As soon as I saw this, my mind drifted back in time nearly two decades; to the moment when I exercised—hands down—the worst bit of news judgement in the organized history of print journalism.
At the time, I was a young, confident reporter with The (Nashville) Tennessean; a hotshot, thinks-he-walks-on-water-because-he-can-turn-a-quick-phrase asswipe whose career was—truth be told—spinning out of control. I’d been hired by the paper out of college as a food and fashion writer, failed miserably and was moved to the rock/pop music beat. I failed miserably there, too, and my editor (the great Catherine Mayhew) switched me to the cops beat. “All I want you to do is focus on getting the facts right,” she told me. “It’s not about flashy writing. Just the facts.”
On one of my first days with the new gig, a murder took place in a Nashville apartment complex. I remember few of the details, only that it involved a gun, a dispute, a death and lots of blood. Dwight, my new editor, told me to head out to the scene and see if anyone was around. I was 23-years old, with almost no news reporting experience. Oh, I’d written four or five “news” (quotes intentional) pieces for the college paper—Jimmy Carter To Speak at UD; Drunk Driving Arrests Up—but nothing substantial.
Anyhow, upon pulling into the parking lot I noticed, eh, nothing. No people around, no police officers or police vehicles. I walked up to the apartment, and spotted police caution tape layered across the front door. It was yellow, but didn’t say KEEP OUT or DO NOT CROSS. I turned the handle, just out of curiosity. The door was, shockingly, unlocked. I called Dwight (on a beige mobile phone the size of Bob Lanier’s shoe) and gave him all the information. “The apartment’s open,” I said. “Should I take a look inside.”
Dwight didn’t mince words. “Let me talk to Frank (Sutherland, the paper’s editor),” he said. “But don’t do anything until I call you back.”
I sat. For a minute. For two minutes. For five minutes. For 10 minutes. The phone didn’t ring. Or vibrate. Nothing. I looked at the door. Nobody was around. Would a small peek really hurt anyone? I grabbed the handle, turned it slowly to the right. The door was white—I remember this. With black numbers painted at eye level. I pushed it open and leaned in. A diploma hung from a wall to my left. There was a big couch, brown. Maybe tan. It was covered with splotches of blood. The wall was cracked by multiple bullet holes. The carpet was moldy and gross. There were, I think, dirty footprints. From mud, it seemed.
I never actually stepped inside. It was all a lean. I jotted all the details down, closed the door, walked out, sat on a nearby curb. My phone rang. It was Dwight.
“OK, Jeff,” he said. “Whatever you do, DO NOT open the door. It’s a crime scene, and you don’t want to interfere, or have your prints anywhere, or …”
“Dwight,” I said.
I took a deep breath. “I, ahem, might have already taken a look.”
The silence was awful. The (justified) blistering that followed was 1,000 times worse.