Hours after the news conference turned into a gruesome public suicide yesterday, a still-shaken group of reporters in the Harrisburg state capitol received the last page of Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer's prepared statement.
"Last May, I told you that after this trial, I would give you the story of the decade," said Dwyer, who had been convicted last month on charges of bribery, mail fraud and racketeering.
"To those of you who are shallow, the events of this morning will be that story. But to those of you with depth and concern, the real story will be what I hope and pray results from this morning . . . the development of a true justice system in the United States."
Then, in his final plea to the news media, he made a request that undoubtedly would be granted. He said: "Please tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the United States."
Around the country, editors and television news directors spent much of the day deciding where to stop the series of photographs that showed Dwyer's death. At the same time, journalists covering the event were analyzing their instincts, trying to determine whether their reactions were appropriate as journalists and as human beings.
Like the public suicide of Sarasota anchorwoman Chris Chubbuck in 1974 and the self-immolation of a Jacksonville protester last year while a television crew watched, reporters' behavior on the scene and editors' decisions will become the stuff of journalism seminars and comment about the news media.
Journalists asked themselves: Could reporters have stopped it? Should photographers have filmed it? Should the sequence of photos be shown without warning to an audience that could include children? Will it encourage others?
Journalists who covered the event described the pull of varying instincts in the seconds after Dwyer produced a .357 Magnum from a manila envelope on his desk and raised it in the air.
Some pleaded with Dwyer not to aim the gun at himself and not to pull the trigger. Others "hit the decks," as one reporter put it, believing that Dwyer's criticism of news media coverage of his trial was taking a treacherous turn.
"I started moving to the back of the room, away," said Fred Cusick, who covers the Pennsylvania state government for The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Shortly before that, he had been attacking the press as treating him as just one more piece of meat during the trial. I just figured he was going to take some of us with him."
Gene Schenck, a correspondent for WGAL-TV in Lancaster, Pa., said he began to have a sense late in the news briefing that Dwyer planned to kill himself instead of resign as expected. But he said the furniture in Dwyer's office had been rearranged so that reporters were separated from Dwyer by a table.
"I pleaded, 'Budd, don't do it, please don't,' " Schenck said, "but I wasn't close enough to get to him. I had the table in the way."
An ABC News cameraman ducked to the floor but managed to leave his camera rolling. A public-television cameraman filmed the entire sequence, then began gagging and left the room. Most said they moved in a kind of professional fog, writing, filming or photographing first and reacting emotionally later.
In the nation's newsrooms, many editors and television producers decided to cut the tape at the point where Dwyer put the gun to his mouth. At least one Harrisburg station, the ABC affiliate WHTM, ran the entire sequence shortly after the suicide.
In response to protests and questions about the propriety of running the segment, WHTM news director Jon McCall issued a statement saying, "It is the position of the news director that an overwhelming news event holds the interest of the nation, and that interest dictated our response to it which, while graphic, is not exploitive."
McCall said the footage would be limited to two news shows last night, "after which it will not be repeated." The sequence also would be accompanied with comments by a health professional, as requested by the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
NBC's Nightly News stopped the sequence at the point where Dwyer held the gun in the air, then cut to footage of his body being removed from the room. ABC News Tonight showed only a still shot of Dwyer holding the gun in the air. CBS News used a still picture of Dwyer's face.
Editors at The Philadelphia Inquirer said last night they planned to publish photos of Dwyer killing himself, but other papers were more circumspect. Editors at The Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe said they planned only to print pictures of Dwyer brandishing the gun.
Asked why The Washington Post ran photos of Dwyer before and after the shooting, managing editor Leonard Downie Jr. said: "It's dramatic without being stomach-turning. If there was more visible damage from the wound, we might have made a different decision."
But editors and network spokesman added that they expected the story to fade quickly except in journalistic circles and in Pennsylvania.
"I think he miscalculated," Schenck mused on Dwyer's final protest of his innocence. "Now we're writing about what he did, not what he said. I only wish I could have communicated this to him before he did it."