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Take two Pulitzer Prize winners. Give them 150 column inches and a pair of bloodless teen killers, including one who seemed scripted for the next Tarantino epic, pumping 11 9 mm bullets into his 14-year-old victim.
What more could you want from your daily paper?
Something else, apparently. Leon Dash and Susan Sheehan’s two-part series on adolescent killers in the Washington Post this week played like a rerun of Cops. A product of intense interviews over the course of two years, the series documented the now-familiar spiral of brothers Russell and Tyrone Wallace from broken family to corner boys to thrill-killers.
In merely documenting the impact of Reagan-vintage trends such as single parenthood and crack cocaine, the series made it to newsprint about a decade too late. By this time in the arc of the story, people are tired of the piled-up bodies and the trash-heap lives, so even a drunken stepfather with a knife sticking out of his skull was not enough to make people hang around for the finish. And some reporters on the staff of the paper suggest that the Post quit on the story as well, in part because it didn’t have the stomach for an endless run of stories about young black men erasing each other.
Does the fault lie with the readers’ attention deficit disorder or the newspaper that failed to engage them? There was certainly no implications gap: Young murderers are still the District’s most important story by miles, ranking a tad higher than road ragea Post obsessionon the quality-of-life indicator. Consider that even though homicide dropped 26 percent from 1993 to 1997, the murder-victim rate among Washington kids aged 15 to 19 jumped 700 percent from 1985 to 1995, according to the Post. Yet there was no buzz, no chatter, no nothing, after the paper published an intimate chronicle of the Wallace brothers’ maturation into murderous freaks.
Dash spent two years digging to the bottom of the brothers’ world, a place in Northeast called “Little Vietnam.” The moniker is not incidentalit’s a quagmire a long way off, where the rules of civic conduct don’t apply, a rogue nation unto itself where a glare or an indication of vulnerability can have mortal consequences.
Although Dash studied their criminal biosphere until he seemed to know more about it than the Wallace brothers themselves, the results were glaringly self-evident: Kids who make their way through armed neighborhoods will eventually find a gun, and once they have one, they will likely aim it at someone. You didn’t need 150 inches to find that out.
In the past, Dash, a Post writer for 32 years, managed to take stories that seemed endlessly coveredsay, how families end up mired in a vortex of povertyand tell you something you didn’t know. That was the magic of Dash’s story about Rosa Lee Cunningham, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995. People found themselves unable to look anywhere but into her eyes, in part because Cunningham had a profound awareness of how sheand the generations she begathad ended up imprisoned at the end of the food chain. But the Wallace brothers were short on epiphanies.
“I ain’t know what I was going to do. I know he shot at me, so I was going to shoot at him,” explained Russell Wallace of the moments before he perpetrated his first murder.
And unlike Dash’s amazing four-year ride-along with Cunningham, the series on teen killers lacked cohesive narrative elementsthere isn’t a lot of flashy or riveting color in the interview room of a jail. Dash and the Post were initially hoping for a much larger project. In July 1996, after Reco Leon Cunningham, Rosa Lee’s 15-year-old grandson, was killed, Dash asked the U.S. Attorney’s office for a list of all adolescents recently convicted of murder in the District. Out of 34 cases, he immediately excluded 20 because the perpetrators were engaged in various appeals and would be less likely to be candid. He probed the remaining cases and came up with seven young men who agreed to participate in the story. The project was then winnowed down to five men. Dash proceeded to spend many, many hours tracking their histories.
According to Dash, one of the participants dropped out after all of the reporting was done because he feared that he would be subject to retaliation if the specifics of his crimes became known. Another subject was dropped after Dash and editors decided that his story contained too much information that had been reported in a previous story published in the Post. And yet another of the remaining stories may still be published. The Post eventually decided on limiting the series to the two stories about the Wallace brothers.
Rick Atkinson inherited the piece when he became projects editor and denies suggestions that the Post quit on the story.
“It wasn’t political and cultural arguments that [suggested a more] limited approach. That bridge had been crossed when we decided to do the story in the first place. The journalistic argument suggested that an endless succession of young black men killing each other would not serve the readers….I won’t pretend that we weren’t sensitive to the potential arguments about [stereotyping], but we decided that simply tracking over and over on the same subject would diminish the power of the series,” Atkinson says.
Dash, who left the Post last summer to become a professor of journalism and Afro-American studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, says he took what was there.
“This is the luck of the draw. When you go into a project, you don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” he explains. Dash says he’s pleased with the results and the collaboration with Sheehan.
For readers who were around for Dash’s previous major stories on Rosa Lee Cunningham and drug-using prison guards, it was a disconcerting coda to a brilliant career. His was not a franchise built on silky writing; Dash’s gift is one of access and reporting. People tell him things because he is trustworthy. He gets it right, he tells it straight, and he doesn’t have a judgmental bone in his body. Those attributes position Dash in the pantheon of America’s best poverty reporters.
“Leon is willing to go wherever the interview subject wants to go, and to most journalists, that would be a huge waste of time. Not for Leon. In terms of establishing trust and credibility with the subject, it is not a time-waster at all,” says Outlook editor Steve Luxenberg, who edited Dash for 11 years but had no involvement in the current project.
Luxenberg may have been part of what was missing from the current story. Although he wouldn’t say so, he has been a ghostly but very real presence in much of Dash’s best work. This time around, the Post decided to hire a contract writerSheehan, a New Yorker staffer for 37 yearsto do the write-through. Besides having a Pulitzer of her own for a book chronicling a woman’s descent into schizophrenia, she shares Dash’s distaste for judgment or telling the reader what it all means. (In spite of the fact that Sheehan makes her living insinuating herself into the lives of others, she is no big fan of journalism. She declined to comment on her participation in the story, saying, “I’ve been misquoted so often, I don’t give interviews.” By whom? “The Washington Post, among others.”)
The collaboration may have been a good match in terms of philosophy, but it didn’t make magic on the page. Because both writers have a strong bias toward showing and not telling, much of the initial piece was a choppily rendered chronicle of crime and dysfunction begging for exposition. And the second part of the series just refused to gel, a list of ingredients for a toxic recipe that yielded a bunch of bodies and not much else.
“It was a good theory to hire Susan, but this story didn’t end up being about anything. In the past, Leon took things to a whole other level because of the reporting he did, but that didn’t happen this time around,” says one Post staffer.
Another writer at the paper says it didn’t have to turn out this way. “This story became the bastard stepchild of the newspaper. Nobody wanted it. People began to see it as a problem and not an opportunity, and I think there was a lot of squeamishness about the topic that was reflected in how the story came out.”
Broadcast Strike Peter Perl, a writer for the Washington Post Magazine, recently declined to appear on News Channel 8’s Washington Post Report because he doesn’t believe his employer is negotiating in good faith with members of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild on the contract that ended on Nov. 12. Perl, who is a shop steward for the guild, was asked to appear on the program, which is filmed in the Post newsroom, to talk about his magazine piece on Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles Ramsey. “I’m happy and proud to work for the Washington Post, but the pay raise they have proposed would be less than 2 percent a year. Given that the company has earned an after-tax profit of $353 million so far this year, we felt that the offer was really quite paltry. I just personally decided that I didn’t want to appear on this show on behalf of the Washington Post for free, especially in the context of this contract dispute.” Seven hundred Post members of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild recently signed a petition to Publisher Don Graham suggesting that the raise was insufficient and insulting. David Carr
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