Friday, May 6, 2016

Word on the Street with James Queally Pt. 2

Continuing LAST WEEK'S amazing interview with LA Times crime reporter James Queally, here's part two, where we discuss OJ Simpson, true crime television, and "crime porn."

I think the immediacy, when we’re watching television coverage of big news events like this that starts to get a little sticky. Do you think there is an advantage to – you have to go get the information, process it, write it, hopefully it goes through an editor, and then it is published vs. watching CNN when, I think it was the Boston Bombings, and they’ve got three reporters in the same parking lot and you can actually see the bus driving through it – they’re just scrambling to say something, anything, get any relevant sound bit they can get out. That’s their sense of immediacy. But you’re taking your sense of immediacy and filtering it through more of a process. Do you think there’s an advantage to that?
No, I can agree with that. There is an advantage. I don’t have a hot mic. Somebody is going to at least breathe and think about whatever feed I just sent in.  The only immediacy situation I have is, you know, we’re encouraged, especially in a situation like Ferguson, I was essentially using Twitter as a notepad. At that point, I’m taking pictures of clashes, of officers in riot gear and protestors, I’m sending out tweets that I just got hit in the face with tear gas. At that point I am just sending out, just pretty much stream of consciousness. But as far as a full report, and a continuous live stream – yeah, I feel like TV is at something of a disadvantage.

Especially when - San Bernardino is a perfect example. I’d written a story about this months later. The initial couple  of press conferences, the information that came from some witnesses at the scene was that there were three shooters. There was no evidence that there were three shooters. The FBI said only two weapons were used. This was never true, but because they were dealing with such a chaotic scenario the initial press conferences with Jarrod Burguan, the San Bernardino Police Department’s chief, he said there were three shooters and that got carried live by CNN, ABC, NBC, everybody who was there. 

And it’s, through no fault of the TV station, but they have to carry the live feed of the press conference. And they put out - everybody put out – that false information, just because it’s that immediate chaos following a scenario like that. And yeah, when they’ve got to constantly have live feeds, sometimes stuff gets misappropriated. You know this is a story I was telling out of Ferguson, too. The third night I was there was the night before Thanksgiving and everyone had kind of calmed down. You were talking about, there were hundreds of protestors out every night, but standing in front of the Ferguson police department I was like coin flip you were going to get arrested if you were anywhere near the protestors or God forbid you stepped into the street toward the cops. So it was a madhouse the first two days, and then day three – not really anybody there.

It was like half media, half protestors/demonstrators. At one point, a bunch of us came back from eating somewhere and I heard the CNN guy mutter something to the effect of “the crowd is doubling” into a live camera. The crowd of protestors isn’t doubling! It’s me, the guy from Buzzfeed and whoever else just walked back into the parking area. But they are running continuous coverage so they don’t … what’s his fact check on that? He’s going to turn over his shoulder? He’s going to run over and ask all forty of us if we’re demonstrators or not? It’s not the highest of journalistic sins that they’re committing, but it’s just the reality of, yeah, if you’re constantly live broadcasting – like you said – there’s no filter, there’s no check. You might have a producer yelling in the anchor’s ear to get away from something if something truly onerous goes on. You know, this happens during police pursuits– this has happened during police pursuits in LA before. I think there have been one or two cases where they actually shot and killed the fleeing driver on television. This happened a long time ago, before I was here. But that is the danger of covering anything constantly. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t edit out what’s actually occurring on a livestream.
If I could lead you a little bit, away from actual TV news, which I think TV news is becoming more entertainment than news - I know that you said you’re not actually a big true crime entertainment fan. Is there a reason why you, personally, are not catching this wave that a lot of people are into right now, watching all these shows, listening to the podcasts – all of that. Or is it just that you’re too busy?
Part of it is overload, quite frankly. As you know, how you met me, I also write crime fiction. So I’m spending the day reporting on crime, I come home and I’m working on a short story or a novel. A lot of what I read is a lot of genre fiction and a lot of the TV I watch, in general – Better Call Saul is at the top of my list right now – that’s kind of a sad sack noir story. I need something different after awhile. Sometimes I just need to watch a basketball game.

Moreseo, from a critical standpoint, I guess I’m touch and go. I got into Serial for a few episodes and kind of faded away from it. On the one hand, I think stuff like Serial and Making A Murderer can be good because one of the main headaches of crime reporting, especially as I said at my old job, I was covering Newark Police Department, which is the largest department in New Jersey, a hundred murders a year in that city. And then I was doing Enterprise investigative pieces throughout the state. Any major disaster that happened I got sent on it, Hurricane Sandy, I was living on a cot for ten days in my photographer’s apartment – we don’t have time to do these kind of projects. It’s very rare if you’re a police beat reporter, we can’t do what Serial did. [Note: James did originally slip and call “Serial”, “Scandal” and he would like it on record that he does not watch Scandal].
I guess there is something of a danger in re-litigating a case, and it’s also, the other side of it – Serial did uncover some interesting things about the Adnan Syed case, especially the stuff regarding the defense attorney, I remember she had died before they did the podcast, but she had some serious misconduct allegations, I think. It kind of called into question whether or not he received adequate counsel. To some extent, I think something like that is very interesting. It does open up this kind of logical sinkhole, can the media re-litigate cases and what are you really doing it for? Are you doing it for journalistic integrity, are you doing it because you saw what a smash hit Serial was and now you’re going to profit from that as well? I haven’t watched Making A Murderer, so I can’t really comment on that, I don’t know the first thing about it.

I just started Making A Murderer, and to be honest with you I’m almost let down by it because people were so INTO it. But I read all of the stuff debating Making A Murderer before viewing it, so I kind of have a different view than watching it when it first came out. But what I thought was interesting about Making A Murderer vs. other cases we see get “re-litigated” (I’m going to use your term), is that it seemed that a lot of people debating the points of the documentary missed the point of the documentary, which was that there were obvious instances of misconduct. But people got so into the idea of “is this guy guilty or innocent?” that it took over the conversation people were having.

Right, and I feel like that can be a problem in and of itself because you can never – all of the things we’re talking about, whether it’s the motive as to why a sixteen year old got killed on a street corner in Newark or it’s what lead to one of these officer involved shootings that ends up on the national stage, or it’s something as complicated as a criminal trial – if you want to look at it for the quick fix of was somebody guilty or was somebody innocent – like you said - you’re missing the point of: was there prosecutorial misconduct? Was there inadequate counsel on side? What were the societal factors that lead to this? You know, these documentaries can answer a ton of important questions, but really only if their audience is willing to actually look for those from the show. If they’re not, if it’s just crime porn for them, it’s Court TV, you may not be accomplishing anything.

The OJ phenomenon, which I guess is the most recent example of this – I had a bit of a skewed take on this because I was like six years old when this happened. For me it was just really interesting to learn all of this stuff about the case –

Wait, how old are you?
I’m 28.

Okay. So you were older than six.
When the chase happened… no, when the chase happened I was seven.

Oh, okay. Right, because there was a gap. I was just thrown off because I’m thirty-two and I remember in sixth grade math class, the teacher putting on the verdict.
Yeah, they didn’t do that for us. I guess I would have been in fourth grade and they decided nine was too young for that.

And your teacher hated you everyday for it.

The only thing I remember about the OJ trial, from being that young was, this is going to sound stupid, it was a sports reason. I was living in New York at the time, I was a huge Knicks fan and it interrupted game six of the Knicks – Rockets NBA finals. That’s the only thing I really knew about OJ growing up until I started reading about it later. I had not read Tupin’s book, so like this was really a kind of dive in for me for all of the – I never knew about people cheering for him on the freeway in South L.A., about Marcia Clarke and what she went through during the trial, really just the insanity of the 24/7 media cycle. Really, to some extent that case and really Rodney King, kind of gave birth to the endless coverage of something you see on virtually any news story now. None of that was known to me then. I’d read articles about it here and there, looked up things about it. You know, obviously OJ is constantly in our news cycle, especially with that psychotic incident with the knife being found that we were covering about a month or two ago, but I really never had it in one sitting. One condensed – “This is what happened.” I think OJ was different because it was kind of a retrospective, for the most part it didn’t really try to pass judgment on anybody. I mean, there were a few characters that the show runners really couldn’t seem to hide their contempt for, OJ chief among them. For the most part it just kind of blends into history. It wasn’t some kind of alternate reality, it wasn’t some attempt to suggest that this, that, or the other thing happened. I think it was just a lens for, at least for me as somebody who really missed it while it was happening, to kind of relearn about this kind of dramatic shift.

They’re supposed to be doing Katrina next year, I really don’t know how that’s going to work.

So that leads me onto something else I wanted  to touch on, because I’m really interested in how you as a crime reporter – you have a job to do. You go out, you do that job every day. You see these things with your own eyes a lot of the time. You speak with people who are affected by it. I would assume that gives you a different perspective and maybe a different amount or type of empathy for the people involved in these crimes whereas when you look at something that isn’t necessarily retrospective but happening in the moment, like watching court cases on HLN or any one of a million day-time TV crime shows you can watch where someone is talking about this heinous crime they worked on – that empathy seems to get lost in 1) trying to entertain and 2) a sort of distance that’s harder to reconcile. So I was wondering if there was anything you could say about your experience being there on the street about how you hope that people are interpreting the things that you’re putting out there.

I think some of the day time shows you’re talking about, and I think I mentioned this when we were chatting some other day, some of those like Snapped or that one that focuses on social media, I think that’s like Oxy or HLN. Those are the two I’m familiar with, those are the two my girlfriend is obsessed with. Those two shows irritate me because – like you said, the empathy gets lost in the distance, whether it’s the narrator reading like he’s writing the worst dime store novel ever. You know the kind of awful puns that will come up from time to time, and you do see whenever they talk to a local newspaper or TV reporter who covered the case, they will have felt something. But yeah it just seems like the shows almost have fun with these cases where women died. Sometimes, often, in these situations, they are domestic violence cases. Nothing is funny about that in any way but it’s sometimes a more tragic murder than a random crime because it’s almost always somebody knew something and didn’t speak up and then things got out of hand. This kind of nausea comes over me, even if it’s like two in the morning and I’m like sitting there because I can’t sleep. It’s like why am I… I am part of why it’s okay to use these people’s corpses for a point 2 cable rating in the middle of the night. I feel like I’m not helping the problem.

There’s definitely a kind of empathy that comes with these kind of situations. Frankly, on both sides. I’ve interviewed the parents of people who were arrested for murder 48 hours after their son or daughter got taken into custody and I’ve spoken to way too many families of people who have been killed. And you have to take on an empathy for them. It’s very rare that you’re going to catch the mother, the husband, the wife, the daughter, at the scene and get them talking right then and there. You’re going to catch witnesses, you might catch some relatives and you might talk to them briefly and get their immediate from the gut reaction, but you’re not going to get that longer conversation that’s going to lead to the feature later. When you have that – you’re kind of asking them to tell their entire – the victim’s whole life story. You have to care. You can’t fake it.

There is, I will admit this, and I’m not the only reporter on Earth who does this – the way I begin those conversations is a little bit, almost scripted in my head. I’m hoping that’s not coming across like a manipulative connotation but you have to steel yourself to have this conversation for the five hundredth time in your career. It’s “I know this is a bad time. I understand if you wouldn’t want to talk.” You’re offering your condolences. You do say the same things over and over again early on. But after that, you have to invest yourself in that conversation or you’re not going to be listening, quite frankly. There’s no way you don’t make a connection with somebody sitting in a room in that scenario, and when you watch these more dime-a-dozen versions of these shows, I feel like when they talk to the reporters who were there, they will generally still seem to feel that empathy I remember feeling in those scenarios. I would imagine even the producers, the people who are doing the interviews for these shows generally, you know the people asking the questions on camera, they’re never shown on camera, you never hear their voice. I would imagine they’re having the same empathy toward these people, too, just from the documentary stand point. But it’s what it gets packaged into that kind of gets away from it.

I feel like that is, maybe, the problem with a lot of these shows is they become formulaic because people watch them for a lot of reasons, but one of the reasons someone is going to sit and watch the twelve hour Snapped Marathon is there is a sense of familiarity and knowing what’s going to happen.

There’s also a sense of… it’s simple story telling at the end of the day. We like heroes, but we also like villains. I don’t know if you watched it or not, but one of the big phenomenons from the last year of Netflix was the Killgrave character on Jessica Jones. That guy’s a monster! He’s a sexual predator, he’s terrifying, and he was probably my favorite part of the show. I think that does come across, too, when you’re watching these shows, like the killer is interesting and that is part of the issue, you get lost in that to some extent.

Two things following on that: 1) You mentioned that you did this really in-depth piece on civilian casualties in police chases, but admitted to me that in the news room, you’re still watching them. It still draws you in. And what’s funny is that I’ve sort of made a reputation over the last year of criticizing true crime, but I was watching one of these shows – Dateline something or other. Actually, it was called “Plot Twist”. I was watching it, and I was into it, I was totally invested and texting my husband saying ‘Oh my god, you’re not going to believe what happened now!” So I think we can criticize it all we want but at the same time…

We’re human.

Right, we’re human.
But what struck me was that you said you have that sense of empathy for both sides. Not just for the victims and the victim’s families, but it’s also for the perpetrators of these crimes, or the accused, depending on what the case may be.

Well the empathy is for the families. Usually the families of the accused, usually not the accused themselves.

I had one specific incident I remember in Newark, I wrote about this kid numerous times over the course of a year, thirteen year old kid just went on a killing spree. He robbed about four different people and two of them, after they surrendered and gave him money, he shot them in the back and killed them. He killed multiple people in the span of a month. A couple sources I had in the prosecutor’s office, I managed to get the family’s home address, and I got down there and the family life was not the best.

You know, there was an uncle in there who had a blood tattoo on for a set I recognized. I name-dropped a gang leader who was one of my sources at the time and he knew who he was, and this guy was around the kid all the time. But the older brother and the mom, they were just kind of constantly… they didn’t know what to make of this. They didn’t know that their son and brother was capable of this. She’s sitting there like, you know he loved playing basketball. She’s got the uniform of him in the, whatever the New Jersey equivalent of the CYL basketball league that I grew up playing in New York was. To her it was just her baby boy. You feel terrible for that woman. It’s like you could say bad parenting or whatever, but I don’t know… I feel like there’s very few cases of bad parenting that lead to your son going on a robbery/murder spree in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Newark. I’m sure there are abuse cases where that might be, but that was never alleged here, and to my knowledge that’s not what happened. This is just a woman who’s kid is thirteen years old,  and threw his whole life away and ruined the lives of how many other mothers and fathers sitting there having the opposite side of this conversation with a different reporter or a homicide detective?

There have definitely been situations where I’ve spent a lot of time with them. I did a magazine profile of Frank Lucas, the guy that American Gangster was based off of, his youngest kid, I felt bad for. The kid was brilliant, he was clerking in a law office for the guy that Russel Crowe played in the movie. The kid was an innocent, nice guy, but he’s living in the shadow of one of the most famous drug lords in history. It’s the people around the suspects that I always really feel for. It’s every reporter’s dream to prove somebody’s innocence but those situations don’t really happen that often so for the most part, the suspect is kind of just the suspect. If they’re cleared later, you know through the Innocence Project, you feel horrible that somebody was locked up forever and a day, but obviously when someone is going through the arrest and prosecution and judication scenario, I don’t really get access to talk to them. So it’s the people around them you empathize with because those are the people you meet.

 Read James's work at the LA Times here, and follow him on Twitter.

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