I worked in the newsrooms of Philadelphia and New York City tabloid newspapers from 1966 to 1976. Although U.S. tabloids were not as outrageous then as they are today, they did have their faults, including an emphasis on the sensational.
It’s popular to despise the media now, to blame the media for much of what’s wrong in the world. I don’t agree, and maybe some day I’ll write more about that. But today I want to make a personal apology — one that blames no one but me. To understand my confession, you’ll need to come with me through a dreadful night in October 1983.
I was at home in my comfortable apartment on the 32nd floor of a New York City high-rise that Saturday, the night the clocks would be rolled back. Around midnight, a phone call woke me. My brother, who had always been known by the nickname Ginger, had terrible news. The bodies of our uncle and aunt, 70 and 68 years old, had been found in their apartment in the Philadelphia suburbs. They had been shot to death.
“What? Edfdie and Margaret? What are you talking about? Who’d want to hurt them?” Both of them volunteered for various charities. Margret was a certified braille transcriber.
“Well, there was $400 in cash untouched in a dresser drawer, so it wasn’t a robbery.” Ginger seemed to think those words would mean something to me, but I had no idea what he was getting at. After a long pause, he added: “It could have been Barry.”
Then it fell into place. My cousin Barry, a year and a half older than me, had been a good pal as we were growing up. But when we reached our twenties, the symptoms of his paranoid schizophrenia began to set in. I had spent a day with Eddie, Margret, Barry and their two other sons just a couple of months earlier, and Barry, now 38, seemed OK. But no other explanation made any sense. Five days later, the police would take Barry in, and he would confess. A decade later, he would hang himself in his prison cell. But on that October night I had only questions.
“Does Marilyn [our sister] know?”
“Yes, we’ve talked.”
“Have you told Mom?”
“No, Marilyn and I decided we’d let her sleep and drive over in the morning to tell her.”
They were all in the Philadelphia area, and I was 90 miles away in New York. But I was worried. Our father had died some 25 years earlier, and our mother slept alone in her row house — with the radio on.
“What if she hears about it on the radio before you get there?” I asked. From Ginger’s answer, I understood that he and Marilyn were in shock and in some denial about how quickly the news might spread over the media, but I wasn’t going to argue, and I wasn’t going to sleep. I had left the news industry seven years earlier, but I still knew how Philadelphia’s news cycle worked. I called the city’s major newspaper, the Inquirer, and learned I still had time. I knew the story wouldn’t break until the early morning news crews began making calls to local police stations.
I let Ginger and Marilyn know that I’d rent a car, drive to our mother’s house, and sit outside and wait until 7 a.m. for them with Philadelphia’s all-news radio station on in my car. If the news broke before they got there, I’d go into the house and tell our mother.
That’s what I did. I parked across the street from my mother’s house some time between 3 and 4 a.m., and I waited and listened. At 6:30, I heard these words: “This just in. The bodies of an elderly couple…”
I wasn’t prepared for what those words did to me. They felt like an arrow of guilt piercing my soul. I had processed words like those scores, maybe hundreds, of times without giving a shit. They were all in a day’s work. Material, like cotton to make a shirt with. Now, though, it was my elderly couple, and I wanted to apologize to every family of every murder victim whose death I had written about.
I understand, of course, that we all need an objective distance to do our jobs, but that’s not a satisfying answer. So today I apologize to the universe.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine
2 Comments Add yours
I was a journalism student for the two years I spent getting my AA, and then another year at the University of Florida, so I am published in the Orlando Sentinel (just a handful of stories). Can’t say I ever went through this exact thing, but I do have an observation for you to think about: Speaking as someone who cares more often than not when I hear of somebody’s murder, I couldn’t have handled being a professional journalist. What I felt would have added to my depression, and probably given me a drinking problem worse than what I have now. I couldn’t have done it, for much the same reason that I couldn’t work as a doctor or a nurse. I admire people who can do it, but I just don’t have it in me. So please don’t be too hard on yourself. You did what you had to do to survive.
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As I read your comment, I realized I guess I’m proud, in a way, that I had that stabbing guilt feeling.
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