Every few months, I get together with Dan Margolies, a former KC Star reporter who now is health editor at KCUR-FM, and we talk about a wide array of subjects. Journalism is always among them.
Earlier this evening, we met at 75th Street Brewery, and at one point Dan asked me what I had thought about KC Star reporter Judy L. Thomas’ jailhouse interviews with F. Glenn Miller Jr., the avowed white supremacist who earlier this year killed three people outside the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom care center.
Miller is in a Johnson County detention center, and Thomas interviewed him several times by phone. The conversations resulted in a lengthy story that led The Star’s front page on Sunday.
It was fortuitous that Dan brought up the Miller story because when I had opened the paper yesterday, I zeroed in on that story. I had instant misgivings about it but read most of it anyway. I even toyed with the idea of writing a post about it yesterday, but I let the thought pass.
But Dan’s question made me refocus and reflect on the story because it goes to the heart of an issue that journalists struggle with periodically. The issue is the news-worthiness of jailhouse interviews with screwball killers — often serial killers — whose depraved actions cannot be justified or rationalized in any sane way.
I told Dan that, in general, I did not see any significant value in such stories, and I said that was how I essentially felt about the Miller story. He agreed, saying that whatever Miller had to say would not serve any useful purpose or open any new window on the murders.
One reason that I am not unequivocally opposed to such stories, however, is that many years ago, I wrote a similar story myself after getting a jailhouse interview with a Kansas City serial killer. I don’t recall if I got any positive feedback on that story, but I remember that I was quite proud of it. More about that in a minute, but back to Thomas’ story…
The seminal quote that Thomas got from Miller also served as the main headline for the story: “Every Jew in the world knows my name now.”
Along with everything else Miller told Thomas, that statement serves just one purpose — to advance Miller’s goal of calling attention to himself and the “cause” that prompted him to kill three people, none of whom, as it turned out, was Jewish.
Reinforcing his worthlessness as a human being, Miller said that while he regretted killing 14-year-old Reat Underwood — “the young white boy,” as he called him — he had nothing to say to Reat’s family.
Now there’s a guy whose story you long to hear, huh?
I noted that I don’t believe stories like the one about Miller have value in general.
But there is another side of the issue. And that is that enterprising reporters, like Thomas, will always seek interviews with serial killers and other perpetrators of shocking crimes simply because the reporters want to know what was going on in the minds of the criminals and because they firmly believe that the interviews will help “advance” the story in some way, even if it is difficult to express exactly how.
The desire to get “the other side of the story” — that is, the perpetrator’s side — courses through reporters’ bloodstreams. It is hard to resist that pull, and that’s true not only for reporters. Most editors also want “the scoop,” even though it is incumbent on the editors to weigh very carefully whether such a story serves the public interest.
It is apparent that Thomas’ editor — and undoubtedly Thomas herself — struggled with that question. Thomas’ story devoted several paragraphs to rationalizing why the story merited publication.
The justifying began even before the “jump,” that is before the story left the front page and continued inside the “A” section. In the fourth paragraph, Thomas paraphrased Leonard Zeskind, president of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, as saying the public needed to pay attention to “those who promote racist and violent views to understand what motivates them and to prevent future tragedies.”
The justifying continued several paragraphs later, when Thomas quoted Zeskind as saying:
“Learning about them (white supremacists) is our responsibility so that we may be better equipped to tackle this ongoing problem. Ignoring it, quarantining it, shutting our eyes, closing our ears, hasn’t stopped any Nazi killers. Opening our eyes, joining with others, taking public stands against racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry of the type displayed by Glenn Miller for decades is the best guarantee of building a truly open, democratic society.”
Well, that is very eloquently stated, but I just don’t see how giving Glenn Miller a platform to express his twisted, ridiculous views — or to recount how he advanced on innocent people and shot them — helps advance a democratic society. I mean, how helpful is it to hear racists explain why they think black people are inferior to whites? Is there any additional insight to be gained by hearing from people like that? I’m pretty sure NOT!
And yet, as I said earlier, many years ago I interviewed a serial killer and wrote a story that was in the same vein as that of Judy Thomas.
The subject of my story was a guy named William Turney Stitt, who had fatally stabbed two women, for no apparent reason, a year apart. The story ran on the front page of The Kansas City Times (then the morning edition of The Star) on Thursday, June 21, 1973.
Stitt killed one woman, 19-year-old Gloria Schuler, after spotting her in a self-service laundry at 39th and Washington, a block west of Broadway. While Schuler’s husband was in the restroom, Stitt parked his car, ran inside and stabbed Schuler several times with a kitchen knife he was carrying. He fled, and, then, when Schuler’s husband got back to her, she said (and these words made a lifelong impression on me) “Some son of a bitch stabbed me.”
Those were her last words.
A year earlier, Stitt fatally stabbed a woman named Joan R. Merritt after running her car off Westport Road in Independence.
Clearly, William Turney Stitt was a no-good son of a bitch. But I wanted to know what was behind his impulse to kill those women and why he had done so. (He previously had served eight-plus years in a military disciplinary barracks for strangling a prostitute in Germany in 1956.)
He provided me with the answer to why he had done what he did: He had a “destructive fantasy” that was intertwined with thoughts of sexual aggression. I also reported that a psychiatrist at Western Missouri Mental Health Center had diagnosed him with a “personality disorder of longstanding nature.”
…So, did my story serve the public interest more than Judy Thomas’ story? Hard to say, isn’t it? Certainly, the families of Stitt’s three victims didn’t give a shit what was going through Stitt’s mind when he stabbed, or strangled, the women. And I doubt that my story shed any light on the subject of longstanding personality disorder.
But, like Thomas, I was determined to find out what the hell that goofball was thinking.
And the editors turned me loose.
Before the advent of The Star’s electronic library, in the early ’90s, The Star maintained staff by-lined stories in distinctive, dull-gold, business-size envelopes that were stacked vertically in dozens of metal file drawers on the third floor of The Star building at 18th and Grand.
The librarians had a surgically precise method of folding those stories so that very long stories folded up like road maps and fit snugly into those gold envelopes.
I tell you all that because, as you can see below, the story about William Stitt is one that I kept (one of only about 20) when the librarians gave each of us our by-line files after the electronic library was in place.
So, you see, I have a hard time being extremely critical of Judy Thomas and her Glenn Miller story. Who knows? She might even clip that story out with a pair of scissors and put it in an envelope to show people decades from now.