I was going through my files recently and found Brendan Bernhard‘s amusing New York Press story titled, “A Casual Affair: Temporary Insanity at the New York Times,” which I have saved for 18 years. Unfortunately, the piece from the July 28-August 1, 1995 issue isn’t online. I posted some excerpts earlier, then heard from people who wanted to read the entire article. Here it is:
Winner of a Casey Medal this year. Thanks to Alex Zayas for passing this along.
Jennifer Gonnerman: Cheryl McCollins got her first hint that something was wrong when she answered her phone on the evening of October 25, 2002. “Andre had a bad day.” It was a case manager calling from the residential school her son attended in Massachusetts, roughly 215 miles away. Cheryl had received calls like this before, but the news tonight was nearly incomprehensible: That day, her son had received 31 electric shocks as punishment for misbehaving.
“Thirty-one?!” gasped Cheryl, standing in her kitchen in Brooklyn. “What did he do?”
Andre, 18 years old, had been diagnosed with mental retardation, and for the past twenty months he’d been living at the Judge Rotenberg Center. A school of last resort for troubled children and adults, the Rotenberg Center runs a controversial behavior-modification program, where the repertoire of punishments includes painful electric shocks.
It’s easy to tell which students are hooked up to the shock device: They’re the ones with backpacks. The device stays hidden inside, with wires extending from the backpack, running beneath their clothes, and attaching to electrodes strapped to their arms and legs. Staffers carry remote-control activators; when students display certain “targeted behaviors”—like hitting, yelling, or trying to remove their electrodes—an employee presses a button to deliver a two-second shock.
If you haven’t seen it by now, Matt Tullis is really running with the podcast. Nine episodes so far: Jason Fagone, Luke Dittrich, Brian Mockenhaupt, Jesse Lichtenstein, Stephen Rodrick, Kelley Benham French, Pamela Colloff, Michael J. Mooney and Justin Heckert. Go listen.
Paul Duggan: For 16 minutes, doctors in an emergency room treatment bay called Trauma 1 worked urgently to resuscitate the patient, a gunshot victim with no vital signs and a wound so grievous that saving him would have amounted to a resurrection.
David Robinson’s life had all but officially ended even before an ambulance crew wheeled him into Howard University Hospital that winter morning in 2012. A bullet fired on a dark street in Northeast Washington had severed his aorta, and surgeon Wendy Ricketts Greene knew that nothing in medical science could bring him back. Glancing at the wall clock, she noted the time, 3:13 a.m., and pronounced the young man dead.
Four of his loved ones soon hurried into Howard – four women in their 40s, trembling and desperate to know his condition, among them his mother and godmother.
Each had been jolted awake by a pre-dawn phone call as word spread from the crime scene at 58th and Foote streets: Some dude had a gun; Day-Day got shot. Waiting silently in an ER conference room, they clung to hope: David had been shot before and had pulled through. And lately, he’d been brimming with good intentions, promising he was done with the hazards of the ‘hood – with the beefs, the bullets, the burials.
Mary Pilon: Scott DiPonio raced to make sure everything was in order — the fighters were ready, the ring girls were on time and the Bud Light was cold.
DiPonio was a local promoter who organized amateur cage fights that looked more like barroom brawls than glitzy Las Vegas bouts. With a mix of grit, sweat and blood, the fights had caught on in rural Michigan, and DiPonio’s Feb. 2 event, called Caged Aggression, drew hundreds of fans, even with cage-side seats going for $35.
Charlie Rowan, an undistinguished heavyweight, was scheduled to fight that night at Streeters, a dank nightclub that hosted cage fights in Traverse City.
Rowan’s cage name was Freight Train, but he was more like a caboose — plodding and slow, a bruiser whose job was to fill out the ring and get knocked down.
He was what the boxing world used to call a “tomato can.” Where the term comes from is unclear, but perhaps it’s as simple as this: knock a tomato can over, and red stuff spills out.
Rowan certainly wasn’t in it for the money. He was an amateur who loved fighting so much he did it for free.
An hour before the Caged Aggression fights began, DiPonio’s cellphone rang. It was Rowan’s girlfriend, so frantic she could hardly get the words out, DiPonio said. He asked her to take a deep breath, and, on the verge of tears, she told him that Rowan had crashed his car. He was being airlifted to a hospital. It didn’t look good.
Kyle Swenson: The grin was a dead giveaway. Bob Sellers spotted the smile on his friend’s face as he pulled up to the end of the tarmac. Bill Warner was still straddling his race bike, a ‘roided-up 1,000-horsepower Suzuki Hayabusa. The black Bell helmet was sitting on the gas tank. Warner’s bathwater-blue eyes squinted merrily, teeth straight and bright as new piano ivories. The racer had just been clocked going 296.128 mph down the decommissioned airstrip.
“What are you so happy about?” teased Sellers, a thin Texan in his late 50s.
“Let me tell you something,” Bill said as he twisted off the bike, his lean frame wrapped tight in a black leather protective suit. “When the front end stays down on this thing, it is a blast. When the front end comes up, it is not a fun motorcycle to ride.”
All weekend here in Loring, Maine, Sellers and Warner had been gunning for a world record: push the Suzuki over 300 mph — in just a one-mile stretch. But since Friday, the bike had been unruly. With so much juice kicking in instantly, the front wheel was pulling up like the nose of a jetliner during takeoff. The men had been trying to straitjacket the bike’s urges. That last successful shot, billiard-ball smooth, meant success.
“Bill, you’ve only got three and a half miles per hour to go,” Sellers said as they drove back to the pits.
“Let’s go get four,” Bill answered.
Ed’s note: I got my hands on the following email from Lane DeGregory to a journalism student in response to a couple questions: “Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself when you were as inexperienced as us? What mistakes should we be making?” Enjoy.
I wish I hadn’t thought I had to be so smart.
When I was starting out, I was afraid the politician I was profiling would realize I didn’t understand property taxes; that the hockey coach I had to interview would out me for not knowing a hat trick from a helmet; that the commercial fisherman would think me unworthy of sharing his story because I had never been on a trawler. So I tried to study as much as I could beforehand and fake my way through difficult interviews, nodding and taking notes. Then I’d sit down to write and realize I really had no idea how to explain what was going on to my readers. That wasn’t fair to them — or the subjects.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized, it’s okay to not know — it can even be endearing. When you ask people to explain, tell them you’re far from an expert, offer that you have to be able to break this down so all the audience can understand, subjects appreciate that. They want to help you get what they’re doing, see what’s important to them. They don’t want you to BS them, or get it wrong. So they won’t see you as dumb but rather as smart for asking so many questions, for admitting your fallibility, for wanting to get it right.
Instead of trying to stay out of the story, I wish I had shared myself more.
I thought it was important for a reporter to remain on the sidelines, sort of sheltered from her subjects, and in the early years I think I used my notebook as a shield. I was asking people all these questions, sometimes really personal questions, but I never let them know that I was only 25, or was scared of sharks, or that my car had broken down on the way to the interview and that’s why I was so flustered and late. I thought I should be sort of teflon-like, untouchable. But that only shut me down, and kept people at a distance.
Being pregnant, I think, helped me move into a new phase of reporting. There was no keeping that from my sources, and it gave them something to talk about that was personal, that I couldn’t keep inside, that helped them connect to me as a person — not just a reporter. Plus, I couldn’t hide that belly behind a notepad
Now I tell everyone I talk to that I’m a writer — not a reporter, that sounds scary — that I’m 46 years old, married to my college sweetie, who is a drummer, that I have two teenage boys and two crazy dogs and a turtle the size of a dinner plate. That lets them think of me as a wife, a mom, an animal lover — not just someone who wants to dive in and ask them to open up without sharing herself. Dogs, kids and cars will get anyone talking. And it’s important to talk to people, not just interview them. I also let them lead and guide the story now: Where do you want to start? What do you want people to know? (I used to think I had to be in charge …)
I wish I hadn’t thought I knew what the story was about before I reported it.
When I was starting out, my editor often told me what the story was about before I ever went out to report it — so I tried to tailor my questions and observations and even the writing to what I thought the editor wanted. But the story you set out to get isn’t always the story that’s really there, or the best way to tell it, or even a true reflection of whatever reality you’re trying to capture.
I wish my early editors had given me more leeway to say, okay, here’s an idea, now go out there then come back and tell me what you think the story is. I wish I had had more confidence to say, no, really, this is what I saw and think … or maybe there isn’t even really a story there at all. Being willing to go with your gut, to let the story morph and evolve, to see where it fits into the context of people’s lives, makes the experience so much richer, the story so much better. And closer to the truth.
I wish my last three editors had been my first three editors, though I wouldn’t trade the one I have now for anything! I just wish I had people that thoughtful and smart and experienced to guide me when I was starting out.
I wish I had pitched more stories I wanted to do, instead of tackling assignments I didn’t want to do.
I wish I had done more stories I wanted to do in my own time, instead of making excuses like the editors won’t give me time.
I wish I had taken more risks with my writing early on, let myself experiment with voice and dialog, different structures and chronology, trusted myself more to tell a story and not feel like my job was to share information.
I wish I had read more short stories and fewer newspaper articles.
I wish I had attached myself to more senior writers I admired, asked more questions, gotten more advice.
I wish I had done fewer phoners and gotten sunburned on more boats.
I wish I had known that it was okay to make mistakes, that no matter how brilliant — or bad — your story is, another paper will come out tomorrow, so it’s okay to try something that might not work. But it’s not okay not to try. Or to bore yourself by always doing what’s safe. Or to think your readers will care if you don’t.
David Finkel: The way it worked was that they joined the Army because they were starry-eyed or heartbroken or maybe just out of work, and then they were assigned to be in the infantry rather than to something with better odds, like finance or public affairs, and then by chance they were assigned to an infantry division that was about to rotate into the war, and then they were randomly assigned to a combat brigade that included two infantry battalions, one of which was going to a bad place and the other of which was going to a worse place, and then they were assigned to the battalion going to the worse place, and then they were assigned to the company in that battalion which went to the worst place of all. If you listen to the eulogies, so much of war is said to be accidental. Poor Harrelson. Wrong place. Poor Cajimat. Wrong time. But for members of Bravo Company, which in 2007 and 2008 spent fourteen months in combat, in a bomb-filled neighborhood in east Baghdad, the war eventually felt like the wrong everything. Twenty-five-year-old Nic DeNinno was in 3rd Platoon. He thought of himself as a patriot who had enlisted in the Army for the noblest of reasons: to contribute and to make some kind of difference. Then he punched his first Iraqi in the face, and pushed his first Iraqi down the stairs. Now he was back in the United States, crying and telling his wife, Sascha, “I feel like a monster.”
Leah Sottile: When I was 13, I dreamed of kissing boys in the backseat of a car while Scorpions, a German hard rock outfit, crooned “Winds of Change” from the car stereo. It’s still kind of a bummer that never happened: Boys at my high school were much more infatuated with the idea of making out to Dave Matthews Band, and I had to work with what I could get.
Recall reading this when it came out. Still holds up.
David W. Dunlap: Tania Head’s story, as shared over the years with reporters, students, friends and hundreds of visitors to ground zero, was a remarkable account of both life and death.
She had, she said, survived the terror attack on the World Trade Center despite having been badly burned when the plane crashed into the upper floors of the south tower.
Crawling through the chaos and carnage on the 78th floor that morning, she said, she encountered a dying man who handed her his inscribed wedding ring, which she later returned to his widow.
Her own life was saved, she said, by a selfless volunteer who stanched the flames on her burning clothes before she was helped down the stairs. It was a journey she said she had the strength to make because she kept thinking of a beautiful white dress she was to wear at her coming marriage ceremony to a man named Dave.
But later she would discover, she said, that Dave, her fiancé, and in some versions her husband, had perished in the north tower.