When We Were Heroes

Posted: March 28, 2014 in Contemporary Commentary

When We Were Heroes
(I’ve been asked to submit a short remembrance of what it was like to be a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer in its hay days. Here’s a first draft.)

We had a good tip from the Roundhouse that the family of a young man shot to death by a Philadelphia policeman would talk to us, but when we got to the poor neighborhood in North Philly on a Sunday, we saw that KYW-TV-3 News had arrived first.

KY did not seem that happy about it.

The news crew was in trouble with the locals, surrounded by an angry crowd of about 50 in the intersection. Inquirer photographer Sharon Wohlmuth, a half block up from me and across the street, caught my eye and shook her head ever so slightly, her mouth compressed in a grimace. Sharon was a street smart photographer but now her camera was palmed and covered by her scarf. Cameras were targets today.

And it was getting mean, nothing I wanted any part of. The young men in the crowd were bubbling mad. This kind of street scene was common in the late 1970s Philadelphia of Mayor Frank Rizzo, where “racial tension” was more permanent climate than this week’s weather. The shooting may or may not have been justified but such was the record of Rizzo’s police that the poor just figured they’d been popped again and the street was where you represented.

This crowd was taking it out on the camera crew. The people pushed and shoved toward the crew and then one young man hauled back and popped the sound man with a full round house right.

The guy on the crew was big and took the shot, but he was stunned. It looked like he might go down on the next one. The hitter knew what he was doing– in crouched boxer mode now coming in for a second swing. The crowd erupted with cheers. And the woman executive producer bravely leaned in to try to shield the sound man. From half a block away I could see that this was going to hell fast when out of nowhere a firm and commanding voice boomed through the air.

“HEY! DO NOT TOUCH THAT MAN! YOU BACK AWAY FROM HIM RIGHT NOW! NOBODY TOUCH THOSE PEOPLE! YOU PEOPLE BACK UP NOW!”

Whoever the bastard was yelling, he had balls, so I was particularly astounded to find that the words were coming from me. I had flushed from cover and was striding the half-block rapidly and authoritatively toward the crowd. The crowd members in turn swiveled toward me and away from the sound guy. None of what I did was premeditated or thought out. This Charge of the Wonk Brigade came from nowhere and I had no idea where it was headed.

Without stopping, I next reached for my wallet and held my press pass far overhead in one hand as if it were a detective’s shield.

“PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER! PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER! I’M FROM THE PHILADELPHIA INQURER! “

I was at the edge of the crowd, which had quieted now and even the hitter was listening.

“I’m the press! We’re the press, okay? You all know the Philadelphia Inquirer, right? Right? The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“We’re the people who wrote the stories about how Mayor Rizzo’s police department beats people up right? You all remember those stories, right? We’re the newspaper that stood up to Rizzo.”

There was a general bobbing of heads and a “hell yes” here and there.

“Well that’s what the press does, right? We ask the hard questions. And when something like this happens, we come out and tell your story, right?”

There was more nodding.

“Okay, that’s what we are here for, to let you tell your story, so we aren’t just telling Mayor Rizzo’s story, but yours too. And THESE people are press too. They’re from television, KYW, Larry Kane, right? THEY want to tell your story, too, both sides, isn’t that right?”

The four-person crew, which had been unhanded, energetically bobble-headed in the affirmative. The executive producer, part of a breed of the toughest women on earth, was looking at me with feelings of affection – perhaps the first ever in her life toward a member of her own species.

“Okay, well here’s what we’re going to do. You start setting up your camera over there, okay? Everyone who wants to tell their story to KYW, form a line here, okay? And KYW you listen to what they have to say, okay?”

It was under control by now and Sharon Wohlmuth and I huddled with the two guys who seemed in charge and were organizing the lines. Now I was doing some forward thinking of a less heroic type. Most of the journalistic ethics I studied were written by B. Hecht.

“Guys,” I said quietly to them, “do you know where the victim’s family is staying?” They nodded yes. “Well Sharon and I would like to go talk to them, okay?” They nodded yes.

“Great, you stay here and keep the line going,” I said to one of the young men. To the other I said, “You take us to the family, okay?”

“You want the TV people to come?” that guy asked.

“Nah,” I said. “They’re good here. You protect them and keep them busy. Make sure everyone gets to talk to them.”

I think Sharon snorted then.

We spent the next hour talking with the extended family of the man, with Sharon working her magic of light and lenses.

We came out and the line was still long. The executive producer of the KYW crew was a little less thankful in the look she shot my way. Yes, we had spared them a beating, but they weren’t getting close to the real story we’d just logged. I shrugged my shoulders and waved as we left. She nodded her head but there were daggers coming from her eyes.

End of the day, it was a story and spread nicely done. Not a blockbuster, but a good three columns on the front page below the fold with a great photo out front and a spread on the jump, as I recall. It gave me a good enough feeling that I stuck around for the press run.

That was always a good feeling on the fifth floor any night. No noise or hum as the presses started, but the yellow Number Two pencil with the chew marks laying on the slot desk would begin to move slightly, jiggle just a bit as the press climbed in pitch and momentum, sending shivers through the building’s beams. Then the pencil would break tension with the desk and roll across the desk as the presses tached up all the way and you could hear the baritone hum barely in the distance.

It’s not a story I tell often because people might think I saw myself as the Audie Murphy of Philadelphia. I wasn’t. (That was Rod Nordland.) I was as surprised as anyone at what I did.

It’s not that I chose to act. And that’s the point to me of why the story is worth retelling. It seemed then and now that acts like that were simply written into the deal if you worked at The Inquirer as a journalist.

The place literally was compelling. Not in some passive sense of the verb. It compelled. It required. The press meant something. The times meant something. The Inquirer meant something. There were things you had to do and you did them without thinking.

We were a part of something good and, yes, I’ll say it: Bigger than ourselves.

No, it wasn’t World War II. Or Little Rock or Selma. But I wasn’t the only one who felt like this. The Inquirer meant something to readers too. It’s “brand” literally stopped mobs in their tracks.

Fortunately for me.

Comments
  1. Jim Panyard says:

    Frumper – you are a delight!

    Like

  2. murray dubin says:

    nicely done, Frumpo.

    Like

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