A People with Passion series
October 21, 2011: William Lee
You wake up and check the news online, and among the stories you read is a brief account of a shooting in Humboldt Park, or a mugging in Lincoln Park, or a robbery in Bronzeville. Maybe the story compels you to find more information on the case, to cross-check it with other outlets, or maybe you read the story and then wish to find out how many crimes of similar nature have gone on in your neighborhood. What you may not consider, however, is the reporter digging up the stories.
In the 16th installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, Chicago Tribune breaking news crime reporter William Lee discusses his path to covering crime, the relationship between crime reporters and police, what turns citizens into killers, and why the night time is the right time (for covering crime).
I was one of those weird kids who used to always watch the news every night. That was just what I did. Channel 7 mostly. Everyone has their favorite. Some people like Channel 2, the Bill Kurtis, Walter Jacobson news. That was my grandmother. Some people like Channel 5. I was always clued in to Channel 7 and 9. For whatever reason, I just really enjoyed it. It was just a part of my makeup. Very strange.
The story my mom likes to tell, and I’m a little embarrassed by this, was during the Tylenol slayings. I remember watching the news on that, and a very short time after I became sick. My mother wanted to give me some Tylenol children’s cough medicine, and I completely wigged out on her. “Tylenol will kill me. You’re trying to kill me!” (Laughs.) That was actually the tablets and not the kids’ medicine. But at that point she knew, “Hmm, maybe him watching the news is not such a good thing.”
It really stuck and I always watched it. Moreso than newspaper stuff. I didn’t really get into that until high school.
So you started working for newspapers in high school – was that the beginning of your journalism career?
Right. When I started at Hyde Park, you had to be an upper classman, so I was just biding my time until I could write for them. At the same time, there was a newspaper that’s still in existence called New Expression. It’s run by this group called Youth Communication, and they were a city-wide newspaper. It was a not-for-profit. They would train high school kids all over the city to do it, and I began doing both of them at the same time. I was doing the school paper and New Expression, and really New Expression, I have to say, had a greater impact on me.
There was an explosive story when I was still a freshman there. The writer interviewed a young male prostitute who was basically just doing that to earn money, and the writer and the person he interviewed went to my school. I knew the writer, and I was just blown away. Everyone was talking about it. I can still remember the day the story came out, just being so, “I’d like to be the talk of the school like this guy is. Whatever it takes to be a part of it, I’ll do it,” because I always knew.
One of the aspects that people never think about when they talk about crime is that it’s always going on. They think about one incident, and then they focus on that, but what they’re missing is that this has been building up. Before this person was killed in a home invasion there were a lot of street robberies in the past couple weeks. Before a child gets killed in a crossfire there were a lot of shootings in the area on the nights subsequent to that. There isn’t just a one thing, where crime sneaks up on you. It’s there. You just have to pay attention to it.
I think for most crime, people remember the interesting cases, but for every quirky, interesting thing – one comes to mind a couple of years ago, some guy punched a police horse in downtown Chicago – for every one of those, there is a family that’s ripped apart by violence, whether they are directly involved in it or not.
There was a guy just yesterday sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who was at a chicken restaurant picking up a Christmas Eve dinner. That case ruined my Christmas, because at the time me and my mom were going to a relative’s house, and I was going to pick up chicken. She lived walking distance from that restaurant.
It was a Popeye’s, right?
Exactly. And she lives very close to that. I just decided I was going to get KFC instead of Popeye’s, and we left around the same time that this happened. Had I decided Popeye’s instead of KFC, I could have been there at the same time. And it’s not even an oversimplification or making it about us, but it’s like you’re living in the same world as all of these horrible things happening, but you don’t really think of it that way. You think it’s someone else’s problem. But these sorts of things can creep into your life everyday.
When you start off on a story, you start out with the bad thing. I try to get as much of the initial stuff as I can – “What’s the rumors? What’s the chatter? What do you hear?” If you come in hours after the fact, you’re going to lose all of that. They’re not going to necessarily put all of that good stuff in a police report. So you try to get as much as you can at the time, what the chatter is, and then at some point try to cover all of your bases. What do we know about the victim? Is that person in a gang? Any drug convictions? We run their background. We try to reach the family.
There are some days when I go to work and everyone’s talking. Detectives, watch commanders, desk cops – they’ll give you whatever you need. They’re willing to help because they themselves would like to know what’s going on. What do I hear? They sometimes ask me what I’m hearing in their districts or other districts.
But then there are some days when people who you’re not familiar with, maybe they’re not the chatty types, and they completely shut you down. They say, “Go through News Affairs” which is the PR office. You just don’t know. Every time I come into work, I’m hoping for a great night where people say “Hey, here’s what I hear, and this is what happened, and I was at the scene and this is what I saw,” but you just never know.
So then do you see yourself as part of the crime-solving arm?
It’s never as lofty as that. It’s much more, you’re trying to build up a story. You’re trying to take a run-of-the-mill crime story and get the background and make people care about it. It’s not so much we’re trading off information, because by the time I come on the crime might have happened hours before. The detectives might have been working on it and they have the basic details. I’m just trying to know what they know. Trying to reach the family if I can, if they’re still awake.
Once I leave for the day I pass on all of my notes to the next shift who’s working during the day. They have better ways – maybe they can reach the family. Sometimes I can’t because it’s too early or too late. They’re sleeping. I’m a part of the puzzle, but I don’t look at it as crime-solving. I’m basically following it and saying “This is the scene. This is what everything looks like. This is the feeling of it.” I’m reporting. I’m definitely not interfering with the investigation or whatever. We are shadowing, that’s what it is.
So, I mean, you’ve got stories. What’s the best overnight story that you’ve had over the past year? Something where you showed up and felt like, “Man, it’s important that I was here. I really did a great job and the city of Chicago whether they know it or not really benefited because I was here reporting.”?
I never think about it quite that way, but I know there are those nights where everything is just clicking. One of those cases was a 13-year-old boy got shot by Chicago police, because he had a BB gun. What was great about it was that all the sources were really working out. We had a pretty good source who was the first folks to tell us it was a 13-year-old boy. I’d also been told that the cops wanted to put the kibosh on that. They wanted to keep the age out of it. They wanted to keep the BB gun aspect out of it.
Luckily we had a couple of sources who were like, “Oh yeah, that’s what happened. We thought it was a real gun, it looked real.” For hours and hours we were the only game in town. We had the age. We had the situation. A few hours later our partners at WGN were able to track down the mom at the hospital, and I called her. She just gave me her side of the story, so by the time I left we had everything. We had the police’s version, we had the family’s version, we had just about everything. We even had a picture of the young man. You always want to have the entire story if you can. Not just the cops’, not just the family’s, you want to have as much as you can. And that night I think we had it.
I remember I was watching this journalism movie the other night – Absence of Malice, this obscure Paul Newman vehicle – and it says, “You don’t write what happens. You write what people tell you.” And that’s basically, unfortunately the way it is. You’re getting different versions and you’re judging them based on whatever evidence is around.
My job is to get everyone’s version, and tell you what the information is, and then let you make a decision. My job is not to tell you how to feel about anything. And a lot of people don’t really understand what a newspaper’s function is. They think, “Hey, tell me what to think about this so that I can blame someone. Tell me who to blame.” And I just can’t tell you to do that.
The point as far as breaking news is to just tell you everything about the case as I know it. What I can confirm. Is this confirmed? If it’s not confirmed, I’ll back off of it, I’ll wait, I’ll stay on it until I can, but right now we know that this many people were shot at this location at this time, and this is what they think it is.
You had a quote on your Tribune bio about “People would be amazed to hear what actions turn citizens to killers.” I think that was approximately it. Answer that for me.
You’d be surprised. Any time you’re a human being, you’ve been mad enough to kill somebody. Some people have it much more in the forefront of their personality than others, but if you’ve been alive for at least five years, you’ve been mad enough to kill someone. And then, you know, you put some people in good neighborhoods, some people in bad neighborhoods. Those things have definite effects on a person’s willingness to kill. You have young men in situations where they don’t make a whole lot of money and it’s hard for them to get out. They don’t see a pathway out, so they have to take the avenues that are open to them. Unfortunately that’s maybe drugs or gang violence, gang life. And those things lead to violence. You have this faction fighting against this faction, and they’re only blocks away. Their parents grew up in the same neighborhoods. They may have gone to high school together. They may even be acquainted with the person whom their now mortal enemies with. But they’re only mortal enemies because they’re told to be. That person’s trying to kill you, so you have to kill them first. That person shot your boy so you have to go shoot them. When you look at it from the outside, it just seems like a really strange thing that you’re willing to kill someone because you’re programmed to.
I’ve worked in politics before. When I was city news, I was the Cook County Government reporter at one point. When I was working at the Southtown I was part of a team where we were examining police corruption in a south suburban town. I’ve done those types of things. They’re worlds apart. You have to build up to show this one monolithic act of corruption, whereas these little things will only affect a few people who are involved. They’ll rip apart families. It’s interesting to show how a family one day is content, happy, and then the next day the entire family is just pulled apart. Children lose their parents, and that sort of thing.
Whether you’re talking about large-scale corruption or just street crime, it comes from a good place because they’re thinking maybe they’re afraid of what their lives are going to become or they just want to provide for their family. A drug dealer has the same concern for his family as a politician who takes bribes. They’re saying, “The ends justify the means.” The politician might have grown up in a blue collar neighborhood and said, “I’ve gone through a lot of stuff. I’m going to do whatever I need to to make sure my family doesn’t have to struggle.”
Everyone has that same sort of thing. The difference is, we look down more on the drug dealer. We say, “He should know better.” But a politician is a person elected by the people. Therefore their acts could be seen as more heinous. I’m not taking a stance on it one way or another – that’s just sort of how it works out. That coming from a bad place, wanting to do better, and saying, “I’m willing to do whatever to get there.” I think that’s the overall parallel. Or maybe just one bad mistake leading you to a chain of bad mistakes. That’s exactly what it is. That’s all a newspaper is. It’s just a daily log of people making the wrong decision.
Sometimes I say I was born in the wrong era. I would have loved the old city news. I would have loved going to police stations and chatting up the watch commanders and fire chiefs and all these sorts of things before all of these rules were implemented where the police aren’t supposed to talk directly to the media – they’re supposed to go through their PR firm. You could just go off and chat with anybody. You could thumb through police reports. You could come up with all sorts of really great details. I yearn for that sort of interaction.
As far as the personality, things are different at night. It’s not like during the day where people are locked in their own world. I remember a friend pointed this out to me early in my career – “When people are outside, they’re out for a purpose. ” They’re going from point A to point B, or they’re out looking for someone. Whenever someone is shot outside, one of the first things I wonder if it’s late at night, 2 a.m., “What were they doing out there? What were they doing in a high-crime area just kind of hanging out and getting shot?” A lot of times they’re there for a reason, to conduct business of some sort, or whatever, and something that is very obvious to long-time cop reporters. The things like that.
People living during the day, they don’t think that way. They don’t see the life that way. I kind of make fun of it and say “This is the noire side of things,” much more dog-eat-dog. It’s much more trying to get what you want. Trying to fulfill your needs. Trying to keep things hidden. And that’s where the fun is.
Bringing them out of the shade.
Absolutely. Just understanding what the life is like in the city. People who are working at night, the things that you’ll see, people having sex in cars or going to houses of prostitution or getting drugs at a party, or kids from the suburbs coming into the city to get drugs, all sorts of things that you just don’t know are going on. Crime happens all the time. You just don’t necessarily think about it that way. People are always doing these things – like I said, going into the city to get drugs, or going to the popular place where men go to pick up the companies of young women, or people who look like young women. Whatever, you know?
I just love the idea that there’s two different worlds that we live in, and people in the day have no idea what’s going on at night. I remember a couple of weeks ago, there was a guy who got beaten up on the west side by two transvestite prostitutes. The watch commander was like, “Oh, that happens all the time. First of all, they’re not transvestites. They’re hookers. That’s what they’re doing. They rolled him. That sort of thing happens all the time.” For most people, that would be a pretty memorable experience, to be robbed by a couple of six foot tall prostitutes, but it’s a part of life. It’s a part of the city, especially in poor neighborhoods or wherever the prostitute’s spot is. And I just love saying, “This sort of thing happens around you all the time. You just don’t know it.” The industrial place at night becomes a different place when you’re not around. I’m just giving you a prism of what your world is when you close your eyes at night.
* Want more William Lee? Follow his outstanding twitter feed @midnoircowboy *
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
PHOTOS USED IN THIS STORY: