Sunday, July 15, 2007

Amy, We Hardly Knew Ye

by Libby Hellmann

One of the biggest challenges for crime fiction authors (at least this one) is coming up with a credible plot. Is it authentic? Could it really happen? Does it make sense? Will the reader believe it? We ask these questions endlessly, discussing the finer points of crime scenes, weapons, police procedure, and more with each other, law enforcement, editors, maybe even criminals.

One of the hottest stories in Chicago this summer touches on that credibility. And I have to admit, I’m having a hard time with it. If it was fiction, would it pass the credibility test? The fairness test? Would it play? Or is it an example of what’s happened to the media in the 21st century, shielding themselves (and their corporate stockholders) from risk, bad press, and the threat of litigation?

You be the judge.

Last week Amy Jacobson, an ambitious TV reporter for Channel 5 News (the NBC station) was fired. Why? She was videotaped in her bikini at the home of a man whose wife has been missing over two months. The tape was shot by a rival local station, WBBM Channel 2 (the CBS station).


But let’s proceed.

The story is this: Lisa Stebic, mother of two and husband of Craig, disappeared last April. The couple was in the midst of a contentious divorce. In fact, Lisa had tried to evict Craig from their house in an affluent suburb when she went missing.

Jacobson was covering the story for Channel Five, doing what a good reporter does on a potentially big story: following leads, developing sources, piecing it together.

Apparently one of those sources was Craig Stebic’s sister. She called Jacobson on her day off, inviting her to the Stebic house. Craig was there – maybe he’d talk to Jacobson. After consulting with her husband, Jacobson, who says she was on her way to a swimming date with her kids, went to the Stebic house instead. Everyone went swimming: the kids, Stebic, the sister, Jacobson. Which was when the video was shot.(Btw, the link is to the unedited, raw footage)

A few days later, she was fired for breaching journalistic ethics. They claimed she was too close to the story; that by going to the house and being captured on tape, she became part of the story – a journalistic taboo.

I’m still scratching my head over this.

Clearly the story isn’t as important as Watergate, when the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham condoned the fact that Woodward and Bernstein did pretty much the same things Jacobson did. And stood up to Attorney General John Mitchell when they were challenged. And no one claims Jacobson was undercover, where secrecy – and putting oneself in jeopardy -- are tacitly approved, in order to “get the story.” Although it turned out that she’d been briefing the police about her contacts with Stebic -- without her boss’s knowledge. (Just after she was fired, btw, the husband was officially named a “person of interest” by the police.)

I do think she showed poor judgment by exposing her children to a potentially dangerous situation. They should have never gone with her. I also think she was foolish not to have told her bosses she was talking to the cops. It’s never a good idea to be free-lancing during the investigation of what might become a serious crime.

But should she have been fired?

No one denies Jacobson is ambitious. And apparently this is not the first time her methods have been questioned. Maybe she has cut a journalistic corner or two. But she does get stories. Exclusives. This time she gave up her day off, dragged her kids to the house, in pursuit of an interview. Does that make her damaged goods?

Another point that has been raised: the video aired by Channel 2 shows Amy in a bikini with a towel around her waist. If it had been a man, would we even be having this conversation?

Some reporters have contractual language which says they can’t be fired unless they commit a felony while pursuing a story. A felony. Not a misdemeanor. What Amy did wasn’t remotely close to that, and yet, she got the ax. Was her breach of ethics all that egregious?

Finally, let’s apply the credibility test. I realize I’m jumping from reality to fiction here, but how many novels have you read that center on a journalist who goes to extraordinary lengths to solve a murder?
Consider Jan Burke’s Irene Kelly… Edna Buchanan’s Britt Montero… Denise Hamilton’s Eve Diamond… The Outfit’s own Cat Marsala by Barb D’Amato.

Would they brief the police if they had crucial information? Of course they would. There is a symbiotic link between journalists and law enforcement. Both reporters and police need information. A sophisticated barter system between them often results, which can lead to important developments in a story.

And what about cozying up to suspects? According to neighbors, Jacobson had been seen at the house before. Maybe she was getting background. Advancing the story. Confirming a rumor. In the spirit of full disclosure, I used to work in TV news – coincidentally a lot of that time at NBC -- and I once bought a pizza for Walter Mondale’s kids the night before he was named Jimmy Carter’s running mate. We were trying to confirm the rumor. Following the story. If I’d been fired for what I thought was just doing my job, I would have been devastated.

So why did NBC fire Amy? Unless there is more to the story we don’t know, their decision looks to me to be excessive. I can’t help but wonder whether the constant beatings the press has taken over the past eight years have had their effect. Owned by major corporations, the networks are now so risk-averse that the slightest whiff of controversy has them scurrying to the sidelines, sluffing off anything that could damage their stock prices. I keep thinking that maybe Amy was collateral damage.

As you’d expect, the story has resonated with other reporters, media and bloggers. Some of it is funny… Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera, for example, proclaiming Amy’s termination a “no-brainer” -- this, from the guy who opened up Al Capone’s vault on national TV and found… nothing.

What do you think? Is this just a tempest in a teapot? A case of reverse sexism? Revenge of a competing TV station? Is it misleading to compare Amy’s plight to fiction? Are there a different set of rules for fictional reporters? Can they get away with tactics “real” reporters can’t? Or is something amiss with the way information is purveyed today?

PS Speaking of information purveyors, maybe someone else can weigh in on the Conrad Black guilty verdict…


Peter said...

As wretchedly ratings-conscious as TV news is (I work for a newspaper), as stupid as Jacobson was to go to work a) in a bikini, and b) with her kids, you were probably right when you invoked aversion to risk on the station's part.

The reporter showed mind-bogglingly poor judgment; the station probably overreacted. A pox on both of them. Turn your television off, and read instead.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thank you, Libby, for mentioning Cat Marsala. Yes, she would tell the cops if she had important information. But I can imagine she might not if there were a couple of dirty cops somewhere in the mix and she didn't know who.

About Amy Jacobson, I agree with Peter. Poor judgment. From the station's point of view there are probably several reporters waiting in the wings with bettter instincts.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

(T)he video aired by Channel 2 shows Amy in a bikini with a towel around her waist. If it had been a man, would we even be having this conversation?

I think the answer to that is clearly no, but I think it's more complicated than sexism. Is it likely that a male reporter would even find himself in such a situation? It's hard to imagine that any man, however charming, could so quickly develop the kind of trust and intimacy that Jacobson clearly had with the Stebics. (I doubt very much that anyone's sister would invite Walter Jacobson to her pool party if he were covering the story.) Others are better qualified than me to determine whether Jacobson was using the relationship to take advantage of the Stebics or the Stebics were using the relationship to take advantage of Jacobson, but I'd argue this particular opportunity presented itself specifically because the reporter was a woman.

Of course, if this were twenty years ago and I were in college I could probably write a paper arguing that any profession that seeks to neutralize a woman's inherent advantage by calling her natural social instincts "unethical" is probably guilty of some sort of institutional sexism. College professors eat that stuff up.

On the other hand the fixation on the fact that Jacobson was wearing a "bikini top" seems entirely sexist to me. It's interesting to debate whether Jacobson should have been socializing with the family of the suspect (which in this case is also the family of the victim) but it's hardly relevant that someone wore a swimsuit to go swimming.

Then again, if it had been Walter and he was wearing a Speedo...

Michael Dymmoch said...

Irene Kelly, Britt Montero, Eve Diamond, and Cat Marsala are fictional characters! What they do or might do is determined by their creators’s need to plot satisfying stories, not by the inconvenient facts of real laws and police procedures.

Good reporters don't conduct interviews in their bathing suits in the homes of murder suspects (notwithstanding statements by police that Mr. Stebic isn’t a suspect). Good reporters don’t blur the line between aggressive pursuit of a story and becoming personally involved with its subjects. Good reporters (and apparently the brass at NBC) are mindful that a reputation for professionalism is vital for credibility. And how are we to believe in the accuracy of Ms. Jacobson’s stories when she demonstrates such poor judgment in collecting her facts?

As for CBS reporting the story, isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? We get really bent out of shape when cops protect incompetent or dirty cops.

ab said...

I think it's very simple - it's the bikini. Had she been seen talking to the Stebics anywhere else, nobody would have objected. But she is in a bikini in the vicinity of a MAN who might be a suspect - hence, people start thinking about sex. Inevitably.

The sister? I don't know about the nature of the relationship between the reporter and the family, but as a woman, I know women can bond very quickly indeed and that it can be very informal.

No, I don't think she should be fired, unless there is more to it than meets the eye.(Did she phone her boss telling him/her she was going to the house?)