By Michael Miner

Flight or Fancy

The Tribune published a harrowing adventure story this month. It was the kind of tale that assures readers who would never consider trekking to the ends of the earth that the Wisconsin Dells are the smart choice anyway.

Freelance writer Gaby Plattner set the scene. Backpacking in Zimbabwe, she found herself cooling her heels in Kariba airport, waiting to board the plane to Hwange. The ancient Air Zimbabwe jet had been sitting there for hours, and when passengers finally swarmed on to the rust bucket, its pilot announced that the reason for the delay was a missing copilot still nowhere to be found. I’ve decided to go ahead without one, said the pilot, and anyone who feels uneasy is welcome to get off and wait for the next plane to Hwange. “Unfortunately, we are not sure when that will be. But rest assured, I have flown this route hundreds of times, we have clear blue skies, and there are no foreseeable problems.”

The desperate passengers all decided to stay put.

When the plane reached cruising altitude, the pilot made another announcement: He was turning on the automatic pilot and going to the bathroom. The passengers watched him emerge from the cockpit and fasten its door open with a rubber band hooked to the bulkhead. Then he disappeared into the john. The plane hit turbulence, and the rubber band snapped and sailed down the aisle. The door swung shut.

“A moment later,” Plattner wrote, “the pilot came out of the bathroom. When he saw the closed door, he stopped cold….It slowly dawned on me that our pilot was locked out of the cockpit….We watched the pilot, horrified. What would he do?”

What he did was march to the rear of the plane and return with an ax, which he used to chop down the door. “We were rooted in our seats as we watched him.”

Plattner survived to tell the tale that ran in the Tribune travel section on June 6. The next day travel editor Randy Curwen received some interesting E-mail. A reader wanted him to know that Plattner’s story sounded familiar–he’d read it before, in the book Curses! Broiled Again!, a collection of urban legends by Jan Harold Brunvand. Curwen fetched the book and scanned it. Then he called Plattner in LA.

Plattner is 25 years old, and this was her first newspaper story. She’d approached it in the spirit of the aspiring film writer she is, taking creative liberties that punched up her material. Plattner assured Curwen that she did fly from Kariba to Hwange last October, though everything else she said happened to her was not, in a literal sense, true.

Her yarn was simply based on a true story, and Curwen wishes that at some time during the editing process she’d mentioned this. “She said there were no pictures because when she’s facing an air disaster, she reaches for an armrest and not a camera. She pretty thoroughly documented her story, such as it was. Detailed it, rather than documented it. The only detail I didn’t ask her for was, is it true? Which in retrospect I’d like to have done.”

After Plattner heard from Curwen she headed to the library. “I looked up the book and I thought, holy shit!” She now understood that the true story on which her fiction was based wasn’t true either.

The letter she then wrote Curwen began, “I feel like a fool.” She described herself as “flabbergasted and horrified” and tried to explain. “I wrote it as told to me by my flight companion on the Air Zimbabwe flight I was on. The man who sat next to me told me what had happened to him, scarcely a week earlier, on that very same flight from Kariba to Hwange. He made that flight frequently, he said, and relayed in great detail what had happened, how he and the other passengers felt, everything. He even pointed out where the ax was kept.

“Needless to say, I was amazed, much as you were when you read it. I thought it would be great to tell others, and asked him why he didn’t write it down. He sort of shrugged, uninterested, and said I should write about it if I so desired.

“I realize now that I was stupid and naive to put the story in the first person, but I thought it would heighten the dramatic effect.”

“Which is real interesting to hear,” Curwen told me.

I called Plattner. Tell me about this flight companion, I said.

“He was from Zimbabwe or South Africa,” she said. “He spoke with an accent. He was white, 45 or something, he said he worked in oil. He was sort of charming. I found the men there to be very charming, much more the he-man type than you find in California. I would say they’re certainly much more masculine than the guys you see in California.”

She mused, “Embellishing stuff always came naturally to me. I figured if they objected to anything they wouldn’t print it. I wouldn’t have sent it if I hadn’t thought it had happened the way it was told to me.”

She went on. “I have learned one thing. I will never write anything without a pseudonym.”

Who’s Shooting Who?

A reader called the other day with a serious complaint. “Has it struck you as odd,” he wondered, “that in all the media coverage of the two black motorists who were shot, the fact that the two shooters were also black hasn’t turned up? It’s irresponsible that they haven’t made this clear in the media, but it hasn’t been mentioned at all. The Sunday Tribune even had a quote on ‘ethnic cleansing.'”

Then how do you know the two cops were black? I asked him. He’d heard Alderman William Beavers quoted on TV saying so. He double-checked by calling Beavers’s office, and the woman who answered said it was true.

By the crude yardstick of newsworthiness, the race of the officers who shot and killed Robert Russ and LaTanya Haggerty matters less than the race of Russ and Haggerty themselves. Neither of these victims–one a graduating college student, the other a college graduate–had done anything to warrant getting shot; their only crime, it appeared to up-in-arms black leaders, was brandishing a dangerous pigment.

That’s not to say the race of the officers makes no difference. If to be black is to be presumed armed and dangerous by black cops as well as white, that wretched truth must be confronted. If the police department is accepting minority recruits who aren’t up to the job, then the media better say so and let the chips fall where they may. (In addition to being black, the officer who killed Haggerty was a tiny woman with just a couple of years on the force.) If the detail that the cops were also black muddles the racial narrative–well, that might inconvenience the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and newspaper-circulation directors, but it shouldn’t make journalists hesitate.

No, the media have no excuse for playing up the race of the victims but withholding the fact that their killers were black themselves. But the papers haven’t done that. The reader who called me was wrong.

I ran a search of Sun-Times and Tribune articles on Haggerty, who was shot June 4, and Russ, who was shot June 5, expecting it to document my caller’s complaint. I discovered that the papers did report the race of the cops who pulled the triggers. They reported it time and time again and with painstaking evenhandedness.

Through June 15, I counted 21 articles, editorials, and columns on the subject in the Tribune, 16 in the Sun-Times. Just 3 of the 37 pieces reported the victims’ race and not the officers’. Nineteen of the pieces didn’t identify anyone by race at all. Fifteen told us the race of Haggerty and Russ and also of the cops who shot them–and 14 of the 15 told us in virtually one breath. Typical was a Tribune story of June 9: “Both of the officers involved in the shootings, as well as both of the slain motorists, are African-Americans.”

How could the reader who called me have been so wrong, and how could I have supposed he was right? The answer is that painstaking evenhandedness often isn’t evenhanded enough. The blackness of Haggerty and Russ was the overarching reality of a huge local story, unmissable on TV but commanding the press coverage as well. The race of the cops was a nuance. Those articles that skirted race were drenched in race.

On Monday, June 7, as the story was beginning to build, the Tribune carried two long articles on the weekend deaths of Haggerty and Russ. Neither said that they were black. But the paper described demonstrators at City Hall chanting, “No justice, no peace, no more racist police.” An editorial two days later didn’t explicitly identify the victims’ race, but it predicted that their deaths “will only worsen an accelerating cycle of mutually assured distrust between police and the African-American community.” On June 10 the Tribune carried a piece that reported “both the victims and shooters were black” in paragraph 13–if you got that far. Paragraph one announced a meeting between the police superintendent and ministers of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. The Sunday, June 13, article that riled my caller covered the funerals of Haggerty and Russ. It didn’t identify either the dead or the cops by race. But it observed that “the anger displayed by some at the services illustrated just how deep mistrust between African-Americans and Chicago police runs.” It quoted Haggerty’s pastor urging the nation to heed the “ethnic cleansing going on here in America.” And pictures of blacks illustrated it.

On June 8 the Sun-Times ran a banner headline, “Police shooting uproar,” over a short page-one story that noted Russ and Haggerty’s race. The “details”–three longer stories–covered pages eight and nine. None of these stories mentioned race at all, but the three photos brought it up. The next day the Sun-Times carried a full page of “news analysis” on fatal police shootings. This major essay also skirted race. But again there were three photographs: a picture of Haggerty, a picture of Russ, and a picture of white cops huddling at the grade school where officer James Camp was shot to death on March 9.

News Bites

The advertising department of the Sun-Times won’t be joining the Chicago Newspaper Guild. Wined and dined by management, the ad staff voted last Friday 118 to 60 to stay union free. The campaign to organize was in large part a reaction to a domineering ad boss, Francesca Briggs, who arrived from Calgary late last year and disappeared overnight in May.

You may have noticed that the Tribune has discontinued delivering its Sunday paper in blue bags big enough to recycle an entire week of papers. Or maybe you haven’t noticed–a spokesman for the paper says only four calls came in in four weeks. At any rate, the big bags were introduced as an environmental aid, and now their abolition is being justified on the same grounds. “This was done to reduce the amount of solid, nonbiodegradable waste,” said the spokesman. “We’re actually conserving nonrenewable resources because we’re using less polyethylene plastic.”

One reason the big blue bag didn’t catch on might be that you couldn’t count on it. As often as possible the Tribune wrapped the Sunday paper in a bag that wasn’t big and wasn’t blue because it had been sold to an advertiser.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.