Saturday, February 17, 2018

Death in the Afternoon

I had an unexpected day off work this week after my daughter fell ill as I was driving her to school the other day. Days like those can be a welcome respite from the everyday work-week. Sick as she was, I convinced my little girl to eat something and she began to perk up to the point where the two of us were able to have some quality time together. I was also able to take care of a few things I have a hard time accomplishing between work, family commitments and sleep. Despite all the great plans I had for the day, three o'clock rolled around and along with it, my body clock reminded me it was my low point of the day. So I took advantage of one more thing that I don't normally have the luxury of doing, taking an afternoon nap.

As I was planning on being quite useless for an hour or so, I decided to turn on the TV for that extra decadent edge. The plan to get some rest ended up being for naught as the local TV stations had pre-empted their regular programming due to a "breaking news" event. Today, those words don't have the same impact they once did. If you watch TV news at all these days, you're used to the words "breaking news" displayed across the bottom of the screen all the time. The problem is, news stories no matter how relevant, serious, or interesting, all have to break at some point. Flashing "breaking news" on the screen today is simply a way to draw attention to the story, the video equivalent an exclamation point. However, isn't the entire point of exclamation marks
lost if you use them at the end of every sentence?

On the other hand, breaking into non-news programming, as was the case the other day, is a different story. To this day I get chills whenever a program I'm watching is interrupted by a news report. It brings to mind words I heard for the first time over fifty years ago: "We interrupt this program to bring you a news bulletin." Those words are seldom followed by good news.

That was certainly the case the other day. Below the words "breaking news" on the screen, the bulletin was spelled out plain as day, a police officer was shot and killed in the middle of Chicago's Loop, in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. It seemed the two sets of words on the screen contradicted each other; the news was no longer breaking as the event had already concluded. The officer was shot, he died, and oh yes, not spelled out in the written bulletin, the shooter had been apprehended. The only thing breaking by the time I turned on the TV was the reporters filling in the details.

The most significant detail was the identity of the fallen officer. Mercifully, police officials were withholding his name pending notification of next of kin, and presumably allowing time for the immediate family to arrive at the hospital where he died. Sketchy reports trickled in that tactical officers from the Chicago Police Department had been pursuing a person of interest in a shooting that took place a few days before. A struggle ensued and the officer was shot. I had particular interest as I have a family member who is a member of a CPD tactical unit. When it was reported that the deceased was a district commander who joined in the pursuit, not a member of the tactical unit, I breathed a sigh of relief, followed by feeling tremendous guilt that my relief came at the expense of someone else's tragedy.

Despite no longer having a personal stake in the story, like the proverbial train wreck, I couldn't take my eyes off the continuous TV coverage. As the tragedy took place only one block from the studios of the particular station I was watching, there was more than ample news presence at the scene of the crime, with reporters tripping over one another to get their own angle on the story. By the time I tuned in, the massive Thompson Center had been evacuated of all but the most essential state employees. Its cavernous atrium was empty save for a handful of reporters and their crews with little to report other than how desolate the place felt. Another reporter out on the street didn't have much to report either, except at one point when a large group of plain clothes officers walked by. One of the anchors commented that, save for their badges which were prominently on display, they looked like ordinary citizens, which if I'm not mistaken, is exactly the point. Later, the same reporter managed to get an eye-witness to the event to speak to him. The witness said that the police apprehension of the suspect was remarkably calm and that the suspect was wearing a (bullet proof) vest, making the clear implication that the suspect may also have been a cop. Much to her credit, one of the news anchors made the observation that we shouldn't jump to conclusions by what was just said, what the man observed may not have been the apprehension but perhaps a normal exchange between officers on the scene. It turned out that what the man witnessed was indeed the actual apprehension of the suspect, yes he wore a vest, but no, he was not a police officer.

As there was so little to report at the scene, much of the coverage consisted of the voices of the talking anchors back at the studio reiterating the same points over and over again, accompanied by live shots from a stationary camera fixed on a neighboring building looking north on Dearborn past the Thompson Center showing a deserted street in the middle of what was soon to be rush hour, and another camera inside a news helicopter which hovered above the building showing more desolation.

The first meaningful contribution to the story came a little after 4PM when Chicago's Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson spoke to the press outside of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where the officer had been taken. A grief-stricken Johnson, close to tears, identified the policeman as 31 year CPD veteran Paul Bauer, who was commander of the 18th police district on Chicago's Near North Side. In his brief statement, Johnson said that while "any loss of life in this city is tragic, this one is (particularly) difficult."

Bauer's body was eventually taken to the medical examiner's office escorted by a convoy of several police and fire vehicles, a long-standing tradition of honoring fallen police and firemen and women similar to one I witnessed and wrote about almost eight years ago.

I have to say the continuous coverage of the story prior to Johnson's press conference did not serve the story well, nor did it make for particularly compelling TV.  Between turning the TV on where I learned all the significant facts of the story, until Superintendent Johnson gave his moving words to the press an hour later, I learned virtually nothing about the tragedy other than speculation about what might have happened, much of it turning out to be wrong.

Having just said that believe it or not, I don't mean this to be a criticism of the way the TV station covered the story. I have complete sympathy for the program director who was faced with a difficult decision: stay with a tragic, important story, even when there was nothing to report about it, or return to regularly scheduled programming, (and the ad revenue that goes along with it), which would have seemed trite and disrespectful, given the gravity of the situation.

They say that live TV news coverage was born with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the first time I heard the words "news" and "bulletin" used together. Walter Cronkite, one of the men who broke the news to a startled nation, said years later that back in those days, when news departments were the poor stepchildren of the TV networks, they didn't keep cameras "warm" in the studio. So when they needed to go on air immediately with an important story, all they could do was display a card with a graphic on the screen, while the voice of the reporter delivered the bulletin in the background. Hard to imagine today, but after those first bulletins that the president had been shot were delivered on the three networks, all of them went back to regularly scheduled programming until they had something new to report. I remember my kindergarten teacher furiously switching between channels to get more information, only to be frustrated when all she could find were the daytime soap operas. They finally got the tube-driven cameras warmed up and running by the time the news arrived that the president was dead and as far as I can recall, the news departments did not relinquish control of the networks until three days later after Kennedy was buried.

Since then it has become de-rigueur for TV news departments to take over the airwaves whenever a big story is breaking. Needless to say, technology has enabled the producers of news programming to get shots and to go places never thought possible back in 1963, but the essential ingredients of gathering news and getting the facts right before going on air with the story, haven't changed. It is, as we saw the other day a laborious, and frustrating process, fraught with many perils. As the German statesman  Otto von Bismark famously said: "Laws are like sausages, it's better not to see them being made." Perhaps we can add news gathering to that list.

Despite all that, with perfect twenty twenty hindsight, I think the TV station did the right thing by staying with the story, if for no other reason than out of respect for Commander Bauer and the police department.

I stopped watching after Superintendent Johnson's comments and got on with my day. As usual for me, I had the radio on in the background. I was only a little bit surprised that the radio station, our local NPR outlet, had a much different take on the story. It occurred to me that the radio was on all day and yet I had absolutely no idea of the shooting which took place at least one hour before the TV came on. After I switched back to the radio, the only mention of the tragedy was during the traffic reports, steering listeners away from the area where there had been a "police shooting". That choice of words made it impossible to determine if an officer had been shot, or did the shooting. Later when the procession to the medical examiner's office took place, the dispassionate voice of the traffic reporter told listeners to avoid the area of such and such because of a "procession of police vehicles." Little if any effort was made to connect the procession with the shooting. Later, a local news segment led off with the story of Commander Bauer's death, but it was immediately followed by an unrelated story about a corrupt policeman being acquitted of some charges. If you weren't paying close attention to the reports, you could have easily tied the two stories together, as my wife did.

One could easily say that the TV station over-played the story while the radio station under-played it. The takeaway from my experience of that day is that it's wrong to assume that one and only one news outlet has the key to all the facts, let alone the "truth." If we have any interest at all in being well informed, it's essential that we question everything we read, see and hear, and always remember to "touch that dial", better yet, crack open a book or a magazine on top of that.

In the end of course it hardly matters how the story was handled by the different news outlets in town. Without a doubt all that matters is the tragedy of a life cut too short, of a daughter losing her father, a wife her husband, neighbors, friends and acquaintances losing someone dear to them. It's the tragedy of the city losing someone who by all accounts was a dedicated professional, whose 31 years of experience in a difficult job was indispensable, and will be impossible to replace.

My thoughts are with Commander Bauer, his family and his brothers and sisters in the Chicago Police Department as he is being laid to rest today. May he rest in peace.

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