Hometown decision for hometown hero
His family wanted him remembered as a war hero killed by the enemy. Was the real story worth the cost?
By Stan Welch
Stan Welch is editor of The Loris (SC) Sentinel.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 4 (April 1991), p. 2.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
Long odds, lousy timing, and a serious error in judgment combined recently to cause me one of my worst moments as a newspaper editor.
First, the long odds. Less than 100 coalition troops were killed during the ground war with Iraq. Unbelievably, one of them, Kenneth Perry, was from Loris, the small town where I edit the weekly paper. Further stretching those odds is that Becky, my layout and design manager, is married to the dead man’s uncle.
Next came the lousy timing. The news of the death was received at the paper just two hours before our press time. There wasn’t enough time to gather any information beyond the simple fact that the man had been killed. Printing just that seemed senseless, so we held off. As editor of a weekly, I have learned to accept such cruelties of timing. All I can do in such a case is to be more thorough when my time comes; in effect, substituting depth for speed.
That was my intention when I went to visit the family the next afternoon. I decided early on that I would not rush anyone into talking. I knew the death was a shock and I had a week to get the story. So I sat on the porch and talked to Becky’s husband and other family members. It was a prototypical Southern scene, as people sat in the porch swing and on the front steps, talking about everything but the death that had caused them to gather.
After some time, I spoke with the sisters of Kenneth Perry. They gave me some very good background. We talked about his love of sports and dancing. I learned that he was a “sharp dresser” and something of a ladies’ man.
I also heard some news that really caught my ear. There were hints that Perry had been killed by friendly fire. Those hints became fact when another uncle told me, off the record, that Perry had been killed when he picked up an unexploded bomblet from a cluster bomb dropped earlier by an allied warplane. This uncle, as well as several others in the family, stressed to me that the distraught parents wanted nothing written about the way Perry was killed.
I was faced with a tough decision. Immediately upon his death Perry, and by extension his family, had become heroes in our small town. Any actions seen as denigrating that heroic status were certain to be viewed unkindly. The town had a new hero and would not easily surrender him.
Adding to my difficulty in deciding on what to print was the fact that the Army representatives on the scene refused to comment beyond the bare bones of the circumstances of Perry’s death time, location, unit identification. Other than that, they referred me back to the family, which refused to confirm the information for the record. The casualty assistance office at Ft. Jackson referred me to the Army representatives on the scene. I was handcuffed.
I discussed the problem with Becky, who was also getting a lot of pressure from her family. She told me that she understood my position, but that she was asking me not to pursue the question of how he died. “I have to live with the family when this is all over,” she said.
My only comfort, I was told no one else would hear the story from the family either. That was important since media from all over both the Carolinas had descended on the town.
I chose to withhold the information. In effect, I had no choice since I could not corroborate the story. So I wrote a story about the young man’s life, blending what little information I had about his death.
Then came the funeral. It was a funeral like Loris has never seen, and surely will never see again. The casket was transported the mile from the funeral home to the church on a horse-drawn caisson accompanied by a full military honor guard. Behind the caisson walked a black riderless horse.
The family walked behind the horse as two thousand people lined the streets, and nearly as many media darted in and out taking pictures. At the graveside service, ceremonial flags were presented to the mother and two sisters as a lone bugler played “Taps.” Once again, lousy timing plagued me, as the service was held on Wednesday, giving everyone else six days lead time before I could get into print.
That night, both CBS and CNN carried footage of the funeral. Time magazine had a photographer there. Local television stations for a hundred miles around ran stories.
The next day, at least a half dozen newspapers featured the story and, unbelievably, every one of them carried quotes from the family about how Perry died. Everything that I had been asked to withhold was now in print a week before I could do anything about it. I really felt like I had been had. I felt, and still do, that the family used their relationship with Becky, and hers with me, to get the boy buried before the truth came out.
I wrote a sparse, sedate account of the funeral and let it go at that. But I will never again let the emotions of a situation dictate my coverage of it. It really bothers me that faced with the decision, I chose hometown journalism over sound journalism. It reminds me of something my father used to say when he was faced with a tough decision. “It’s better to have other people mad at you than to be mad at yourself.” I should have remembered that sooner.