Glomming On: Attack of the Electronic Media
Cathy Stachura was delighted by all the coverage. It began with the Sun-Times. But by the time her husband came home from the war she'd been on Oprah, and she'd had "a very nice interview" with Tom Brokaw and Faith Daniels, and--
"Five called me, God, every couple of days it seemed," says Cathy Stachura.
"At some point Channel Seven with Linda Yu and Joel Daly interviewed me."
"Channel Two snuck in there too with Terry Savage on the financial end."
"The AP called me on a regular basis. I made the mistake of saying they could call me at any time and they did indeed call at any time."
But for all the attention everybody paid Cathy Stachura, the Spunky Wife Back Home, the Sun-Times's Leslie Baldacci was always special. "She was a real sweetheart," says Stachura. "I think that's why the articles were so nice. She called every couple of days and got a chance to meet my kids and she put down what they were saying in the right words. I'd be very surprised if she didn't win some type of award for that series."
So why isn't Leslie Baldacci happy? Why did she fax us a letter signed "Curmudgeonly yours"?
"Recently," her correspondence began, "in reporting a series of stories about the family of a serviceman who went to war, I encountered a disturbing phenomenon: an unprecedented 'glomming on' to my story by the electronic media.
"Sure, we've all been after the same story before, but I have never witnessed such a dearth of imagination, nor such a shameless lack of initiative on the part of Chicago's news outlets.
"It's not like there weren't enough families to go around . . . "
There were families galore. But journalism is like a smorgasbord. When there are too many choices, what looks most delicious is often what the person ahead of you is having.
A pressman by trade, David Stachura is a sergeant in the Air National Guard, a crew chief of a KC-135 flying tanker. His wife works for Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan. They have six kids, ages 5 through 18. Baldacci, to tell the truth, did not exactly beat the bushes to find this family. Just before Sergeant Stachura shipped out in late December, a family friend called asking the Sun-Times to cover the farewell.
The paper couldn't make that event. But as war neared in January, Baldacci riffled her files in search of a quotable family to follow for the duration. Six kids! she marveled, and reached for the phone.
Baldacci's first story on the Stachuras appeared the morning of January 16. She wrote: "The whole Schiller Park family pretended everything was normal when, in reality, everything was nuts. . . . 'I figure the more normality we put into the situation, the better it will be for the kids,'" said Cathy Stachura.
Before the morning was up, Cathy Stachura had heard from Channel Five.
"They asked if they could come to where I work," she remembers. "I said, sure, no problem."
That did it for normality. By January 21, Baldacci--writing her fourth article on the Stachuras--was obliged to describe them as "a national symbol of the families left behind." Brokaw had already had them on, and the 21st was the day Oprah sent a limousine for Cathy and the kids.
"I'm at their house on their anniversary," says Baldacci. "The highlight of the evening is a call to the guy in the gulf. And Phil Walters walks in. If it was me, I'd have said to me, "You've been doing a great job with this story. I'm mortified to be here."'
What did Walters say?
"Not a word. It's like I'm not even there."
"Awwww," said Phil Walters. (We'd called him at Channel Five and made him answer for his conduct.) He didn't know she was there. He didn't know who she was. "This was one of those cases," he said, "where you walk in at 2 or 2:30 on the evening shift and they say, 'You're going here.' It turned out to be a nice story. I had no idea where they got it."
Walters went on, "But the issue she raises is an interesting one, which gets us back to that Channel Two story on the Green Beret who apparently didn't have a green beret. That was a case where a station uncovered it and the next day everybody hops . . .
"It's not pack journalism so much as line journalism," said Walters. "You form a queue. You feel like a Jacques Brel song, 'Next.'"
"At first I was amused," says Leslie Baldacci. "I thought, at least they're reading the Sun-Times. What finally got to me was--it was not an isolated situation. At one point I was writing about guys whose wives had gone to war. CNN called to ask me for their phone numbers. They hadn't thought to dial 411!"
On March 13, David Stachura came home. Channel Five showed up at the house at quarter to six in the morning and didn't leave until 2:30 in the afternoon. "Every time they went to a commercial they showed our house," says Cathy Stachura. "They cut to what we were doing--putting up signs outside or what have you."
"The hangar at O'Hare was crawling with returning service personnel and their families," Baldacci said in her letter. "I was with the Stachura family. So was Channel 5. Other reporters, spotting the camera lights, come running. A Daily Herald reporter interviewed the family. So did a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. To its credit, the Tribune did not run the story. I suspect editors recognized the family."
She mused, "With tens of thousands of families affected, why would every station in town cover this family?
"Laziness. Lack of imagination. Inexperience. Ultimately, stupidity, because we deal in information, the value of which is determined by its exclusivity. In this case, overexposure ruined the story--for everyone."
Not for everyone.
"I think I made a lot of new friends through the media coverage I got," says Cathy Stachura. "People called me up I hadn't seen or heard from in 15 years."
A returning GI had given the president an Arabian lamp as a souvenir. Late one evening the president rubbed the magic lantern. A shade appeared.
"Tell me the truth," said the president. "Have I got anything to worry about in '92?"
"The country loves you," proclaimed the ghost of Lee Atwater. "The papers say you could be reelected unopposed."
"Well, I hope somebody runs against me," said the president. "So I can kick some ass."
"But not every augury is favorable," the ghost intoned. "Your archenemy lives. The scum of the earth. The fiend as dark as Hitler."
"I thought you were talking about George Will. The hell with Hussein. We smoked him good."
"Remember Willie Horton!" the ghost intoned.
The president hadn't given Horton a thought in years and he didn't see what the ghost was getting at.
"Willie Horton was merely a rapist," said the ghost.
"A very serious crime," said the president with the firmness of a true political moderate.
"Willie Horton did not gas his own people," said the ghost. "He did not turn his army on innocent civilians. He did not machine-gun children from helicopters."
"Willie Horton was a menace to American society," said the president. "Saddam Hussein is only a menace to Arabian society."
"Even so," said the ghost, "you got so many Americans hopping mad at him that the country went to war to teach him a lesson. You really whipped him too. But then what happened? You let him go. You furloughed him."
"Hmmm," said the president.
"And instead of just raping and terrorizing one or two more people, the way Willie Horton did, Saddam Hussein is now raping and terrorizing his entire country."
"And you think this might make trouble for me in '92?"
"Only if the Democrats aren't complete idiots. So you might be OK," the ghost replied.
"How do you think we should handle this?" said the president.
"I'm dead. And before I died I found religion," said the ghost. "But if I weren't and if I hadn't I'd point out the only white man in America who's more popular than you--"
"Schwarzkopf!" said the president. "He looks like Willard Scott and fights like Sherman."
"--and he's a Democrat," said the ghost.
"Norm's in line," the president mused. "He knuckled under and apologized."
"Don't think of him as the problem," said the ghost. "Think of him as the solution. Didn't the general admit that the Iraqis looked him in the eye and asked for permission to fly their copters?"
The president nodded. "They said it was the only way they could get around because we'd blown up all the roads."
"Exactly," said the shade. "He felt sorry for them. He flashed the old bleeding heart. And now Hussein's gunships are massacring the brave Iraqi people while the U.S. Army down the road does nothing."
The president quivered with disgust. "He said himself he was 'suckered.' But once my general gave his word, what could I do about it?"
"As an honorable man, not a thing," the ghost agreed.
"Golly!" said the president, shaking his head in wonderment. "Nothing those Democrats do surprises me any longer."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.