to kids or features about that new batch of assault rifles. While this is OK to do once in a while, overdoing it turns a reporter into a tool of the government. And if you’re a tool of the government, what’s the point of being a reporter?

A second is to get into an adversarial relationship. It’s easy to become frustrated and just work off the public record and not have to spend six hours of the day trying to hunt down a captain who doesn’t want to be found and won’t answer the phone or return calls. Truth be told, the department will often guilt a reporter into not using information found in public records. There’s plenty of stuff in those records they’d rather not see in the paper. Many times I found myself being intimidated into not using something on a report. I would leave an interview with less usable information than if I had just used the report.

Police watch the streets, keep the community safe. Journalists protect the First Amendment, keep the community informed.But that’s no reason to be a pompous ass about it.

While an adversarial relationship can be fun and make a reporter feel like a real rogue badass, it’s stressful and can lead to nervous breakdowns, heart attacks and other pathways to early death.

Third is mutual respect. This is hard to pull off. I’ve done it, but it isn’t easy. Under this scenario, the police understand that the reporter has a job to do, and they don’t piss themselves every time the reporter writes something that can be construed as less than positive.

But you don’t burn them, either. If something is off the record, one does not cite the source. One does not deliberately burn bridges. I got the police beat at my first paper by treating the sheriff with respect. He respected me right back.

Civilians get sick of macho cops, too. I noticed the women in my last police department were often subjected to sexual harassment. I treated them with respect and they repaid me with information. This worked until I got into it with the chief’s racist secretary.

Hey, at Least It's Not Afghanistan

Most of the people I knew at the college paper where I cut my teeth went to places like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

Not John Bear.

As an English major, my services weren’t in as much demand. Since there would be no editorial position at the New York Times, I embarked on what I called “John Bear’s Backwater Nightmare Tour.”

Journalism has taken me to places I never would have imagined.

First I went to Alamogordo, home of the first space monkey and graveyard to millions of E.T. video games. When the film came out, Atari made the game just in time for Christmas. It was so terrible, the company that made it paid Alamogordo to smash the games and bury them under a layer of concrete. People still come searching for them.

I took the police beat the first time an editor asked me what I wanted to cover. My job began one steamy night in Alamogordo. A man had barricaded himself in a hotel room and was threatening to kill himself. My editor sent me to get the story. I walked past the police line and was immediately intercepted and escorted away, asking questions the whole time.

My first time out ended in failure. True, I didn’t get the story, but the police appreciated my moxy and complete disregard for my own safety.

While an adversarial relationship can be fun and make a reporter feel like a real rogue badass, it’s stressful and can lead to nervous breakdowns, heart attacks and other pathways to early death.

I once stood outside a crack house where a drug dealer was holed up and refusing to come out. While I waited—and waited—his customers berated me for being a snitch. The police eventually fired pepper balls into the house and the man begged to come out.

I’ve also watched dozens of volunteer firefighters line up on a ridge to battle a grass fire propelled by 40 mph winds. The smoke blotted out the sun and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. Penned cattle climbed all over one another, frantic to escape.

I continued working with local, county, state and federal authorities. And it worked out well. They seemed to respect what I did. Sometimes they would even call and give me a heads-up about stuff going on around town.

Even when I had to write something less than flattering, the general response was, We don’t like that you have to write that, but we won’t hold it against you.

Liberal Media Bias (Reality)

I eventually took a job in Oklahoma, loaded the dog and cats and furniture, and struck out. I was excited to ply my trade in a larger city.

But I suffer from a condition known in the Midwest as being a “dirty liberal.” I didn’t realize that Oklahoma is the reddest state in the country.

It surprised me the first time someone called me a liberal and expected me to be offended. (It surprised me even more when no one at the police department would speak to me, because, the way they saw it, all reporters were filthy liberal scum.)

I learned during my travels that people expect police reporters to be conservative, because the law and order crowd tend to be more on the right of the political spectrum.

So I have some liberal leanings. I think people shouldn’t go to prison because they are addicted to drugs, and I’m against the death penalty.

At the same time, it doesn’t bother me if a person wants to own an AK-47 with armor-piercing exploding bullets. The way I see it, they’re more likely to shoot themselves.

I never let my political leanings get in the way of my job. A reporter reports the news; he does not form opinions about it. To do so would be unethical. I assured the people I covered that I was only interested in irrefutable facts.

What the Hell Is Your Problem?

I wasn’t kidding about pain killer addiction and death. The staff body count in the newsroom wasn’t staggering, but it was disturbing.

The first to go was Randy the Photographer. Randy was well-liked in the newsroom, though I nearly killed him during a brushfire because he liked to yell writing tips and orders at me. No writer wants to hear writing tips from a button-pusher. I sat in the car. Following him up the road as he snapped photos, I plotted his demise.

If people want a nice little positive story about themselves, they should buy an advertisement.

Randy’s bipolar disorder got to him before I could. He put his iPod on one morning, sat in his green Pontiac and gassed himself in the garage. We planted a tree in his honor at a local park.

The next to go was Bill the Police Reporter. Though Bill and I didn’t always see eye to eye on everything—he liked Ron Paul and said the digital television crossover was a harbinger of the New World Order—I did find him a fascinating character. He was a Texan who once received a commendation from the city for stopping the robbery of a cabbie. He held the robber and the cabbie at gunpoint until police arrived.

Pills, cigarettes, a bad heart, a pretty nasty pain killer addiction, a generally bleak outlook and a poor diet that consisted of corn dogs did Bill in. He died in Oklahoma, which probably pissed him off since he was born and raised in Texas.

The paper didn’t spring for a tree that time.

The reason I mention Randy and Bill is this: When Randy died the cops sang his praises. Randy had made them all look cool for 20 years.

When Bill died, they said he was a homosexual.

Yep. Bill had angered the entire department with a story about the family of a man known on the street as “Cell Boat” who was gunned down by police following a brief car chase.

The family of Cell Boat was distraught. Bill came down to the spot of the shooting, in the rough part of town, and interviewed the bereft. They said a number of unsubstantiated things concerning the shooting, including the belief that Cell Boat had been shot in the back.

It wasn’t true. It was a rumor. But Bill wrote up the story, was unable to contact the chief of police (big surprise there) and the story ran the next day.

It infuriated the police.

The story killed 20 years of work Bill had put in, during which time he wrote countless positive stories for the police who now shunned him.

And truthfully, I think the story was a bad idea. The shooting hadn’t been investigated yet and it seemed a little inflammatory. But it also seems harsh that one bad story would destroy a career.

In the end, the district attorney, a retired cop who had two sons on the force, declared the shooting justified. The official story indicated Cell Boat, holding a cell phone the officer mistook for a weapon, had advanced on the officer, who eventually fired three times, striking him in the neck and upper torso. Police found a half-ounce of cocaine at the scene and toxicology tests revealed the presence of PCP.

Sail on, Cell Boat.

Bill was disheartened, and he died a few months later in Duncan, Okla., home of Halliburton Industries. The cause of death was listed as congestive heart failure.

It was shortly after the funeral that the police began to suggest that Bill had been gay, a serious slur in Oklahoma having nothing to do with sexual orientation.

It was infuriating to have a co-worker dragged through the mud. They had to pay. But how?

Just keep going. That was the only way.

Bill’s supposed gayness is important because I learned something about police-mandated character assassinations. And I was the next person to catch a bullet.

John the Middle-Aged-Lady-Threatening Reporter

I never understood why I couldn’t get on with the police in Oklahoma. At my first police writing gig here in good old New Mexico, the detectives would call and tell me, Get down to such and such address; we’ve got a murder/suicide and a story for you.

This really happened. An Alamogordo woman shot her husband through the eye, probably as he slept. Then she rolled him up in a piece of carpet, stuck him on the back porch and went on the bender to end all benders. When the police showed up about six weeks later looking for the man, the woman said, “Hold on a second” through the door and shot herself. A detective told me they didn’t hear the shot because her head had acted as a disposable silencer.

It was nice to get those little extra bits of information, even those unfit to print. And it was nice to speak with detectives. The lower the rank, the more they know. And the better the story.

I was not afforded this luxury in Oklahoma. The chief of police one day decreed that no officer below the rank of captain was authorized to speak to the press. Good luck finding a captain. He was “not in the office” or “in a class” or “off for the week.” If and when he was found, the answer was invariably a shoulder shrug and something that sounded like “Iowno.”

This is what passes for leadership in Oklahoma law enforcement. The chief bore an uncanny resemblance to former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. He drove a giant truck emblazoned with an eagle and American flag on the grill. When I first entered his office and saw Fox News blaring out of the television, I knew I was doomed.

He eventually banned even captains from speaking to me after I refused to omit a detail embarrassing to his department from a story. This is the detail: A man who was too drunk to stand at the time of his arrest hanged himself in a holding cell with a phone cord. The police didn’t want the phone cord mentioned because the state jail inspector gasped when he saw phone cords long enough to reach inside the cells and aid a suicide.

The chief’s displeasure was expressed not by himself, but through his secretary, a bell-shaped woman of about 50 with enormous helmet hair and a thick twang. She once confided to me, pretty much out of the blue, that she was angry her daughter had married a black man named Cookie. She said interracial marriage was still “frowned upon in the community.”

The secretary said that if I printed the phone cord tidbit I would be “blacklisted.”

I told her that, with all due respect, I would not placate an uncooperative police department, that to do so would only open the floodgates of requests to suppress information.

She apparently ran to her boss and told him I had threatened to “placate her.” He called, yelled and said that if I thought the department was uncooperative before, just wait. He also accused me of threatening his secretary.

That left me with public records, which I was required to read on a tiny section of police station counter, as I was forbidden to walk through the department. My visitor’s pass was confiscated and I was given one that said in bright red letters, "Escort Required."

Just like Bill the Gay Reporter, I was now John the Middle-Aged-Lady-Threatening Reporter.

We’re Not All That Different, Are We?

This bitterness defied logic, as cops and journalists have a few things in common. There are plenty of self-righteous, arrogant jerks in both professions, people who think they are doing some kind of elevated, holy work. And it’s true to a certain extent. Police watch the streets, keep the community safe. Journalists protect the First Amendment, keep the community informed.

But that’s no reason to be a pompous ass about it.

Journalists and police spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for something to happen.

Most people hate cops and journalists—that is, until they need one.

Both newspapers and police stations have a chief.

Cops and reporters gather information and organize it in reports and stories.

So far I have only spoken with one police officer about these similarities. He brought it up, not me. I thought he had a good point. No one else has agreed. Usually they look at me like I’m crazy, which tends to discourage the formation of contacts.

I’ve read that both professions have inordinately high numbers of sociopaths polluting their ranks. I can’t speak for the police, but I can believe it about journalists.

Fine, We’re Not All That Similar

Police and reporters also have some marked differences. Police are macho men. They like testosterone, and the job does require a certain amount of bravado. They get into dangerous situations.

Reporters are verbal people, the nerds in school who suffered vicious beatings at the hands of the people who later became police officers.

This difference, and shared history, causes tension. A sheriff’s detective told me he hated talking to reporters because one made him look stupid in a story.

I have often felt that officers think I’m a sissy because I carry a notebook and pen.

Police are snappier dressers. Reporters tend to dress worse than students.

Police carry guns. I once knew a reporter who did, too (see Bill, above), but guns are generally frowned upon in the newsroom.

So Long and Thanks for the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

After the secretary incident, I continued traveling to the police department every day to mine the reports for stories.

It was hard, but I made myself do it. If they wanted to fight, I was going to take it to the street. Everything was now fair game.

The irony of it angered me. Here was a police chief, nauseatingly patriotic and sworn to uphold the Constitution, unless, that is, he didn’t agree with a differing opinion, who had blackballed me. Sleep began to elude me. Weekends were spent loathing Monday morning.

But every dark cloud has a silver lining. Several of the rank-and-file detectives began talking to me. It was rarely anything on the record, but they warmed up to me. I guess they didn’t agree with their boss’ methods.

If I had stayed on, they would have become sources. Unfortunately, a panic attack struck me one morning as I entered the office. I went back only once, to get my hat. My run in Oklahoma had come to a sudden end.

 

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