I Want More Than Just the Facts, Ma’am

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

other.

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.

My fill-in-the-blanks

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.