ABOUT MY COLUMN ON FRIDAY
My column on Friday was about the Christmas Eve ambush of four firefighters in Webster, New York.
It was the best chronological account I have been able to reconstruct of exactly what happened when a convicted killer shot down in cold blood men who had rushed to his home to render aid.
Two of those men, one an off-duty policeman in his 40s with two small daughters at home and the other a 19-year-old 9-1-1 dispatcher just a year out of high school, were killed.
I am writing about that column today because some have complained that it was too graphic, that it contained information that shouldn’t be made public, and that it was disrespectful and insensitive.
I believe a small percentage of readers felt that way. I do not believe they are correct in any regard.
Not only was the column not disrespectful, it was specifically intended, among other things, to demonstrate the courage and nobility of the firemen who came under attack.
Nonetheless, I wanted to respond to the criticisms with a couple of explanations.
First, where did I get the information?
From people familiar with the events of that day. I gathered the information from the morning of the event until Thursday night, when I wrote the column.
I believe these people to be credible, most of the details were provided or confirmed by more than one person, and thus far no one has pointed out anything in the column that is incorrect.
If it is in error, I will be grateful to have the public record corrected.
Second, is the column insensitive?
I don’t think so. If I did, I wouldn’t have written it.
But sensitivity is a matter of judgment, and no one’s judgment is always right.
Friday night, I received a call from a local law-enforcement spokesperson. I was told that this person was “reaching out” to me on behalf of an investigator in the Webster Police Department who said that some of the details in the column were unknown to one person personally affected by the attack. The request was that I remove that information from the online column.
That was a problematic request.
The column had been up for almost 20 hours, and it’s hard to take information back. Further, technically, it isn’t ethical for a spokesperson to ask a reporter to change a story unless the issue is inaccuracy. Likewise, in most instances, if I honored such a request, that would be unethical of me.
But the issue, of course, wasn’t the rules of the news business. It was the interests of the individual at hand.
So I rewrote a small portion of the column, deleting about a paragraph of information.
I did this out of caution and concern for the person affected, not because of the request of either the law-enforcement spokesperson or the concern of the Webster police investigator. The person who made the request to me has not, to my memory, ever supplied me with any information on or off the record, so there should not be any appearance of undue influence or conflict of interest. The spokesperson can neither reward nor punish me, so I hope it is clear that the decision was mine and mine alone.
I also, Friday night, asked my employers to take the column down from their websites in its entirety.
My intent was not to offend, but to report. From the first hour of this horrific attack, I have reported what I learned about it. Through the day on Christmas Eve, I was the first to characterize the likely suspect, to later identify him and report his criminal background, put neighbors on the air and broadcast emergency-radio transmissions from the event.
But none of that was, by my judgment, rash or exploitative.
I did not report that there had been fatalities, or the identities of the victims, until it was announced by the police chief, though I had known for more than three hours. I presume other reporters around town did the same.
I think everyone in our region, in their own way, honored these men and mourned their loss. Each of us did what we could. Some stood in salute at the funeral, others donated to fund-raisers or knelt their families in prayer. Others just sat before their television sets and wept. I, like every other reporter in town, tried to tell the story, because that is our role.
Because it must be told, and remembered.
That which is not recorded, is forgotten.
The evil of the murderer must be witnessed, so it can be despised and condemned. And the nobility of the men attacked must be witnessed, so it can be honored and emulated.
We can’t forget how evil men can be, or how good.
It’s unfortunate some were upset by the column. But it had to be written. If it has hurt the feelings of any loved ones of the victims, I am heartbroken and apologetic. That was certainly not my intent.
Others who are angry, however, are mistaken. I cannot explain or change their feelings. I can’t understand how anyone could see me as an enemy of the fire-service community – as I have recently been depicted. But people will think what they will think.
The only thing that truly matters is the continued love, support and prayers of this community for the survivors of those slain. The efforts organized, led and supported by people all across this community have been astounding. I have publicly tried to support the ESL account established to benefit the children of Mike Chiapperini, and I hope one day to visit a memorial erected or park dedicated to the memory of these men and first responders like them.
Anyway, that’s why I wrote the column, and why I stand by it. I’m sorry some are upset, I hope they can eventually do me the kindness to forgive and forget.
And I hope we all can live up to the example of selfless service these men set, not just on the day they died, but on every day they lived.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2013