I confess, except for a few items like the latest New York abortion law, I’m not paying much attention to the news these days. I’ve concluded, “Why make myself perpetually angry about things I can’t change or do much about?”
A bad attitude, I know, but there it is.
So an email from a beloved and highly intelligent in-law about the Covington Catholic High School incident was the first I’d heard about it. She saw it as a crass example of how awful Trump supporters can be.
Even then, I only glanced at it superficially. The smile on the kid’s face clearly seemed to me to be his attempt at being civil. My wife clearly saw the smile as a cynical “smirk.” We had heated words over our different takes on the smile, with most of the unhelpful heat, as usual, coming from me.
I subscribe to the National Catholic Register and several other top Catholic publications because they are, in my view, the most consistent and courageous in their stand for values in the public arena I believe in, despite the horrific hypocrisy and egregious moral corruption that has infected the church.
Anyway, the Covington incident reminded me in a way about a story I covered up in Oregon.
It started with a report on our police scanner that a bomb squad had been called to the campus of Oregon State University. A seemingly abandoned — or “planted” — briefcase had been left outside the entrance of the chemistry lab.
We got there in time to film the little remote-controlled robot carry the briefcase out to a safe, open area and detonate it. Sure enough, it contained a homemade bomb, which also exploded.
Turns out, the briefcase belonged to a chemistry professor who had just been fired. He’d come back to campus, he said, to finish up some paperwork in Human Resources. He’d given the briefcase to a random female student who he asked to take it to the lab. She agreed, but left it outside the lab instead of taking it inside.
Campus Security and police then searched his car in the parking lot and found additional bomb-making materials in the trunk. Somehow, I forget how, he was able to leave campus and return to his home.
I tracked down his home phone number and called him. When he answered, I identified myself as a reporter and the station I was with. His voice, to me, sounded instantly panicky. He blurted out, “I’ve been framed,” and hung up.
In my anchoring, I always did my best to wrestle my own biases, opinions, perceptions and viewpoints to the ground and just present straight facts in an even-handed way.
But not this time. I made no effort whatsoever, either in my tone of voice or my facial expression, to conceal my complete contempt and “smirking” disbelief for what he had to say.
But wouldn’t you know. It turned out his wife was having a secret affair with her riding instructor. They planted the bomb in his briefcase and the bomb-making materials in his trunk.
Maybe they thought it would explode on him or at least incriminate him, but they were the guilty ones. All the fired professor did was some stupid things that put him in the crosshairs of seeming guilt.
Never again did I allow myself to intentionally display my emotional reactions to a story, no matter how strong. And very rarely do I allow myself to form a firm conclusion based on initial reporting.
That lesson has served me well. Over and over, I find there’s more to the story than I’m seeing or hearing. And it often takes time, sometimes a great deal of time, for the full truth to emerge and for one single overlooked fact to reverse my perception of all the other facts that up until then had pointed in one clear direction.
Reminds me of the time Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought were the most important lasting effects of the French Revolution (the 1968 student uprising in Paris, not the 1789 French Revolution).
He replied, “Too early to say.”
Don Clark is a former TV newsman. He can be reached at email@example.com.