I DROVE SLOWLY that day and hoped that somehow my exit on the beltway would never come and I would never get to where I was going. That way, I would not have to ask any questions. A 4-year-old girl had been killed by a hit-and-run driver and I was going to where she lived to ask her parents God only knew what. I got there and they invited me in. They were very polite, the way people invariably are under such circumstances, and when the neighbors had cleared out and there was a pause, they turned to me and I asked the only question I could think of: "What kind of a girl was she?" Her father shot me a look and said, "She was 4 years old. What can you say about a 4-year-old kid?" I left the house.
There is no one in journalism who does not have a story like that.Some are worse. Some are about arriving at the house before anyone and having to break the bad news yourself, and some are about how you bluff your way through the whole interview, pretending, maybe, you don't know that on some chart somewhere the name in question has been transferred from missing to dead. We have all done that sort of thing and although we might be at the White House now or the State Department or writing about ballet, there were those hot and muggy nights years ago when you knocked softly on wooden screen doors with the paint peeling off and hoped that either no one was home or they wouldn't hear the knock. God, I hated those assignments.
The point, though, is that we sometimes have to do those things and the point, also, I guess, is that journalism sometimes uses people. Sometimes you get some really good and valuable story for your labors, but most of the time you're simply giving the public what it wants. The public often has rotten taste.
All this brings me to The New York Post and the way it has been handling the Son of Sam story. The Post once was a proud newspaper and while it was never a great newspaper, if you mean great as in paper-of-record great, it had its strengths. It did some things very well - sports, for instance - and it also ahd a bit of a crusading streak to it. At one time, it boasted writers like Murray Kempton and Jimmy Cannon and it stood up to Joe McCarthy with admirable contempt for his power, running Herblock cartoons and James Wechsler editorials when it was not easy to do so. The Post, in its own way, was a pretty good newspaper.
Now, like all the papers, it has been going all out on the Son of Sam story. You can hardly blame it. It is a good story, as these things go, and I, too, tried to get a piece of it with a column. I wrote about the funeral of the latest victim and I wrote that column because I was genuinely interested in the Son of Sam story and because I thought readers were also. This has been a slow summer and the news has gone to the beach and so I went up to New York and wrote about Son of Sam. In fact, when a woman called me recently and told me she thought she knew Son of Sam and would send me a copy of his handwritting, I got really excited. I would like to catch the guy, sure, but I also thought it would make a great column. The letter never came.
Anyway, both Time and Newsweek have stories about Son of Sam this week and this paper has run a story on page one and so has The Washington Star. It is a great story and I make no apologies for my interest in it. But the other day. The New York Post had a story at the top of page one that was headlined "To Son of Sam:" What followed was a letter.
The letter was written by Steve Dunleavy, a Post reporter, and it was all about how Son of Sam should give himself up to guess who? If you guessed The New York Post, you would be right. Lest you think this is a bit hokey, Dunleavy wrote, "this is a straightforward and genuine appeal to the 'Son of Sam' to give himself up. Call us . . ." I think you get the point, but in case you don't, the letter also ends by saying. "Call us." But it is the way the letter begins that really get to me. Let me quote:
"When I held their hands and hugged Jerry and Neysa Moskowitz, parents of Stacy Moskowitz, the latest victim of the .44-calibre killer, I was stunned shattered and angry."
It goes on from there, but suffice it to say that The New York Post has now enrolled the parents of a murder victim in a circulation war.
I started this story by saying that all of us in journalism have played ghoul from time to time and all of us have used people. I do it in my column and I've done it in neww stories and I've done it mostly, when people have tried to use me and their stories have not come out the way they would like. Anyway, whenever it happens I don't like it. But even in this murky and hard to define area you have to draw the line. Even when dealing with a pip of a story, you have to adhere to some sort of standards.
When a newspaper dies we journalists write about how it is always a shame-another voice is stilled, a possible story will go unreported, nothing good will come of it. There is something to all that, I suppose, so let me be the first to say I'm sorry about The New York Post.
As a newspaper, it's dead.