Saving Whose Face? Systematic CYA By The Catholic Diocese

September 13, 2012

Somebody screwed up.  Somebody screwed up bad.

That’s all I could think back in May 2011 when I read the details of a Kansas City priest’s arrest.  Father Shawn Ratigan was behind bars on suspicion of producing child pornography and, it seemed, the local diocese knew of his habits for several months before turning him over to police.

I’ve resisted writing about this case for more than a year now because I knew I’d likely cover the criminal case against Mr. Ratigan (he’s no longer Father Ratigan).  I didn’t feel it was appropriate to comment on the case until a verdict came down for both his criminal charges and the historic charges against Bishop Robert Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Bishop Robert Finn became the first U.S. bishop convicted of protecting an abusive priest. (Photo taken by pool still photographer)

With the latter case ending last week in a flurry of masterful tactics that kept all but two clergymen out of hot water, here is my experience with the story.

This wasn’t just a case of child sexual abuse.  This wasn’t just a cover-up.

This was a case of blind faith and those willing to take advantage…again.

THE FIRST DAY

Neither of us really wanted the story.  As our 10:00 producer walked over to our desks and explained a priest was in jail on some kind of child sex abuse case, Dan Weinbaum and I looked at each other and cringed.

Former Catholic priest Shawn Ratigan in court.

Simply put, those stories are no fun for reporters.  There are several reasons for this besides the disturbing content of the story.  No one is willing to talk, there are no appropriate visuals for a broadcast story, and people entirely disconnected from the story except for their membership in a particular parish stare daggers at you as though you’re the actual predator.

Dan had recently taken on another less-than-desirable story assignment (we sometimes call it “jumping on the grenade”), so I grabbed the charging documents and started reading.

Somebody screwed up.

The accusations made in the affidavit amazed me.  If proven true, it looked like at least a half dozen diocese officials would have to plead to colorblindness but for all the red flags waved in their faces.

The very first sentence bothered me.

“On May 13, 2011, the Kansas City Missouri Police Department was notified that on December 16, 2010, a priest at a local church had been having problems with his personal laptop computer.”

Five months?  Five MONTHS it took to call police?  Somebody screwed up.

The charges said a diocese IT employee had found disturbing images of young girls’ crotches on Father Shawn Ratigan’s computer which appeared to be photographs taken by the priest, Ratigan attempted suicide the next day, and the diocese moved the priest away from his post at St. Patrick’s Parish in the Northland.  In the meantime, the diocese made copies of all the disturbing images, gave Ratigan’s laptop to his family members, and said family members destroyed the computer.  The call to police only came after the diocese determined Ratigan still wasn’t staying away from children as ordered.

When I called the diocese and got little response, a photojournalist and I drove downtown where I sat in the diocese lobby until a spokeswoman came out to talk.

I asked Becky Summers why it took five months for the diocese to report Ratigan to police.

“You’ll have to ask them,” Summers said.  “We’ve been in contact with law enforcement from the beginning.”

It was just the first in an embarrassing series of gaffes by diocese leadership as police and prosecutors both strongly denied they’d had any contact about Ratigan until recently.  The diocese retracted Summers’ statement hours later and then explained they’d consulted with a KCPD captain who was part of the diocese’s independent review board.

It would later be revealed that from December 16 to April 8, Summers and other officials within the diocese warned either Bishop Finn or his right-hand man Monsignor Robert Murphy to call police or “do something” no fewer than three times.

Somebody screwed up bad.

THE CRIMINAL CASE

By this, I don’t mean the criminal case against Ratigan.

With so much time elapsing before contacting police and so much activity in that timespan, I thought surely there would be more fallout here.

If the prosecutors deemed the images found on Ratigan’s computer child pornography, then weren’t the diocese’s actions technically possession and distribution of it?  Like teachers, aren’t clergy mandated to report suspicions of child abuse?

As I called around to people connected to the case around July and tried to find out if the diocese was in trouble, I finally asked a source within KCPD if I was barking up the wrong tree.

“No,” he said.  “You found the tree.”

Micheal Mahoney, a reporter with decades more experience and infinitely better sources than me, broke the story a couple of months later that Bishop Finn would be summoned to testify in front of a Jackson County grand jury.

The grand jury indicted Finn and the diocese on October 14 on two misdemeanor counts of a mandated reporter failing to report child abuse suspicions.

Finn became the highest-ranking Catholic official in the U.S. (and just the second bishop in the world) charged with protecting an abusive priest.

THE TRIAL

“Hopefully, there won’t be a fire.”

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence openly acknowledged his overflowing courtroom.  As I watched from the far corner, the crowd of reporters and spectators just kept coming in despite a lack of seating or even standing room.  People simply spilled out into open space instead of lining the already-full walls, much to the dismay of people who arrived early enough to get a seat.

With this being a surprise bench trial, all facts of the case had been agreed upon by the prosecution and defense.  I’d later find out why.

Before the trial officially started, defense attorneys filed a motion to “sever parties,” meaning only Bishop Finn was on trial for that day.  I’d later find out why.

Both sides presented approximately 10-minute statements, and I noticed something odd about defense attorney J.R. Hobbs’ argument.  I wrote in my notes, “Looks like defense knows judge will hand down guilty verdict.”  I’d later find out why.

After a half hour court recess, Judge Torrence returned to announce his guilty verdict against Bishop Finn for one of the two misdemeanors.

The bishop stood and told the courtroom, “I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt that these events have caused.”

Bishop Finn reading from a written apology in court. (Photo taken by pool still photographer)

Prosecutors then informed the court they planned to drop the charges against the diocese.

While I’d recognized the signs, I certainly didn’t process the defense strategy as it was happening.  It’s difficult not to appreciate its brilliance in the end.

THE STRATEGY

“Why did you make the deal to drop the charges against the diocese?”

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker looked at me, acknowledged it was a good question, and explained “there’s give and there’s take” in a complicated case like this one.  She insisted the guilty verdict came down on the party most responsible.

In one stroke, Peters Baker landed an historic conviction and let the other defendant go.

Prosecutors speaking with reporters following Bishop Finn’s trial. While Jean Peters Baker hailed the conviction as a victory, she spent much of this press conference answering questions on the nature of the deal she made with the diocese.

Both sides wanted something.

Prosecutors wanted the conviction and to keep child victims off the witness stand.  Defense attorneys wanted a quick trial with limited media coverage and the diocese’s hands clean in the end (a diocese conviction would’ve been devastating in light of pending civil lawsuits).

By dropping their rights to a trial by jury and agreeing to facts that would surely convict the bishop, defense attorneys made a deal with prosecutors to drop charges against the diocese when a verdict came down.

With Finn safely under the bus, the diocese had no criminal convictions as they moved on to fighting civil lawsuits worth tens of millions.

Brilliant.  Sad, but brilliant nonetheless.

THE UPSHOT

As I stood waiting for Judge Torrence to come back with his verdict, I looked down and to my right to see two women and a man praying silently in the courtroom gallery.  The women were rubbing rosaries.

I asked Brea Roper, a Kansas City Catholic parishioner, why she’d come to the trial.

“We’re here in support of Bishop Finn and the diocese,” Roper said.  “We’re here in support of truth.”

She then added she was praying for Ratigan’s victims and the judge.  Roper later gave me an interview outside the courtroom explaining she didn’t believe Finn ever did anything intentionally wrong and she was ready for him to continue as her shepherd.

I’m religious, so I understand the concept of faith in a higher power.  It scares me, however, when we apply that faith to spiritual leaders.

I don’t believe for a second Finn will be in Kansas City this time next year, and I have my doubts about this time next month.  Once Finn’s two-year probation is completed, the criminal conviction disappears from his record.

In the year-plus since Ratigan’s arrest, the diocese commissioned a highly-critical audit of its own practices and hired former prosecutor Jenifer Valenti as an ombudsman to handle any reports of child abuse.  I’ve spoken to Valenti before, and she seems qualified and dedicated to her mission.

Keep in mind, though, past self-policing didn’t work.

This is a diocese that only two years before the discovery of the images on Ratigan’s laptop settled a lawsuit for $10 million.  That case involved 47 plaintiffs and 12 priests.

Judge Torrence handed down nine probation terms against Finn and the diocese.  They include mandatory reporter training, a partnership with the FBI, and the establishment of a fund for abuse victims’ counseling.

I hope prosecutors live up to their pledge to enforce those probation terms.

We’re past trusting blind faith.

The Day A Bunch Of 80-Year-Olds Wore Me Out

May 17, 2012

I hate 4:00 a.m.

As a nightside reporter whose work isn’t typically on display until sometime after 10:00 p.m., I regularly stay awake after my shift until 1:00 or even 2:00 a.m.  Not 4:00.

It is the hour of farmers, insomniacs, and college kids with a strong tolerance for hangovers.  As I am none of these things, I can’t imagine anything good happening to me at that hour.

I started a damn good day recently at 4:00 a.m.

THE MISSION

Walking into my boss’s office two months ago, I wasn’t quite sure what the powers that be needed me for.  Our most recent February sweeps period was freshly finished and there wasn’t anything major on the horizon I could think of.  It crossed my mind I might even be in trouble.

The station, it turned out, wanted me to go on an Honor Flight.  If you’re not familiar, the Honor Flight is a program that allows World War II veterans to fly to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial built in their honor.  This one involved 29 Kansas City-area veterans.  It is an exhilarating, exhausting one-day trip.

Also assigned to the trip was Taka Yokoyama, the accomplished photojournalist paired with me for 31 hours straight on the night of the Joplin Tornado.

The idea to simply attend an Honor Flight evolved into raising money for the organization.  The idea to simply raise money for the organization evolved into a new goal.

Pay for the next Honor Flight.

THE SEND OFF

KCI Airport is something of a desert at 4:00 a.m.

Airlines schedule very few flights so early and very few people book reservations on those flights.

Honor Flight organizers actually asked everyone on our trip to arrive by 4:30 to get through security, but Taka and I wanted to get to the airport in time to see all of the veterans arriving.  About half still beat us there.

4:30 a.m. at KCI Airport

As Taka and I interviewed one vet waiting to take off, we spotted a man in fatigues shaking hands with another.  Lt. Col. Howard Schauer of the Army National Guard was also flying to D.C.  The man currently in charge of helping the people of Afghanistan develop sustainable agriculture wanted to voice his gratitude.

“I wanted to thank you for the road that you gentlemen paved for me,” said Lt. Col. Schauer.  “I’m walking in your footsteps.”

Army National Guard Lt. Col. Howard Schauer thanks former Army Tech 5 Bill Chick for his service.

With an 18-hour day ahead of us, Taka and I began to wonder how 80 and 90-year-olds would hold up for the entire trip.  George Todd, a nose gunner who flew 18 missions over Italy for the United States Army Air Force, probably put it best.

“We won’t need any lullabies sung to us when we get home.”

THE PROMISE

On both the flight to D.C. and the flight home, I sat next to the doctor accompanying our Honor Flight.

In between unsuccessful bouts of trying to stay awake on the plane that morning, I watched Dr. Mark Martin flip through the prescription medications of each veteran.  Taking care of 29 men and women all at least in their mid-80′s is no small task, but this is the sixth time Dr. Martin has accepted such pressure.

He’s the one who knows each veteran’s lengthy medical history, but also understands the biggest danger of the day is a fall.  He’ll be the first to reach over and open veterans’ water bottles time and again because he knows at this age, the spot most of us rely on for such a task between the thumb and index finger is now only bone, tendons, and sensitive nerves.

“I can promise you two things,” said Dr. Martin.  “At some point on this trip, every person laughs and every person cries.”

THE WWII MEMORIAL

I’ll admit I had a preconceived notion about the World War II Memorial.  The nature of the trip had me fully convinced the latter half of Dr. Martin’s promise would happen here for the majority of the veterans.

For the most part, I witnessed the former.

Army Air Force veteran Don Sole (left) and Marine Larry Booker (right) smile in front of the Kansas tower at the World War II Memorial.

Many of the men walked around smiling at the monument built for them.  They marveled at the design, a full circle of towers representing each state in the union at the time of the war.  The north and south ends support larger towers representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of combat, respectively.  It all surrounds a pool with fountains constantly gushing.  Four thousand small, golden stars adorn the western wall.  Each star represents 100 Americans who didn’t come home.

“Until you look at that, you can’t realize how many that is,” said veteran Larry Booker, a former Marine Corps First Lieutenant.  “It really…it’s very graphic.”

Wide shot of the WWII Memorial looking south toward the Pacific Theater tower. From this vantage point, the Washington Monument is to my left. The Lincoln Memorial is to my right.

Part of Honor Flight’s entire purpose is based in this memorial’s relative youth.  Opened to the public in 2004, it’s nearly a decade younger than the Korean War Memorial and two decades younger than its Vietnam counterpart.  By the time it opened, even the youngest World War II veterans were in their late 70′s.

Many of the veterans on our trip wondered why it took the government so long to build a sacred spot acknowledging not only their sacrifice, but their friends who died to protect said government and its people.

Jack Clark, Marines corporal in the Pacific for 13 months, is fully convinced he’d be among the dead had the U.S. not dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, preventing the invasion of Japan.

“The servicemen and servicewomen who sacrificed their lives,” Clark says with a stoic face, “they’re what this brings back.”

THE CEMETERY

The moment happened so fast, I didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate what I was seeing.

As one of the first to step off our bus at the gates to Arlington National Cemetery, I heard horseshoes clopping on the asphalt.  I looked up to see six horses pulling a black artillery caisson with a flag-draped casket in tow.

The Old Guard was carrying a new resident home.

My preconceived notions once again proved off.  This was the spot so many of the veterans on our Honor Flight wanted to see.  The resting place they avoided because, as Helldiver pilot Maynard “Mitch” Mitchell put it, “luck was on my side.”

The Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns (Soldier) left everyone in awe.  If you’ve never seen it in person, I can’t do it justice.  Guards watching over the unknowns’ graves switch out every half hour this time of year, and the ceremony is meticulous in the strictest sense of the word.  The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded every hour of every day since before the veterans on our trip even served.

The Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Many veterans on our trip called this moment their favorite of the day.

George Todd, remarking on what he called dead silence, quietly said, “I’ve never seen that many people be that…I don’t know…in tune to what was going on.”

The most solemn man I listened to was former Navy Seaman Pete Curtis.  Staring at the thousands of gravestones, Curtis told me he never liked war and that there was “a lot of blood in that flag.”

Curtis became quiet toward the end of our conversation before offering a simple observation, pausing for emphasis between each sentence.

“So peaceful.  They’re all resting.  Many years they’ve been resting.”

THE BOND

Taka is one of the hardest working photojournalists I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.  Besides his work ethic and developed skill, the man has God-given talent and what many photogs simply call The Eye.  He sees important moments before they happen, frames shots in an artistic way most wouldn’t think of, and edits it all together in ways that have made my bosses say “wow” more than once.

Anyone who’s worked with Taka, a native of Japan, knows what he can do when given this kind of assignment.  The trip truly fascinated him.  One of Taka’s grandfathers lost his life on one of Japan’s war ships during World War II.  The government jailed another grandfather for speaking out against fighting the United States, calling Japan’s involvement “an ant fighting an elephant.”

Maynard “Mitch” Mitchell showing Taka his flight log book a week before our Honor Flight. Taka quickly became one of our veterans’ favorite members of the trip.

In the back of my mind, I wondered how Taka’s nationality would go over with some of the veterans who saw fierce fighting in the Pacific.

On the contrary, I’d say Taka was the most popular member of our trip by day’s end.  Veterans over and over voiced admiration for someone lugging 45 pounds (25-pound camera, 20-pound tripod) around our nation’s capitol, smiled as he scrambled to get in place for the best shots, and called him over to tell him stories.

THE RIDE HOME

The one part of each Honor Flight trip most veterans don’t see coming is Mail Call.

During the flight home, organizers distribute large white envelopes carrying dozens of letters from friends, family members, and perfect strangers.  Each letter thanks the vets for their service and sacrifice.

Former Army Tech 5 Bill Chick carried out Dr. Martin’s promise, laughing at his daughter’s letter reminding him of the time he walked across their driveway toward one of her suitors carrying an ax.  He then wiped away tears as she wrote how proud she was “knowing you are recognized as a man of stature, courage, and integrity.”

“I’m feeling torn up with this…this gesture,” said Chick.  “All of this, it’s just…just beyond description.”

THE RED CARPET

Throughout the day, I watched dozens of people make sure the veterans felt welcome.

With one person assigned to help each veteran throughout the day, it’s hard to praise the trip’s volunteer “Guardians” enough.

Many people, spotting a large group dressed the same and reading their shirts, walked up to shake hands.

“I was just thanking him for being here and thanking him for supporting us,” one woman at Reagan National said as she dashed away to catch her flight.  “I wish I could sit here and thank everybody.”

At Arlington National Cemetery, Army Lt. Col. Floreyce Palmer heard that two of our 29 veterans were women.  She immediately walked over to introduce herself and learned that, like her, veterans Bea Notley and Joan Ostrander were nurses.

“Since I’m a young buck, I thought I’d come see them,” said Lt. Col. Palmer.  “God bless you.”

Lt. Col. Floreyce Palmer poses for pictures at Arlington National Cemetery with the two female WWII veterans on our trip, Bea Notley (left) and Joan Ostrander (middle).

From the band at Reagan that got some of our veterans dancing to the large welcome crowd cheering them as they landed back at KCI, many of our men and women found such sustained and enthusiastic praise hard to believe.

One of our veterans cuts a rug at Reagan National before we board the flight back to Kansas City. I’m ready to drop at this point in the day. Some of the vets clearly have adrenaline left.

“It’s really a thrill to see all these people come out this time of night,” Maynard “Mitch” Mitchell said just before he left the Kansas City airport.  “I don’t know any of them, but they were hugging me and shaking my hand.  It’s just terrific.”

THE UPSHOT

KMBC will air our Honor Flight stories throughout the day on Thursday, May 17th.  We have a new story scheduled to air in every newscast from the morning show through the 10:00 broadcast and even into Friday’s morning show.  Channel 9 will also have phone banks up and running to accept donations and online donation options here.

Jerry Ameling, one of Heartland Honor Flight’s organizers who deserves far more credit than he receives, has big plans for Kansas City-area veterans.

He says $50,000 would pay for two planes of 30 veterans each to fly to D.C. this fall.  If we get to $75,000, the veterans can take a much more convenient charter flight.  Before we aired a single story, we already had $2,000 as people close to the Channel 9 family learned what we were doing.

The window to accomplish all this is closing.  Fewer veterans are able to go see their memorial each day.  Just for this Honor Flight, four men originally scheduled to attend couldn’t go.  Two had medical issues.  Two passed away.

By the end of our trip, Maynard Mitchell put it on himself to make on-camera solicitations.  The Japanese shot Mitch from the sky as the pilot made a bombing run against one of their ships.  Anti-aircraft rounds tore through Mitch’s Helldiver fuselage and hit his passenger just a few feet behind him.  He saved himself and his comrade with a water landing in the Sea of Japan.  Time and again, Mitch called his long, productive life “simple luck” that the round didn’t hit him.

The pilot’s log from the day the Japanese shot Maynard “Mitch” Mitchell from the sky.

I think Mitch’s gratitude of the flight reflected an entire life’s worth of knowing a higher power didn’t have to let him live.

“I know everybody’s asking for money nowadays,” said Mitch, “but if all the companies here in Kansas City got together and gave money to this organization…man, it would be terrific for the veterans.”

I hope you watch.  I hope you give.

I hope I have to start another day at 4:00 a.m.

Outsourcing Blame: We’re Better Than This

January 24, 2012

I read my words on the competitor’s website and thought, “Surely, they didn’t copy and paste my story as their own.”

While working for KWCH in Wichita, Kansas, I’d filled in reporting on severe winter weather one Saturday morning.  An officer-involved shooting in Salina suddenly shifted all media outlets’ attention away from the snow and ice.  A few calls to cell phone numbers I’d acquired during previous stories in Salina got me all the information I needed to update viewers online.

In fact, the other station’s web story wasn’t a copy.  It was a copy of a copy.

The Associated Press had picked up my story, sent it out over the wires with the attribution of “Source:  KWCH,” and our competition posted the story attributing the AP.

To say the journalistic slippery slope makes me uneasy isn’t quite right.  It’s that the slippery slope presents itself so often, and we’ve recently started taking the route far too easy.

We’re blaming the system instead of ourselves.

THE “DEATH”

Yes, Joe Paterno is dead at the age of 85 years, one month, and one day.  Widespread reporting Saturday night, however, had him dead at 85 years, one month, and zero days.

This isn't about the scandal surrounding JoePa's program. It's about the mistakes in reporting his death.

This isn’t about the child sex-abuse scandal that plagued Paterno and Penn State the last two-plus months of his life, though it’s hard to imagine a more spectacular downfall of a previously unblemished legacy.

This is about how a college newspaper incorrectly reported Paterno’s death and a significant portion of the journalism world said, “Good enough for me.”

I could try to recap how the thing spun so wildly and widely out of control, but Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman beat me to it in both time and ability.

This is no isolated incident in the three to four years since  journalists embraced Twitter and other social media outlets.  NPR and Fox News killed off Rep. Gabrielle Giffords early last year after a young man opened fire on a crowd of her supporters and shot the Arizona congresswoman in the head at point blank range.

Of these two cases, one person is still living.  The other’s death certificate reads he died the day after that college newspaper’s managing editor submitted his resignation.

THE POLICY

A very fortunate thing in this business is to work for good people.  I think I’ve had just such dumb luck (so far).

KWCH in Wichita has a policy (which it publicized heavily) I immediately respected and immediately resented due to the amount of extra work it demands.  Two independent sources.  Reporters and producers must confirm any information before it makes air through two sources independent of each other.

This virtually eliminates the possibility of airing inaccurate or (worse) propaganda-fueled information.

Even if my current station doesn’t advertise that we exercise the same policy, I was pleased to see it put into action recently regarding a Kansas City elected official.

THE UN-REPORTED ATTACK

What the source had just told me would be everyone’s lead if I could confirm it, and therein lay the problem.

Since I was tipped off, KMBC talked with multiple sources and confirmed off the record the report of a Kansas City elected official’s family member recently attacking someone at a local hotel sending them to the hospital.  You’ll note the three words immediately following “confirmed.”

Based on who I talked to, who other KMBC journalists with better sources than me talked to, and the original source of the information, we knew we weren’t dealing with a simple rumor.

However, when the alleged victim doesn’t file a police report (there was only an ambulance call) and the only information you can confirm isn’t on the record, you can’t report it.

I’d honestly be surprised if KMBC was the only media outlet with the tip, but no one took it to air or print.  Based on the above info, no one should have…but it would have been easy to.

THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM

Many people are blaming the immediacy factor in today’s social media-centric world.  Some even blame social media itself, and for those people, I offer this example.

Last spring, I waited eagerly for news on my favorite college basketball team.  The Missouri Tigers’ head basketball coach Mike Anderson was rumored to be interested in returning to his longtime home with the Arkansas Razorbacks, and to say the coach sent mixed signals on his intentions was an understatement.

Imagine my disappointment one Saturday night last March when I logged into Twitter to see several national sports media outlets saying Anderson was leaving for Arkansas, according to “reports.”  No one, however, seemed to be offering any insight or more in-depth information than the next person. Everything came back to one tweet from a reporter at an ABC affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Since KMBC is also an ABC affiliate, we called up the reporter.  I was appalled to hear the words, “Well, it’s not set in stone.”  Twitter was ablaze with rumors because of something that was “probably going to happen.”

We then asked if the reporter had any more information on the supposed announcement of Anderson as Arkansas’ new coach “tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” he said, “when I sent out that tweet, I thought today was Sunday.”

THE UPSHOT

I just now checked ESPN.com on a hunch.  Of the front page’s top 10 stories, two stories’ titles began with “Source:  ___.”  One story quoted a “league source” in the sport associated with the story.  The other simply attributed “a source.”  I have no reason to believe either story is incorrect.  My point is I frequent a respected site often enough to know I could find multiple reports with hundreds of thousands of interested parties and millions of dollars at stake based in anonymity.

I strongly believe in protecting the people who shine a light where someone is trying to hide something.  I also support a federal shield law for reporters, but sources’ words shouldn’t become stories as they leave sources’ lips.

Moreover, the ability of a story to spread like wildfire in today’s world doesn’t necessarily mean it should.  How much do you trust someone else’s source?

Unintentional mistakes happen, and Lord knows I’ve made my share.  This is deliberate risk-taking in the name of being first.  Twitter is the tool, not the person wielding it.

When someone gets the story wrong, don’t blame the medium.

That’s too easy.

Investigation Image: When You’ll Know Something Happened In The Lisa Irwin Case

November 3, 2011

The sad thing is this is about a little girl.

Since Lisa Irwin disappeared, I have listened to more theories, seen more detectives, and heard the case compared to a “circus” more than any story I’ve ever covered.  If you’ve read this blog even a little, you know I’m not big on exaggeration.

Lisa Irwin was 10 months old when she disappeared.

Lisa Irwin should be at her home on North Lister in Kansas City, Missouri.  The fact that she’s not brought police.  The fact that her mother was the last person Lisa was with brought questions.

The fact that nothing’s really happened since brought pressure.

THE BASICS

As almost everyone in Kansas City (and a good portion of the country) knows by now, Lisa Irwin disappeared from her home in early October.  The exact time of the disappearance isn’t known, but her father, Jeremy Irwin, called 911 around 4:00 a.m. on October 4th after returning home from his overnight job.

An Amber Alert followed.

Kansas City Fire search and rescue crews prepare to rappel down a wooded hill during an Amber Alert on October 4th, the day Lisa Irwin's parents reported her missing.

Lisa had last been seen by her mother, Deborah Bradley, who told police she checked on the infant girl sleeping in her crib around 10:30 the night before.  This timeline would later change by several hours, and Bradley admitted she got drunk that night.

To say the trail went cold is an understatement.

THE INVESTIGATION

Since Lisa vanished, the Kansas City Police Department, the FBI, and the Kansas City Fire Department have turned a small portion of the Northland upside down.

Investigators combed Lisa’s neighborhood, firefighters rappelled down a wooded hill and into an abandoned well, and police found soiled diapers in a condemned house.

Kansas City Police CSI crews prepare metal detectors for a canvass of the Irwin family's property on October 8th. Lisa's parents gave consent for this search.

One month to the day since Lisa’s disappearance, police have checked more than 1,000 tips.

None of it led to Lisa.  More than that, police have indicated none of it led to even a shred of evidence on what happened to her.

THE RIFT

The first curveball came two days after Lisa’s disappearance.  Police announced the child’s parents stopped cooperating with investigators.  The strategy was clear:  pressure the parents.  Investigators believed Jeremy Irwin and Deborah Bradley at the very least weren’t being as forthcoming as possible.

This move backfired as family members vehemently denied any lack of cooperation, pledged to do whatever it took to find Lisa, and a very public distrust between family and detectives formed.

Bradley told reporters that detectives accused her of harming and disposing of her child, even admitting she was told she failed a lie detector test.

The circus arrived in Kansas City about this time.

THE DISTRACTIONS

Oh, the distractions.

Monitoring the Irwin family’s movements began to feel less like journalism and more like paparazzi.  Lisa’s parents only doing interviews with network television crews began to feel less like urgent, consistent pleas for help and more like handpicked publicity.

Then, the handlers arrived.

One week after Lisa’s disappearance, Bill Stanton announced himself as a private investigator and Joe Tacopina later stepped in as the attorney for Lisa’s parents.

The New York duo came across as having at least as much interest in the attention that came with helping Lisa’s family as the help itself.  The two have made a total of three Kansas City visits I’m aware of (twice for Stanton, once for Tacopina), all just long enough to make an appearance in front of network cameras.

I’ve had no interaction with Tacopina and very little with Stanton.  However, I texted Stanton last Saturday asking whether he planned any announcements for the weekend or if the plan was to lay low.  His response:  “Laying loooooow :).”  The strangeness of this text during a serious investigation aside, Stanton didn’t lay low.  He gave The Today Show a tour of the home less than 24 hours after sending that text.

Throw in feuding attorneys for Lisa’s parents (Tacopina fired local counsel Cyndy Short after a week and a half of pro bono work) and you have the type of situation that led one local defense attorney to give Kansas City’s Fox affiliate a very telling quote.

“Once again, instead of ‘where’s the child, what happened,’ we’re talking about who (Deborah Bradley’s) lawyer is?  Really?  That’s sad.”

THE UPSHOT

When a story drags on long enough, every angle’s been exhausted, and every neighbor’s talked to a camera, there isn’t always a clear-cut “what’s next” for journalists.  Any tangent becomes an angle.  Sometimes, a forced one.

Yes, please keep an eye out for this little girl.  That Lisa needs help, whether she’s unharmed or otherwise right now, should always be the focus.

However, as you watch the coverage and hear about “new details” and listen to an exclusive interview from someone eager to provide the face time, know that there are only two things left in this story.

If the child’s still missing and no one’s under arrest, nothing’s changed.

The Story That’ll Wait…Controlling Vs. Choking

August 11, 2011

I don’t get confused over certain people not talking to reporters.

The family members of murder victims are too overcome by emotions.  Employees don’t want to talk about their jobs for fear of losing them.  Store owners don’t want to show off their security measures because a roadmap to robbery isn’t a solid business practice.

The denial of sharing a positive story never fails to surprise me, though.

Typically, this comes through either simple shyness or modest pride.  Either the person can’t get over the idea of going on camera or they’ve firmly decided doing so would somehow lessen the good deed (“I didn’t do this to get a pat on the back”).

Rarely, however, is a positive story the media wants to tell deliberately held back.

Rarer still?  Stifling it.

THE POSITIVE STORY

When I read the small excerpt last spring on KCStar.com (don’t tell my boss I mentioned another website), I was immediately interested.

A grant given to Kansas City’s Catholic Charities and the Full Employment Council would not only help young people ages 18-24 get their GED’s, it would give them paid internships to keep their heads above water.

How cool is that?

Young people stuck in a bad situation and feeling unable to go for something better given just such an opportunity.  Not only that, the grant gives young men and women accepted into the program a safety net.  They receive a salary and an internship in their chosen profession so they don’t have to rely on whatever dead-end job that’s taking up the hours they need to study and get ahead.

This week, the students accepted into the Catholic Charities side of this program are painting a mural at a Kansas City center for adults and children with autism.  It’s part of a team-building exercise.

It’s an excellent story.  I’ve been told I’m not allowed to tell it.

THE DENIAL

Had our staffing situation been a little different, this would likely be a moot point.  I wanted to (and had approval to) tell this story last week, but it simply didn’t work out.  My station needed me elsewhere.

While attempting to set the story up for this past Tuesday, I got word of the denial.

The United Way and Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ office were now involved in the publicity decision making.  A press conference was planned for sometime next week.  I was shot down.

The story, decision makers declared, would wait.

THE ARGUMENT

I’ll be the first to admit I was frustrated.

I called up the spokesperson for the United Way and asked why they would stifle such a wonderful story.  I was told they wanted to give all media a shot at the story and the officials involved (Mayor James, United Way, Catholic Charities, Full Employment Council, etc.) were not all available at the same time until next week.

I said, “I really don’t think us doing a story a week before your press conference will hurt media coverage.”

The response:  “Well, we think it will.”

THE ONES WHO GET IT

I’ll share a little journalist secret…we play favorites.

I don’t mean to say we ignore conflicts of interest or cover controversial issues unfairly.  I mean we know who’ll help us and who won’t.

We know which gas stations will let us interview customers about escalating fuel prices.  We know which physician will carve out 15 minutes of his or her busiest day to talk about the latest flu scare.  We know where we can get video and who will give us sound bites, even if the story topic doesn’t necessarily reflect positively on the person helping us.

Reporters sometimes talk to each other about the favorites as people who “get it.”

While the origin of the actual quote draws some debate, circus mogul P.T. Barnum is generally credited with the legendary phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

That quote is the “it” in “get it.”  These people will take attention from media outlets with tens or even hundreds of thousands of viewers anytime they can.

Just this past Saturday at the Kansas City Music Festival “Kanrocksas,” I met a group that got it.  The band The Joy Formidable from North Wales has gained international fame in its short, four-year existence, and they played one of the festival’s first sets.

After the band’s set, the photographer I was working with and I spotted the members walking through the Kansas Speedway infield.  We asked the trio, who were on their way to a press conference, if they’d answer a few questions.

The members of the band looked at their manager, who shrugged and simply said, “You’re going to say the band’s name, right?”

THE UPSHOT

If there’s any publicity quote I like more than P.T. Barnum’s, it comes from the incomparably witty writer Oscar Wilde:

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

No one is talking about this program right now.  Catholic Charities officials have told me for weeks they’re still looking for young people in need to apply.  These are people who need help not next week, but now.

Do you remember a week or a week-and-a-half that changed your life?  For the worse?

I don’t care about an exclusive.  I hope every media outlet tells this story.

The people who’ve decided this worthwhile story will wait say they fear allowing it to be told early will hurt it by making other media outlets think it’s old news, and therefore, hurt the program.  That argument doesn’t hold water.

If the decision makers were truly concerned about the program itself, they’d find 30-45 minutes to come together for a press conference now.  The fact they’re not willing to do that shows they simply care about making sure they get credit when they allow the cameras to show up.

Who needs the attention more?

The elected officials and organizations who say they want to help people?  Or the people who need help?

Volunteering Some History: Fridays With A Kansas City D-Day Veteran

June 6, 2011

Thomas kept insisting I was talking to the wrong person.  My first few days volunteering at Children’s Mercy Hospital, I figured the guy who’d given me the tour and who knew so much about the building had something of a leadership position.  When I’d ask what to do, however, he kept pointing at Clarence.

“That’s the man in charge,” Thomas said.

Clarence Regas has big glasses and a full head of white hair.  His voice sounds exactly like the character Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption, strength and wisdom in old age.  Clarence smiles a lot, especially at the young women who stop by the Children’s Mercy information desk to see him.

Clarence Regas at the D-Day memorial in Normandy. The man who took the picture wrote it was his favorite of the day because "all you want to know about combat in WWII is etched on his face."

Clarence is a veteran of the United States Army.  He served in the 60th Combat Engineers Battalion during World War II.

Clarence landed on Omaha Beach 67 years ago today to take France back from the Nazis.

THE BACKGROUND

Clarence was born in July of 1923, the son of General Douglas MacArthur’s personal chef.

His intelligence allowed him to skip two grades and graduate from high school at the age of 16 in May of 1940.  In June of 1940, he tried to enlist.  Clarence still laughs when he tells the story that basically amounts to trial and error.

Clarence walked down to the Army’s Kansas City recruitment office off Pershing Road near Union Station.  The master sergeant looked at Clarence and said, “What do you want, boy?”

He answered that he wanted to enlist, to which the master sergeant asked, “How old are you?”

Clarence gave an honest answer.  The master sergeant laughed and said, “Come back when you grow up.”

Less than two months later, Clarence (now 17) returned to the same recruitment office and found a different master sergeant.  This time, Clarence didn’t give an honest answer.

THE SERVICE

Clarence immediately received the rank of private first class because he’d done a few years of Junior ROTC in high school

In July of 1941, the Army learned Clarence had lied about his age.  Keep in mind that Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened yet.  The United States wasn’t fighting a war, and the days of a wink and a pat on the back to any 17-year-old trying to join the armed forces hadn’t yet materialized.  The Army threatened to dishonorably discharge Clarence and force him to reimburse all pay he’d received over the last year.

The night he found out, Clarence called his parents back in Kansas City long distance and explained he was over-nighting some paperwork to them.  They needed to fill it out and sign saying they approved of his service in the Army.

The Army’s threat ended up being an empty one, but Clarence says those few days waiting to find out if he’d get to serve the country he loved were awful.

By D-Day, Clarence was a staff sergeant.

THE INVASION:  JUNE 6, 1944

Clarence doesn’t talk much about D-Day itself.  His battalion landed on Omaha Beach, the spot many historians agree hosted the fiercest fighting.  It’s the beach featured in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.

A landing craft full of soldiers heads for Normandy's coast. (Picture from Corbis/The Mariner's Museum)

I tried to convince Clarence to do an interview for KMBC today to mark the D-Day anniversary, but he declined.  Sometimes, someone tells me no, but I can see they just need some convincing to go on camera.  Other times, you know the second the word leaves their mouth this interview won’t happen.  Clarence gave the latter.

He explained he’d get far too emotional on camera, but there was something else.  Around 2,000 men died on Omaha Beach, a number that’s likely to increase as historians continue to delve into the chaos of this day.  Clarence obviously wasn’t one of them.

On Friday, Clarence told me a lot of men were still carrying around D-Day shrapnel in their aging bodies.  He’s not.

American soldiers leaving the ramp of a coast guard landing boat during the invasion of Normandy. (Photo by Robert F. Sergeant. National Archives and Records Administration)

I think Clarence declined my interview out of respect for the men who came out of that sand far worse than he did (or who didn’t come out at all).

THE STORIES

There are so many amazing stories Clarence has told me about his service in Europe.  I hope I’ve remembered them all.

The Farmer

A few days after the D-Day invasion, Clarence’s battalion was farther inland from the beaches of Normandy.

During the war, Clarence says the currency that carried the most value among soldiers were cigarettes, candy, and eggs.  Eggs were at the top of the list.

With that in mind, Clarence decided to walk to a farmer’s land on the outskirts of the town where he was stationed.  He had a pack of cigarettes and a Hershey’s chocolate bar with him.  He explained to the farmer he wanted to exchange his bounty for eggs.

While talking to the French farmer, the man asked Clarence, “How do you spell your last name?”  Clarence answered.

“And where are you from?” said the farmer.  Clarence said, “Kansas City.”

“Do you know Michael Regas?” the farmer finally asked.

In stunned amazement (and quite a bit of confusion), Clarence said, “Michael Regas is my father.”

The farmer explained that during World War I, Clarence’s father had helped the farmer’s family (I don’t know the specifics of what help he provided).  The farmer and Michael Regas became quick friends before Regas’ unit had to move on to the next town a few days later.

Somehow, Clarence had stumbled onto the same exact farm almost 30 years after his father.

The farmer told Clarence to give him the soldier’s helmet Clarence was carrying, and he left.  A few minutes later, the farmer returned with a helmet full of eggs.

The farmer wouldn’t take the cigarettes or chocolate bar.

The Baby

Last year, Clarence returned to Normandy with his family.  Because he was the first American D-Day veteran to visit the memorial in 2010, the French people laid out the red carpet for the Regas family.

A D-Day historian has posted several Facebook pictures of the event here, which he says anyone can access even without being a member.

During a ceremony at the memorial in Normandy, a Frenchman walked up to Clarence and asked if he really was a member of the Army 60th Combat Engineers.  In fact, Clarence’s company lost its lieutenant only five days after D-Day, so Clarence was this unit’s leader at the age of 20.

The man explained a member of Clarence’s battalion had met his family during the war, and they’d begged him for help.  An infant was near death, and they needed the Americans to help.  The soldier who first talked to the family had some medical training but nothing that would save the child, so he promised help and returned to the battalion.

One soldier in the battalion was a pediatrician from Cleveland, who immediately returned to the panicked family.  Clarence didn’t know what the child was suffering from, but I get the impression he had some sort of deficiency and was simply failing to thrive.   The pediatrician was able to provide some basic medications and explain to the family how to keep the child healthy.

The man talking to Clarence explained that struggling infant was his brother.  The boy eventually grew to be a man standing more than six feet tall.  This man wanted to thank Clarence for saving his brother’s life.

Clarence and the pediatrician became lifelong friends after their service.  Clarence told me he died in 2005.

“I hate that I never got to tell him that story,” says Clarence.

The Castle

I really wish I’d remembered to ask Clarence the name of this castle.

His battalion spent time living in a castle in Germany before moving farther into Nazi territory.

Clarence later found out his ancestors built this very castle centuries earlier.

THE UPSHOT

I say that I volunteer on Fridays.  What I really do is help parents find their way around the hospital in between listening to Clarence’s stories.

He likes to watch the news, which means he wants me to tell stories about being a reporter.  He’s a D-Day veteran, so I want him to tell war stories.

Clarence is still very sharp at the age of 87, and it’s not hard to see why he’s considered the man in charge at the information desk.

Not only that, he still exhibits the orneriness that got him into the Army at 17.  He regularly asks if I’ve had any dates recently with a nice girl, and about a month ago, he told his own date story.  I showed up for my shift to find Clarence with a black eye.  In reality, a can of tomatoes fell from a very high shelf at the grocery store and caught him just below the right eye.  However, he told anyone who would listen his girlfriend’s husband had finally had enough.

Clarence is also stubborn in his own way.  We both got to the hospital cafeteria at the same time one day.  He realized he’d forgotten the meal ticket Children’s Mercy gives its volunteers, so I tried to hand him mine and make the long walk back to the volunteer’s office.  Clarence refused, began walking away from the cafeteria, and smiled when he said, “I’m old, Cliff.  I’m not feeble.”

Clarence once called me a good man.  Ridiculous.  Here’s a man who led an Army company in a foreign country fighting Hitler’s regime before he could even legally take a swig of liquid courage.

How do you thank a man like that who gives you that kind of compliment?

You tell his story, I guess.

An Inability To Tell Too Much: Joplin Tornado Timeline

May 27, 2011

It should’ve been someone else.  Under normal circumstances, someone else would’ve been working.  Then again, I suppose there was nothing normal about Sunday night.

I started this blog mostly because I felt there were things I saw, heard, or experienced that warranted sharing.  Things I didn’t have time to say on air.

As an EF-5 tornado landed a direct hit on the southern third of Joplin, Missouri, the sheer volume of devastating sight after mind-blowing quote after nose-wrinkling smell defined sensory overload.

So many people have asked me what it was like to be on the ground just a couple of hours after the Joplin tornado cut a half-mile to mile-wide path through a city I knew in name only prior to Sunday.  I come away from every conversation feeling somehow guilty, like I didn’t do the description justice or I forgot something.

I figured a timeline might help.  If I can document where I was and what I saw hour-by-hour Sunday and Monday, maybe I won’t feel like someone’s story got lost in the rubble.

THE KMBC TEAM IN JOPLIN (IN ORDER OF ARRIVAL)

Taka Yokoyama, photojournalist (paired with me for 31 hours straight)
Todd Ummelmann, photojournalist
Lisa Teachman, meteorologist
Kyle Rupe, engineer & satellite truck operator
Erin Moynihan, field producer
Neeley Schmitz, photojournalist
Kris Ketz, field anchor
Las Abalos, photojournalist
Diane Cho, reporter
Michelle Rooney, reporter
Lara Moritz, reporter and field anchor
John Woods, photojournalist
Jim Rupe, engineer & satellite truck operator

THE TIMELINE

–5:00 p.m. Sunday, May 22nd

Taka and I spend the half-hour newscast streaming video live through our cell phones from Clinton, the location of an early evening tornado warning in west central Missouri.

Our real story hits 30 minutes later.

–5:45 p.m.

“Start heading towards Joplin.”

Our assistant news director, George Matz, has that tone in his voice like something is genuinely bad.  However, he says there are unconfirmed reports a hospital in Joplin suffered a direct hit from a massive tornado, and I know that’s surely exaggerated.

News crews learn to tell legitimate, big stories from over-eager hearsay.

I’m wrong.

–6:30 p.m.

I see and post a picture from The Weather Channel of what will become the symbol of the Joplin tornado, St. John’s Regional Medical Center.  In less than three hours, a Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper will explain to me the hospital’s top two floors are gone.

This is when Taka and I knew it was bad. We still didn't understand.

–7:45 p.m.

“How bad is it?!”

As we pull into a Joplin gas station on the north side of town, they swarm us.  We’re driving a marked KMBC car, and I’m wearing a Channel 9 polo.  Everyone filling up their cars thinks I know the totality of the devastation.  I’m a reporter.  Why wouldn’t I?

First, a girl suffering a broken hand from flying debris asks.  She and her grandparents are headed to a hospital in Pittsburg, Kansas, because the hospital in Joplin that would normally help her is crippled.

Then, a woman asks the question.  I explain we only just arrived in town and ask if she’s okay.  She shakes her head no and says her house is gone.  I’ll never fully understand why someone who lost their home asked me how extensive the damage was.  I guess they wanted something, anything firm to grasp.  The unknown is slippery.  You can’t control the unknown.

They couldn’t control that gray, swirling monster that took away everything.

–8:15 p.m.

“Right there!  I’m parking right there.”

Taka and I just spent a half hour trying to reach the devastation of the hospital.  We came from the north to avoid debris and impassable roads, but a tornado this size creates such things in every direction.  I park our news Jeep behind a senior center at 22nd & Jackson, a mile away from the hospital.

Two blocks to the east, a house fire rages.  Something sparked a natural gas leak, and fire crews haven’t been able to arrive on scene yet.  Such leaks will cause several fires throughout this first night.

I begin trying to call the crews following us (Todd, Lisa, and Kyle) to tell them where we are, but the one nearby cell tower is overwhelmed.  The only things getting through are texts.

–8:30 p.m.

Taka and I begin walking.

To reach the worst damage, we have to walk south to the center of where the tornado hit.  We’ll be on air in just over an hour.

The scene is legitimately scary.  As a reporter, I’ve learned in general what to be scared of, and a truly scary scene is rare.

The city reeks of natural gas, and almost every house we walk by has a pipeline hissing.  The fully-engulfed house to our east comes back to my mind.

A man pulls up alongside us.  He says he’s a St. John’s Hospital employee, and he wants to know how to get to the hospital so he can help.  I tell him he’ll likely have to walk, but I haven’t tried driving in myself yet.  He thanks Taka and I and drives off.

Another woman walks up asking me to contact police.  Once again, citizens think the reporter has a direct link to who they need.  She explains there’s a man dead in a white car a few blocks to the southwest.  He apparently tried to beat the storm, and she’s covered his body with a sheet.

At one point, Taka slips in the mud as we cross through a yard.  In true photographer form, he twists his body taking the full weight of the fall on his forearm and hind end to save our camera.  Luckily, he hasn’t fallen onto one of the rusty nails reaching up from the debris in every direction I look.  After I covered the Greensburg tornado (the first ever EF-5), the first responders told me nails flattened countless tires of emergency vehicles and hampered search and rescue efforts.  I suspect that’ll be the case in Joplin, too.

There’s still just enough light for Taka to shoot several jaw-dropping scenes, and we both have an idea of what the city will look like come Monday’s sunrise.

As we walk alongside two Joplin police officers, one says, “Tell everyone if you don’t have business south of 20th Street, stay out!”

For anyone unfamiliar with Joplin, this officer has just explained the southern third of the city is demolished.

–9:00 p.m.

Taka and I split up.

I’ll admit this was a risky move, and I don’t know that I’d make it again.

We’ve made it south to 26th Street, and I can see St. John’s a half mile to our west.  I want to get some kind of damage report from the hospital, and Taka assures me he knows the way back to our truck.

After jogging to the hospital, I see why this building will become the symbol of the Joplin tornado.  The top two floors are gone.  I don’t mean they’re severely damaged or destroyed.  I mean they’re gone.  Not a window frame on the building still holds glass, and many have sheets or debris dangling from them.  Eerily, from a single window on the upper east side of the building, I see a computer or TV screen still beaming bright blue.

A couple of police officers who pointed out the devastation of the upper floors tell me search and rescue is still active inside the hospital, but no one’s given them a death toll.

I begin jogging back to our truck at 22nd & Jackson with my cell phone providing the only light to negotiate debris.

A few minutes later, I pass a white car with a sheet draped over the driver’s side window.

–9:25 p.m.

I arrive back at 22nd & Jackson and am relieved to find Todd and Lisa waiting.  The walk back was nerve-wracking not just because of my surroundings, but because most all cell service was down and Taka and I had no guarantee our coworkers would find us.

Todd and Lisa look legitimately surprised when I tell them everything to the south of us is worse than our immediate surroundings.

Kyle arrives with the sat truck a few minutes later, and we begin feeding all of Taka’s raw video and interviews back to KMBC.  I later describe Taka as a “madman” to my bosses because of the pace he sets for himself the rest of the night.

–10:00 p.m.

The hour-long Sunday 10:00 p.m. newscast begins.  In general, I feel like I’m rambling on air because there’s so much to talk about.  I tell producers to encourage the anchors to ask me questions because I’m surely forgetting something as I talk about the previous two-plus hours.

In between live shots, a man walks by our sat truck.  I ask Johnie Ward what he’s been doing since the tornado hit, and he says he’s gone from friend’s house to friend’s house checking on people.

In between live shots, Todd and I shoot an interview with Johnie.  He says he watched from a couple of miles away as the tornado ripped through.

Johnie says, “You wouldn’t want to be standing anywhere here when it hit unless you’re close to God.”

–11:00 p.m.

With the 10:00 show over, the five of us regroup.  Todd and Lisa (who’ve been working since Sunday morning) will go to the hotel rooms the station booked and get a couple of hours sleep so they can be ready for the morning show.  Taka and I will keep turning stories through the night, and Kyle will stay with us and the sat truck.

We speak to one woman who moved to Joplin from New Orleans after surviving Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The Tiffany lamp sitting in her demolished living room was one of the only belongings to survive the hurricane, and it narrowly missed being smashed by a collapsed roof tonight.  She’s uninjured, and the lamp has suddenly become an unlikely symbol of why she feels so lucky.

We follow Jasper County Sheriff’s deputies knocking door-to-door looking for survivors.  Every time they find one, they give obvious sighs of relief or shout (I’m not kidding, shout), “Excellent!”

Each home where residents are safe and accounted for are marked with orange X’s.  Not every home gets one.

–2:30 a.m. Monday, May 23rd

The morning crew of Erin, Kris, and Neeley arrives.  Once again, it’s nice to have more people.

The tornado tossed cars around like wadded up pieces of paper. This is in front of St. John's.

Kris and Neeley successfully find a path to St. John’s, and we move the sat truck.

–4:30 a.m.

Morning show begins.  Kris field anchors, and I front one of the stories Taka and I turned every 15 mintues.

Kris and I reporting for the morning show.

–5:30 a.m.

“There are 89 confirmed dead.”

For the first time in nearly 12 hours, I take a moment.  Joplin city officials had called a press conference across the street from St. John’s to discuss search and rescue efforts, and that one simple number makes all of us realize what (or who) is in the rubble all around us.

Sunrise in Joplin. We've just learned the overnight death toll.

All morning, we’d heard things like “it’s feared at least two dozen are dead” or “Joplin’s death toll may top 30.”  If that was what we feared, what is this?

Moreover, if that’s the toll after just 12 hours, what will it be after a full day?  In a week?

The officials announce other news and stats.  Fire Chief Mitch Randles is among the residents with a demolished home.  Four hundred personnel are already in the city trying to help.  Two thousand buildings are destroyed (a total that eventually reaches 8,000).

City manager Mark Rohr, the same man who announced the death toll, says, “We will recover, and we will come back stronger than we are today.”

Everyone is still thinking about the number.

–8:30 a.m.

A new storm has moved in.  With 30 minutes left in our morning show, Kyle brings the sat truck’s dish down.  We won’t risk a lightning strike in this weather.

Most media leaves St. John’s as a wall cloud moves in.  Rain and hail pelt Joplin and hamper search and rescue crews most of the morning.

A wall cloud towers over St. John's Hospital at 8:30 a.m. Monday, just 15 hours after the tornado hit.

–11:00 a.m.

Taka and I have been told we’re staying in Joplin through the afternoon, so we try to catch some sleep in the front seats of our news Jeep.  It’s a waste of time.  Every small noise outside the truck for the next hour jolts us into sitting straight up.  Apparently, the adrenaline hasn’t fully waned.

–12:30 p.m.

We move east through town.  Day One will be all about search and rescue.

At 26th & Picher, Taka and I spot several firefighters digging through the basement of what used to be a house.  This is a rare sight since so few of the homes in Joplin have basements.

The basement at 26th & Picher.

Five firefighters are focused on this house because they just found two dogs in the basement alive.  They hope the owners are also in here somewhere, simply trapped and waiting for help.

Donnie Johnson’s friends stand around the foundation of his home watching the firefighters dig.  No one has heard from Donnie or his parents since the tornado hit.

“I’ve got four friends that’s lost their homes in this area,” Wade Phillips says through tears.  “They’re all alright.  This is the only one I can’t find or get ahold of.  Aww, hell.  This is horrible.”

Rescue dogs from Tulsa sniff the wreckage, but do not indicate a body.

This is the difficult part about search and rescue.  Search is guaranteed.  Rescue is not.

One firefighter asks me what the death toll was at last count.  I give him the number.  He asks when it was announced.  I tell him seven hours ago.

“We’ve seen more since then,” he says.

–2:00 p.m.

Just about everyone is here now.

From now through 6:00, crews write and edit our stories.  This isn’t easy because you have so many reporter/photographer teams trying to turn stories on a limited number of editors.  Hearst (our owner) has also sent in crews from Oklahoma City and Des Moines to shoot stories for all of our sister stations.

The team (or at least, some of us). Woodsie in the salmon(?) polo, Diane in red, Michelle in blue, and Lara in white. The photog to the far left is from our Des Moines sister station, KCCI.

Rain is relentless throughout the afternoon, and lightning causes us to drop the sat truck dish multiple times.  There will be times during our 5:00 and 6:00 newscasts we can’t go live because of these new storms.

One bolt hits so close that John Woods and I both say we feel tingling in our fingertips.

Lightning from this same system strikes Riverside Police Officer Jeff Taylor.  The 31-year-old officer was part of a 12-member team from the Kansas City suburb to respond to Joplin.  Officer Taylor will hold on for 11 days in critical condition at a Springfield hospital before passing.

–3:00 p.m.

Another press conference.  City officials say the death toll is now at 116.

I wasn’t the reporter who covered this announcement for us, so I don’t have many details except to say the firefighter was right.

–5:30 p.m.

In between newscasts, movement across the street catches my eye.

I look to the east to see the same demolished car that sat unmoving all day.   Its windshield wipers are moving.

–6:30 p.m.

Taka and I have the go ahead to call it a day.

We have the option of driving home tonight or getting a hotel room in Springfield and driving back in the morning (at 75 miles, Springfield is still the closest city with hotel vacancies).

We each grab two Mountain Dews and begin the drive north.  Taka and I have both been awake for 31 hours straight at this point, but we can’t stop talking about what we’ve seen.

As we near the station in Kansas City, I ask Taka how this compared to the Japanese earthquake from March.  Taka, a native of Japan, flew home shortly after that natural disaster and filmed Kansas City natives in the U.S. Armed Forces trying to help earthquake victims.

“At least after the earthquake, I could tell what things were,” says Taka.  “This is a house, this is a business, and so on.  I can’t tell what anything is in Joplin.”

–10:00 p.m.

I get home just in time to turn on the 10:00 news and watch what my coworkers managed to find in the hours since I left.  As usual, their work is outstanding and I’ll take time the next day to ask how they found these stories.

After the newscast, I let out a little frustration.

–10:35 p.m.

The new Good Morning America anchor, Josh Elliott, does a live shot for a special edition of Nightline.  The field anchor asks Elliott if there’s any way to sum up what he saw Monday, and Elliott answers with “a relentless sense of perspective.”

None of the KMBC crews complained about long hours or miserable conditions, and I’m reminded why as I listen to those words and sit on my couch surrounded by walls and a roof.

I agreed to come to work 35 hours ago.  It’s a day off I’ll never forget.

*Even going hour-by-hour, I’m sure there’s something in here I’ve missed.  As I continue to recollect my time in Joplin and talk with coworkers who were on the ground, I’ll surely add to this timeline.

The Royal Slogan Of Honesty

March 31, 2011

I’m not closed-minded on many things.  Of all the things that annoy me in a person’s views, the only thing I truly can’t tolerate is when they won’t listen to another’s.

I say this knowing that on at least one subject, I am the worst kind of hypocrite.  You can’t convince me I’m wrong when it comes to this topic, and if you disagree with me, I’ll likely spend most of the argument interrupting you to explain why I’m right.

Opening Day in Major League Baseball should be a national holiday.

The sport we’ve nicknamed “America’s Pastime” mirrors the last half of our nation’s history.  The modern-day civil rights movement began on April 15, 1947, the day Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

The front page of the New York Times sports section on April 11, 1947, four days before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.

Opening Day should be recognized and celebrated in an official capacity, especially when your team gets a home opener.

THE ABSENCE

The deception with the Kansas City Royals starts with absence.  Six months of wintry absence, and I’m guessing you’re familiar with the heart’s reaction.

Anyone who knows me well knows of my love for the Royals.

Growing up in Kauffman Stadium’s upper deck, I watched George Brett hit, Frank White field, Bret Saberhagen pitch, Willie Wilson fly, and Bo Jackson do things no human had ever done on a baseball field.  I wasn’t yet 10.

I’m old enough to have been alive in 1985 when four of those five men earned a World Series ring, but not old enough to remember it.  I do remember one winning season in the last 16.

The Royals have sold me on rebuilding movements no less than four times during my relatively young fanhood, each of which relapsed into a futility that made you recognize much too late the lemon you bought.  Those movements didn’t have George’s or Bo’s, and even the players who slightly resembled my childhood heroes moved on to more lucrative contracts rather than stay in Kansas City with an owner who wouldn’t pay them and a team that said, “Trust us.”

Every spring for more than 20 years, I have greeted Opening Day as though the previous summer gave me no reason to be wary.

This time, the Royals warned me instead.

THE SLOGAN

Commercials selling Royals tickets begin in early February, and that’s smart.

February is rough.  The back end of winter still promises several more weeks of temperatures that got old around Christmas.  The Super Bowl marks the start of a month-and-a-half stretch of no professional football or baseball to watch for Kansas City fans, and reminding them good times are ahead requires good timing.

The first time I heard the slogan for the 2011 season, alarms went off in my head.  I didn’t recognize the strategy, and therefore, didn’t trust it.  My Royals went honest.  Appallingly honest.

“Major League Moments.”  That’s the slogan.  Moments are what they’re selling us.

See?!!

Not a Major League team, not Major League play, not a Major League season to follow.  Moments.  Come to the game, and ever so often, our players will give you a glimpse of the Major Leagues.

Somehow, when the alarms subsided, I wondered if this could finally work.

THE ANTICIPATION

For the first time in my memory, the Royals aren’t the only people talking about the Royals’ rebuilding movement.

We’ve heard of the team’s unheard-of cache of prospects here, here, and here…but have never seen it here in the real world.  It hasn’t translated to a series of “Major League Moments” yet.

This is the group that gives us hope, though.  This is the group that, despite nearly two decades of Kansas City growing baseball-weary by July, we say “playoffs” and only the people who don’t fully follow the sport still laugh.

THE UPSHOT

During a recent online chat with a Kansas City Star sports columnist, a fan asked Sam Mellinger to give them reasons to come out to Kauffman Stadium in 2011.

Mellinger quickly fired off a list of entries.  “The food!”  “The beer!”  “The weather!”  “The fountains!”

He followed his list with, “…”

That’s the kind of season most predict for the Royals in 2011.

I don’t care.  For the first time I can remember, the Royals decided to be honest with me.

Opening Day should be a holiday.

I have no idea why I’m going to work.

The Story I Shouldn’t Tell?

March 15, 2011

I didn’t look up.

All it would’ve taken was a simple glance in the right direction and I would’ve had a great interview and even better story.

One of the most vilified organizations in the nation that loves to dish out hate speech couldn’t handle a crowd’s worth of criticism.  It happened in Kansas City on Saturday night.  I didn’t look up.

There are things I believe I’m good at and others I know I’m not.  At my apartment, my strengths are laundry and taking out the trash while my many weaknesses include washing dishes and making ice.  It’s really more a question of effort than ability, but if consistency is any measure of strength or weakness, I’m quite possibly the world’s worst ice maker.

At work, I’d like to think I’m aware of my surroundings.  Saturday made me question that.

THE STORY I DIDN’T WANT TO TELL

On Saturday night, Kevin Smith brought his newest movie to Kansas City and dared the members of Westboro Baptist Church to attend.  The maker of such cult classic films as “Clerks” and “Mallrats” had produced a horror movie called “Red State” containing direct and indirect digs at the Topeka church.

"Red State" promotional poster. Creeped out yet?

The hate and intolerance preached by the members of the Westboro Baptist Church is well-publicized (and I suspect if it wasn’t, they might have gone away long ago).

Most local media outlets’ general policy is to ignore the people who follow Fred Phelps.  Don’t get shots of them.  Don’t air anything about them.  It only creates the playground-bully effect of encouraging them to continue protesting American soldiers’ funerals.  Phelps says God is punishing the United States for our openness to homosexuality.

As recently as two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the church had a right to carry out its pickets.  The vote wasn’t even close as only one justice dissented.

Church members don’t just picket funerals of soldiers, of course.  I was in Great Bend covering teenager Alicia DeBolt’s memorial last August when Westboro members fled as it became clear there’d be violence if they stayed.  Police even arrested one man as he smashed the window of a fleeing Westboro car, which is no doubt the wrong reaction to the Phelps’ presence.

I don’t like situations where I’m told to do a story about Westboro.  I hesitate to post this because their members’ strategy is very clearly there’s no such thing as bad publicity (then again, it’s not like this site gets 1,000 hits a day…or even 100…sigh).

When several members of Phelps’ church not only agreed to attend, but also offer an honest critique following Saturday night’s screening…we had to cover this thing.

THE INTERVIEW…OR LACK THEREOF

Without an interview with Smith and shots of people watching the movie, there’s no story.  Only shots of the Phelps’ protest and movie-goers’ counter protest remain, and that’s not a story.  It’s just more publicity for Westboro with no redeeming newsworthy content.

Unfortunately, Smith’s PR guy said the movie producer was in meetings all the way until the start of the screening and wouldn’t be available for a two to three-minute interview.  That was a lie.

While trying to figure out how to turn a brand new story at 7:00 on a Saturday night, the photographer I was working with and I looked up just in time to see Smith carry a bag of food into the Midland Theater’s side stage entrance.  We had enough time to recognize the movie producer, just not grab him for an interview.

I have no personal experience to confirm it, but Smith’s reputation is that of a nice guy who I’m willing to bet would’ve taken a couple of minutes with a local news crew to promote his movie.

THE SCREENING

“Epic.”

That’s all my friend and former coworker, Scott (yes, the same Scott who pulled a muscle while driving), could think of to describe Saturday night.

While, of course, this was going to be a rowdy crowd to begin with, I’m guessing none of them really saw what was coming as the Phelps left the screening less than 20 minutes into the movie.  Left their shot at both ridiculing a movie they were clearly going to hate and berating the crowd that clearly hated them back.

The Westboro members immediately began sending out messages over Twitter calling the movie “filth” and other deplorable adjectives.  It already didn’t matter.  By that, I mean the insults and vitriol they hurled at Smith could not possibly have mattered any less.

The moment the Westboro members walked out of the theater, Smith and his fellow cohorts accomplished more than even they likely expected.

They showed the Phelps have feelings.

THE UPSHOT

Westboro Baptist Church is to church as Chicken McNuggets are to chicken.  They take pieces of the original, chop it up, mix in things that probably shouldn’t be there, and scream you must have some.

Still, I doubt the events of Saturday night will do much of anything to slow down or stop the hate spread by Fred Phelps’ followers.  What happened after the screening provides some hope, though.

As Smith got on stage to discuss the movie with his fans, two members of the audience spoke up.  Smith immediately called for extra chairs and microphones on stage for Josh and Libby Phelps, estranged family members who left Westboro Baptist Church.

Josh, one of Fred Phelps’ grandsons, left his family in the middle of the night long ago.  He made the crowd laugh as a self-proclaimed Star Wars nerd.  “The whole stand-up-to-people thing was probably a bad thing to teach a kid you wanted to stand on a street corner and picket people’s funerals,” Josh said.

Libby says she, too, got sucked into a world forced on her from birth.  Speaking of being recognized as a Westboro member, she said, “One time, I was walking to Best Buy and they were like, ‘There’s that damn Phelps.’  I was like, ‘Yeah!’  That’s how we were, like really happy if someone recognized us.”

This rebellion is what Smith says he hopes for other members of the church.

If the Phelps didn’t leave Saturday’s screening because they have feelings, at the very least, it was because they feared other members in the group do.  They fear the Josh’s and the Libby’s.

I really wish I’d looked up.

*Scott shot some videos with his phone (not of the movie, but what happened before and after the screening).  I’ll upload one or two here soon.

The Story I Didn’t Get To Tell

February 28, 2011

So often, we tell the viewers we’re bringing them the news of the day.  Technically, that’s inaccurate.  We’re bringing you the news of the day we were able to deliver on deadline.

There are any number of reasons why newsworthy stories don’t make air.  I had a couple this month.

Last week, I didn’t get to tell you how the woman Wesley Watson tried to rape in December felt because she didn’t want to share.  I’d have been shocked if she did.  I can’t tell you her name because reporters generally don’t name sexual assault victims.  I can tell you she’s a young woman who dabbed her eyes with a tissue repeatedly as Watson pleaded guilty to the crimes against her, especially when Watson described those crimes.  That’s about it.

This particular story I want to write about wasn’t told because the interviewee decided to catch a Saturday morning plane instead of a Saturday afternoon bus without telling me.  I can’t blame him.

When you leave your home, your wife, and your three children without knowing if and when you’ll ever see them again, calling the reporter back is somewhere below top priority.

THE STORY I TRIED TO TELL

Rigoberto Calderon isn’t a soldier.  The sentence above doesn’t mean he’s being sent to prison.  Calderon is (was) an illegal immigrant.

I’ve never met the man.  Over the phone, Calderon has no Latino accent.  I’m guessing that’s because he lived in Kanas City since the age of six.

Calderon’s parents brought him and his siblings to the U.S. more than 20 years ago.  He didn’t realize this wasn’t his native homeland until he tried to apply for college and found out he had no Social Security number.

Calderon stayed here, got a job, and raised a family with his wife.  His criminal record, aside from unknowingly being brought into the country as a young child, is clean.

Since Calderon was here for more than 10 years, he did have a chance to stay if he could prove his deportation would cause his children “extremely unusual and exceptional hardship.”

I won’t go into the specifics since I didn’t look up the records myself, but the court system recently decided Calderon didn’t get to stay.  He had until February 6 to return to Mexico.  After it appeared buses wouldn’t make it in time, he decided to hop a plane.

Calderon said he was disappointed he couldn’t give me an interview because he knew there were others in a similar situation and he really wanted to bring attention to the issue.

“This is just something I have to do for my family right now,” Calderon told me.  He sounded surprisingly optimistic.

In the moment immediately after he said those words, it sounded like the most backwards logic I’d heard in awhile.  In truth, Calderon knew he should grow a halo in the eyes of the courts.

Missing the deadline would make it that much harder to come back.

THE STORY I TELL NOW

Is that fair?  Is fair relevant?  I don’t know.

I’m guessing even the most fervent anti-immigrant protesters would feel bad for Calderon’s three children.  Then again, the level of hate expressed towards illegal immigrants in the last five years or so has surprised me.

I mean, I get the basic opposition.  There’s a process.  Our laws dictate if you’re not born here or your parents weren’t, you have to take certain steps to become a proud citizen of the country known for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and a mantra literally called a dream.

That people want more for themselves and their families so much they’ll skip steps isn’t surprising.

For people who want to argue Calderon should have returned to Mexico as soon as he learned of his citizenship status, please don’t be so naive.  Calderon hit the jackpot, one his parents risked their lives for.  They accomplished the goal:  get our children to the land of opportunity undetected.

He should spit in the face of that?   “Nah, Mom and Dad.  You got us the American Dream, but not the legal way.  I’m going back.”

I also understand we shouldn’t invite illegal immigrants with the attitude of, “Be good once you break the laws to get here, and we’ll let you stay.”

Ever notice ends justifying the means is a concept only fleetingly accepted by those who stand to benefit?  For me to expect anything more would make me the naive one.

THE UPSHOT

As far as I know, Calderon is in Mexico.  I haven’t called his cell since the day he caught that plane and had to skip the interview he so badly wanted to give.

He hasn’t just returned to a country that’s essentially foreign to him, it’s devastatingly war-torn right now.

Calderon’s attorney tells me his best shot to return to the U.S. is when his eight-year-old daughter turns 21.

Do I feel bad for this man and his family?  Hell yes.

Do I know the solution?  Hell no.

Sometimes, that’s why you tell the story.


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