Fri, 07 May 2010 01:25:00 +0000

A story of a plane crash, a fake bomb

and a real one far too close to home.

Ever since I covered my first breaking news story, I always wondered how far a reporter should go, and when to stop.

It was 2004, and I was a senior in high school. My ideas of journalistic right and wrong were still malleable. But I was already addicted — ready to devote my life to this mystic calling. I'd regularly skip class to report stories. I'd stay hours after school to finish the school paper. And, of course, I took my lunch to the newspaper room each day because I just knew that our story about underage drinking would change the world.

But on this particular day, I walked into the room with lunch — mini corn dogs — when my journalism teacher told me that a plane had crashed a few miles away. I grabbed my notepad and a camera, and I drove to the crash site.

I navigated through a quaint, high-class residential neighborhood. Every lawn was green, every house was pristine. And on the corner of a particularly nice street, there was a particularly nice house — a mansion, almost. Dozens police cars and fire trucks surrounded it. So I figured this was it. I got out of my car and began exploring — reporting.

This house had huge columns on either side of the front door, and the driveway was framed by neatly trimmed bushes and a small tended garden. But unkempt police tape lined the perimeter of the backyard, tarnishing the home. I followed the tape from the front yard to the back, walking along the edge of where I was allowed and where I wasn't. And that's how I discovered the crash.

A small plane, smashed into the back of this house. Three people dead.

It shook me, but only briefly. I ignored the instinct that told me to stay a safe distance away. I ignored the police officer who told me that, if I kept taking pictures, he'd get someone to confiscate my camera. And I ignored a gut feeling that told me it was wrong to ask questions while firefighters tried to secure the scene.

I felt brave.

I think every reporter has moments when they have to ignore gut instincts and do something unpleasant — for the sake of journalism. And over time, those gut instincts are overcome by a conviction and curiosity to get more information — especially the nuggets of information that are hard to reach. For me, uncovering these buried treasures were exhilarating. It was like finding puzzle pieces.

So there I was, 17 years old, standing 40 feet from a fresh plane wreck. I chatted up police officers and neighbors, trying to figure out how this happened — trying to get details. They all looked at me the same way: This is something the adults need to handle. And perhaps they were right. But at that moment, I was a reporter and I more questions to get answered.

After an hour, the house owner showed up. He was a tall, well-built man. He looked awfully familiar, but I couldn't place him. He kept his head down, his face hidden under his cap, and walked right past me. That's when I caught a glimpse of his eyes, and I immediately knew who he was: Jason Grimsley, a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals.

A few yards away from me, some TV reporters had already gotten wind that this was Grimsley's house. So they patiently awaited this man, who came home to find a plane crashed into his kitchen. And as Grimsley passed, one reporter asked, "Jason, did you lose anything valuable? Anything baseball-related?"

He kept walking. I don't know if he didn't hear the reporter or he was ignoring him. But, at the time, I thought the question was incredibly inappropriate. Three people had just died in his house, and this reporter was asking if he lost baseball memorabilia?

Shortly thereafter, a fellow newspaper student arrived at the scene. She had a high-powered lens that could zoom in on the crash from the police line. So I led her to the spot with the best angle, and we snapped some photos. You could see everything: The shattered cockpit, the intact tail section and even a silhouette of Grimsley's kitchen behind the police tarp.

It felt like such an accomplishment to get so close with something that the police blocked off. It was as if we outsmarted them, doing something that they didn't want us to do, all in the name of journalism.

When we returned to the newspaper classroom, we got plenty of positive reinforcement. Later that day, the local newspaper, The Kansas City Star, bought those photos and they ran them on the front page the next day. It was the ultimate approval of what we had done.

But when I looked at that photo, the 17-year-old me had a brief moment of uncertainty. I wondered whether we crossed a line. It felt so invasive to take a photo of such a traumatic event in these people's lives — something that landed right in someone else's kitchen.

Eventually, I decided it was OK — that this wasn't too bad. (I still stand by it today.) But something else happened that day: I turned down the volume for the voice in my head that told me not to do these uncomfortable things. And since that day, the knob kept getting turned down until all I heard was journalism gospel about getting scoops, being a watchdog and ultimately getting a good story.

About a year after that, I was at NYU and in my third week at the student newspaper, I was sent to cover a bomb threat at a dorm. I briskly walked — no, ran — to the scene and, when I got there, security officers were everywhere. I walked right into the front door of the dorm and sat in the reception area. And from there, I listened to these officers talk.

I soon learned the bomb was put on an RA's door. And I learned it was on the first floor. And then one officer said, "Yeah, thank goodness this thing was fake."

That was the first moment I realized there could've been a real bomb there. I realized I ran toward a potential explosion while everyone else was escorted out. I realized I clawed myself into the place that everyone was trying to leave, and I had no second thoughts about it. In fact, I did it with conviction.

It was the first time I realized that I'd turned the volume on that "gut-feeling" knob too far down. But that didn't stop me because, when I returned to the newsroom, I was again bombarded with positive reinforcement for getting the story.

And since then, there have been moments I have failed to think — and, more importantly, feel — my way through a story before jumping in to report.

Of course, there have been several times when I had information and chose not to share it. And there have been times I could get information, but chose not to pursue it. And I want to say I have toed that line of right-and-wrong perfectly. But I can't help but think I have crossed it at some point.

This week, I felt some journalists crossed the line — and it made me angry.

They were reporting on the Times Square bomber story, which I've been following closely because it was close to home. That man parked his bomb-rigged Pathfinder a half-mile away from my apartment. When I first realized the proximity of this act, I got the chills.

Anyway, these reporters got some leaks and learned that the SUV belonged to a Pakistani man of American descent — and it was all over the news. That tipped off the bomber, Faisal Shahzad, that he was under surveillance. Then, reporters learned where this man lived. So they went to his house and waited for the police to come arrest him.

I can only imagine how exhilarating that must've been — waiting outside a potential terrorist's home, one step ahead of law enforcement.

But there was only one problem: Officers were watching this man, as well, and he had yet to be arrested.

And when I later learned that Shahzad had made it all the way onto an airplane headed to Dubai, it made me angry. This man tried to blow up a car a few blocks away from me, and these reporters were too busy chasing down a story to worry about whether the FBI or NYPD was going to catch him. They had in fact made it tougher to catch him. (To be fair, it was law enforcement officials also had a part in this, since they leaked info to the media.)

It angered me that this man nearly got onto a plane, possibly because my fellow journalists didn’t think through the consequences.

As I prepared to write a scathing piece about these journalists, I remembered all the times I made this same blind mistake, albeit on a much smaller scale. I also remembered all the times that this lowered "gut-feeling" volume had helped me gather crucial information that actually helped people. And I remembered all the gray area in which I operated, not knowing whether my actions were right or wrong, but knowing there would be positive reinforcement at the end.

I've been out of hard news reporting for a while now, somewhat by choice. I always thought the that volume knob was never turned low enough for me to be a great news reporter. Because that voice always existed, no matter how confident of a front I put up. But perhaps now I'm realizing that it had nothing to do with that volume knob, and everything to do with my lack of wisdom to decide, for myself, what is right or wrong in journalism, without the support of positive reinforcement back in the newsroom.

When I was in a newsroom, the line for what was OK and not OK was very clear; we discussed it, but every reporter had a decent idea of how far they were willing to go. I did too, but I never knew where to stop.

Now that I'm removed from that world, that line is unclear again. If anything, it's receding. And I like it that way, because I think it's more in-touch with reality — at least the one I’m in right now.