Friday, April 3, 2009

Corpse-back Riding

I hate obligatory remembrances as much as the next guy, but they serve their purpose. So yes, it was a year ago today that UW-student Brittany Zimmermann was murdered in her Doty Street apartment.

And here's where obligatory remembrances serve their purpose. I have typed or spoken some version of that phrase, "UW-student Brittany Zimmermann, murdered in her Doty Street apartment," literally hundreds of times in the past year -- maybe more. As a news reporter and anchor, I've made mention of the event so many times that... well, I don't want to say it lost its meaning to me, but over time, the bitter anger I felt over her death had begun to abate.

But the first anniversary of this tragedy gave me all new sources of that stinging clean, white-hot rage that first welled up inside me and inspired me to start blogging.

I didn't know Brittany personally, but I felt her loss as a Badger alum, a member of the community and a guy with a little sister Brittany's age living within blocks of the murder scene. The outrage I felt stemmed from a combination of shock, alarm that the system could fail this woman so completely and disappointment in our local officials for their lies, half-truths and complete unwillingness to disclose answers about the debacle.

These are all distressing, ugly feelings to have, and with time, it becomes easier and healthier to let them fade away. It's more comfortable to remember "Brittany Zimmermann, who was murdered in her Doty Street apartment," than it is to fathom the full human scale of the tragedy.

So it was with considerable chagrin that I approached my first assignment of the day -- covering the Brittany Zimmermann remembrance under the bell tower atop Bascom Hill. I certainly recognize the news value in the event and the interest we as members of the public have in peering into it, but nothing will ever stop me from feeling like a voyeur when I'm literally going out of my way to watch other people suffer.

But I have a job to do as a journalist, and self-hating reporter or not, I'm comfortable with myself if I cover these sorts of events in as sensitive a manner as possible, clutching my humanity and decency close. Reporter or not, I'm a human being first, and while it may cost me some so-called "competitive edge," as a matter of principle I won't ever do anything I wouldn't want done to my family if I was the one in the ground.

Apparently, though, two people left their humanity and their decency at home in recognition of Brittany's death.

A Madison Police press release in the week leading up to the anniversary made it clear that Brittany's family did not want to deal with the media, and those members of the media with a soul respected that. My assignment at the remembrance today was to roll some nat sound and then talk to a few students and get their take on the atmosphere around campus.

When I arrived, the family was gathered around the base of the bell tower. Nearby, posses from the university and police administration hovered respectfully. Keeping a 20-yard perimeter around them was a small ensemble of media, mostly newspaper photographers and television crews, all respectfully silent.

The ceremony began as a color guard approached the tower, and the bell began to sound, once for each of the years in Zimmermann's short life. All in all, it was very nice, until the tool bag with a camera and a long lens moved in for the kill.

While I can find a lot of stones to throw at our Modern American Mediascape, I'm often the first to take offense when someone accuses the media of being too pushy. I maintain that, like with any line of work, 99 percent of reporters are decent people doing their job the best they can that know where the line is and will go to extremes to avoid crossing it.

But there's one in every crowd, and as a former newspaper photographer, I can tell you exactly what tool bag was trying to do with his long lens. Faced with a row of sobbing family members, he had to move to within five feet to get a sharp picture of his subject, framed from the eyebrows to the chin, of tears running down the subject's cheek. The depth of field in a shot like that is so shallow, the other family members are reduced to fuzzy cardboard cutouts, but the tears pop off the paper like gems.

It's a layout editor's wet dream.

And he didn't just shoot a few photos. That bell tolled 21 times, and from clangs two through fifteen, he was crouched up and down that row of mourning family members, shutter clicking like a machine gun until police spokesman Joel Despain tapped him on the shoulder and gave him a look that said the only thing that needed shooting was tool bag with the long lens.

I didn't recognize tool bag with the long lens, so I can't call him or the publication he represents out yet. But while the rest of the media kept a respectful distance, he was in there milking that family's grief for all it was worth, and it cast all of us as a whole in a poor light.

But as inappropriate as his behavior was, there was someone else at that remembrance even more hollow as a human being.

In hindsight, I should not have been surprised to see county executive candidate Nancy Mistele there. She's staked her entire campaign on faulting incumbent Kathleen Falk for the tragedy, sometimes fairly, but usually in ways that make me nauseous. Without the murder on Doty Street, Mistele's campaign platform would be bereft of all but one knotty plank -- some rural residents' regressive, irrational fear of bringing commuter rail to Dane County, but that's another issue entirely and couldn't win her 30 percent of the vote.

No one has managed to wring more personal benefit from this innocent young girl's death than Mistele. If there weren't laws against such a thing, she would probably try to dig up Brittany Zimmermann's body and ride it straight into the county executive's office like a sled.

Yet there she was atop Bascom Hill, surrounded by her posse of county officials which included, I was sad to note, Supervisor Ronn Ferrell, who's always struck me as a decent guy otherwise.

I bit my tongue until it went numb and walked the other way when the bell stopped tolling. Had I been a little more in control, I'd have stuck a live mic in her face and asked, "Seriously? What the hell? Have you just foresworn decency in your pursuit of this office or what?" I really wish I had now.

I heard later from another reporter that he did meander over to her and, without rolling tape, asked what brought her out. My source tells me she gave him a calculated lip quiver and sniffled, "I'm just out here for Brittany."

Every decent person on top of that hill today spent half an hour in the place they least wanted to be at that particular moment. Brittany's family was suffering the most visibly, but rest assured Lori Berquam and her crew had nice warm offices within a hundred paces, the police officials present would have traded their badges to have a killer off the streets, and most of the media were so busy hating themselves they'd just as soon have been working for the Rocky Mountain News.

But it was a red-letter day for Nancy Mistele, for whom the afternoon's biggest tragedy was that none of Brittany's family wanted to have their picture taken with her for campaign literature.


Tim Morrissey said...

Dusty, this is really a great post. And thank you for remembering you're a human being FIRST, reporter/anchor second. A lot of guys your age don't realize that. You CAN be sensitive and still do a hard-hitting story. The thing so many people like Mr. Tool, the photographer, forget, is that THEY live in the community, too, and are judged as citizens as well as "journalists".

Too bad TDY doesn't have a long-form formate for stuff like'd be really, really good at it.


Emily said...

Here fucking here, Dusty, and well said--both on what it is to be a reporter, and on Mistele. Couldn't have put it better myself.

Michael Leon said...

An excellent post indeed, though your conclusion is way off.

I had two occasions to call the 911Center, both at the direct request of well-meaning fellow human beings.

On both occasions, I hung up the phone hoping the welfare of someone in distress did not depend on the intelligence and judgement of the 911 operator, and the clear incompetance of the important bureaucracy run by a crony.

The rest is tragedy.

Falk screwed up, argubly, the most important county agency meant to serve the public. Fuck politics and Falk's incompetance, and vote for Mistele.

Mark G. Michaelsen said...

Mistele wasn't there for a photo op. I am from Zimmerman's hometown, as many know.

Falk couldn't go. Then the story would be about her and dodging the Zimmerman suit deposition.

Jeff said...

This was a really good read, Dusty - good as in important to know, not as in creating-fuzzy-feelings.

On a side note, I think before I started throwing accusations of incompetance [sic] around, I'd make sure I knew how to spell it...