That’s more or less what transpired in Boston this past week. It’s also reminiscent of a journalism controversy that played out in 2002, when then-Atlantic correspondent William Langewiesche took considerable flak for his description of New York City’s Fire Department (FDNY) in his book American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (North Point Press). While Langewiesche had some kind words for the FDNY, his assessment of the organization wasn’t entirely complimentary. He suggested, for example, that some firemen were involved in looting at Ground Zero, and said that others had reacted gracelessly to the outpouring of public praise directed their way, “grandstanding on television and at public events, striking tragic poses and playing themselves up.” The penalty for his deviation from the standard-issue narrative of FDNY heroism? Protesters outside a book reading; denunciations from FDNY officials and sympathetic commentators; and a campaign by Rhonda Roland Shearer — art historian and widow of Stephen Jay Gould — to discredit his work.
Today, Langewiesche casts the irate response to American Ground as a minor symptom of a broader cultural problem — i.e., a post-9/11 infatuation with heroism and general emotional besottedness — that had much bigger consequences. “Heroism is a very slippery and easily abused term, and it’s better not applied,” argues Langewiesche. “I distrust the effects of the overuse of that word. And you have to look no further than the debate prior to the Iraq War to understand the potential consequences of allowing a sort of maudlin emotionalism to gain the upper hand. My book was a voice against self-indulgent wallowing. And I think that that caution, which was implicitly but never explicitly political, has been proved to be valid.”
Silence speaks volumes
What, then, is the best way to cover an ostensibly heroic death? Just how skeptical should the media be? And should details be omitted or downplayed in the name of journalistic detachment?
By way of an answer — or, at least, the beginning of an answer — consider the way the recent death of Revere police officer Dan Talbot has played out in the press. Talbot was shot early in the morning of September 29 in a parking lot outside Revere High School; he died later that day. Since then, the Globe and Herald have continued reporting on the circumstances of his death, the accompanying investigation, and the arrest of one of the men allegedly responsible.
But while the reportage has included touching details (photos of Talbot and his fiancée, tributes from fellow officers, compliments from friends and family), the coverage also seems to have been muted by the fact that the circumstances of Talbot’s death remain unclear. We don’t know, for example, why Talbot and the group he was with — which included his fiancée and other police officers — were hanging around Revere High School in the middle of the night. We don’t know exactly what they were doing, or what specific words were exchanged, in the run-up to the fatal shooting. Talbot may well have been an innocent victim; his conduct, and that of his friends, may prove to have been exemplary. But by taking a somewhat subdued tone, the press seems to be tacitly acknowledging that other scenarios were possible.