When a hero is not a hero
A firefighter is killed in the line of duty. He is given a hero’s funeral. Later an autopsy report reveals he was legally drunk. How do you handle the story?
By Harry J. Reed
Harry J. Reed is the retired editor of the Citizen Patriot, Jackson, MI.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 2 (May 1989), p. 3.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
It had all the elements of which heroes are made.
On a Saturday evening in August, 1982, a firefighter died in a furniture warehouse fire. Killed when a wall collapsed was Norman E. Creger, a 17-year veteran of the Jackson (MI) Fire Department.
The Sunday Citizen Patriot devoted most of page one to the fire. The mayor ordered city flags to half-staff. An honor guard of firefighters flanked the casket until the funeral. Fire officials from throughout Michigan formed a three-mile procession following a pumper truck with Creger’s bronze casket atop it.
Creger’s widow received the America flag covering his coffin. It was a hero’s departure.
Forty-five days later, the newspaper revealed that Creger was legally drunk at the time of his death.
Rumors of Creger’s drinking were heard within hours of his death. He had been off-duty at the time of the fire, in a bar. When summoned, he finished his beer and drove to the blaze.
Creger was one of four firemen playing hoses on the north side of the four-story building. Fire Capt. Leland Bowman saw the wall might fall and ordered them back.
Witnesses said the other three firefighters sprinted to safety, but Creger turned and walked into a double-headed parking meter. The impact knocked him flat.
Seconds later, the falling wall covered him. Creger died of massive chest injuries.
A month after the fire, city officials received the autopsy report on Creger. Because it was a bombshell, they kept it secret for two weeks as they discussed legal ramifications.
The report indicated Creger’s blood alcohol level was 0.16 percent. In Michigan, a motorist with 0.10 percent is considered to be under the influence.
The police report was inconclusive on whether Creger’s drinking was a factor in his death.
What made this an important news story for the Jackson community?
The possibility that a fireman died in vain, fighting a fire he shouldn’t have been allowed to work.
That his drinking prior to the fire made it questionable as to whether he was fit for duty.
That violation of a new fire department check-in procedure might have cost Creger’s life.
The day the autopsy was released, the consensus at the Citizen Patriot news meeting was to play the story on page one, with a single column headline, not as the lead story. It was the most interesting story of the day, but we didn’t make it the lead story on page one because we knew it would be unpopular, and would draw criticism wherever we put it. Knowing our conservative community, we anticipated the cries of “Sensationalism!”
Numerous complaints from the public followed publication of the autopsy story which revealed Creger’s drinking.
“How can you speak ill of the dead,” was the general complaint, “especially a hero who died serving the public.”
“Do you really expect firemen to show up if your newspaper catches fire?”
“How crummy, anything to sell newspapers!”
“You owe the Creger family an apology.”
In retrospect, I would not change our coverage of the fire. Perhaps handling the drinking/autopsy story differently might have prevented some of the criticism. We could have prepared the public for the drinking disclosure by a story saying an investigation was underway into Creger’s death, and that he came to the fire from a bar.
The number of complaints might also have been reduced if we had emphasized that it was the city’s investigation which revealed he had been drinking. This might have made it clear that the drinking was not something the newspaper came up with on its own.
No matter how we approached the autopsy story, some people would still have been angry that we had “tarnished” a hero. “What good did it do?” was often the question raised. They don’t see a newspaper’s function as journalists do.
Newspapers are not in the business of making or breaking heroes, but reporting events as they actually happen.