People complain that journalists are getting too personal.
What right do they have to poke around in other people’s closets, leaving the
door wide open when they’re done? Sometimes I agree that the Fourth Estate is
made up of pigs snuffling through the garbage. Do I need to know what Princess
Diana had for dinner hours before her fatal car crash? I do not. But other
times I notice that the press seems peculiarly delicate, discreet, leaving
holes in their stories big enough for a whole society to fall through.
I’m not talking about the odd fact that no one ever found
George Bush Sr.’s alleged lady friend, or insinuating that Nancy Reagan used
her position to amass a fortune in gowns and jewelry. I’m not suggesting that
the pardons of Caspar Weinberger and Richard Nixon were as appalling as the
pardon of Marc Rich. That’s politics, and each side thinks the media are
against them as the media decide what to bury and what to highlight. The media
collectively are a big attack dog with loyalty only to the public, its master,
and indifferent (or they should be) to biscuits tossed by one side or the
Now we have a story coming out of San Francisco that will
get more and more personal as the grand-jury indictment is finally unsealed.
Already we have been left hanging for weeks as the details emerge.
Here is what we know. Lawyers Marjorie Knoller, 45, and her
husband, Robert Noel, 59, kept a pair of dogs, Presa Canario–mastiff mixes, for
a convict client of theirs-a man they had adopted, and whose permanent address
was the Pelican Bay State Prison. He may have been a neo-Nazi. He may have been
raising the dogs to protect drug labs, or he may have simply been organizing
dog fights-I’ve read both versions. These dogs look like angry Mack trucks and
resemble Lassie the way a Scud missile resembles a baseball. One of the dogs
attacked and killed a neighbor, Diane Whipple, 32, the lacrosse coach at St.
Mary’s College, as she returned home from the grocery store. Her corpse was so
mutilated that several police officers at the scene were ill. In defense of the
dogs under his care, Mr. Noel said that Ms. Whipple may have been wearing some
perfume or sending out a bodily odor that incited his animals. (PETA people,
keep your mirrors covered.)
Here is what we don’t know: How come the lawyers adopted
this lovely “son,” whom any mother would be proud to shed? We were told
something about getting him better health care, but does that mean that
prisoners with biological parents are not entitled to health care? How come the
lawyers were so personally involved with their client? Would Bobby on
The Practice adopt a skinhead and let his mastiffs stroll in the park with
Lindsay and their new baby? I don’t think even he would be so careless-and he’s
just a TV character. Is there some political (neo-Nazi) connection among these
people? Where do these dog fights take place, the warden’s office? Who are Ms.
Knoller and Mr. Noel? Where did they go to law school? What are their hobbies?
The media cannot write a novel on each event, but they can
give us enough raw data to begin a rough draft in our heads. The death of Diane
Whipple was accidental or fate-ordained. But we don’t know the characters, the
story of what brought them to the place where a dog killed and a woman died.
The raw facts of this story are interesting, but as of this writing, we lack
the color, the background, the history of the event. It’s as if George Eliot
wrote Middlemarch as a Cliffs Notes
version of the novel.
Why does this matter? Because we are all reading our papers
and turning on our televisions to locate ourselves in the world, not just to
know when bad weather is coming or if the market is up or down. We listen for
the details of a news story because we hope to find some information about
ourselves-who to be afraid of, whom to pity, whom to dream about (in a
nightmare or otherwise). Stories are
the compass by which we orient ourselves in society, and journalists are in no
small part responsible for our visions of what has been and what may be.
Dictators wouldn’t be
able to get away with murder if citizens knew about the victims’ loves, their
fears, expectations, illnesses and prayers-even what they were wearing. I’m
arguing for the details that create empathy, that allow us to imagine those
written about. My point here is that we need to understand more than just
what’s on the surface: We need to know the history of all stories. If a
Palestinian throws a stone on Tuesday, we need to know that a settler may have
thrown a stone at him on Monday, and who attacked whom and why in 1948. The
thread of a story needs to be unraveled to its origin every time.
reading of the story has led me to wonder if the attack dogs in San Francisco
are not harbingers of hate to come. I’m wondering if it was just an irony, or
something more, that a young lesbian couple was living next door to the lawyers
for a white supremacist (if that’s true). Is this story really about the
underground, cheek-to-jowl, fang-to-fang war between those of us who want a
diverse America with respect for all and those who long for another kind of
America, where the words of the Bible are taken quite literally and you can
stone those you declare sinners? Someone somewhere in this great country is
saying that the death of Diane Whipple was God’s judgment on her life choices.
This is a moral story, with moral implications for a range of views.
In many of our minds, vicious dogs are forever associated
with the SS dogs released to kill anyone who dared get out of line-the line to
the gas chamber. That’s why this story provokes such a chill. We are used to
Uzis and assault rifles doing their nasty work. We are used to planes falling
accidentally out of the sky. We are used to death by crushed steel on our
highways. We are used to the occasional cornice of a building dropping onto an
innocent head beneath. But we are not used to animals killing people while they
are bringing home their groceries. The story is mythic, fabulous, the stuff of
a novel, the raw material for a commercial nightmare.
Yes, this story-like many others-will quickly fade away.
Justice will approximate justice. But there is far more here than The New York Times has told us so far.
Grand-jury indictments and lawyers’ obfuscations aside, I’m waiting for some
journalist on the other coast to pick up the rug under which too many great
tales have been swept.