Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Under the media glare

The summer of 1991 was a strange time.

Things were going great. I had moved back into the city a year prior, after an ill-advised move to the burbs to ease wife's commute and mine. We were traveling a lot then and plans were laid for our second trip into nearly-liberated Eastern Europe later that summer.

My comic strip The City had debuted in Spring 1990 and was a big hit in Cleveland. I had just started syndicating it to other weekly papers and picked up six clients with that first promotional mailing. More importantly, I had at last found my creative voice, after five years of struggle as a young pro. The future looked bright. It was an exciting period in my career, in many ways my favorite period.

And then the news that exploded out of Milwaukee on July 21 threw everything out of whack.

My wife and I lived in Cleveland, but both of us were working at the Akron Beacon Journal, located in the Rubber City, an hour to the south. My wife was a young reporter. I had a sweet part-time gig in the art department as a staff cartoonist-illustrator-designer. Union wages and flexible hours made it a perfect job to finance my nascent career as an alt-underground cartoonist. The Beacon at that time was a journalistic powerhouse, by far the best newspaper in Ohio. It was part of the big Knight-Ridder media corporation, which owned a dozen or so papers around the country, but since the Beacon was owned by Akron press baron John Knight, the Knight in Knight-Ridder, it was really a locally-owned entity. It was a great place to work, one with very high standards and an enviable record of accomplishment. The paper won a Pulitzer every five years or so. It had just won one in 1989 and was soon to win another (likely its last, but that's another, quite sad, story) in 1994. It was also Dahmer's "hometown" paper, since sleepy Bath, Ohio, is a bedroom suburb of Akron. Dahmer grew up reading the Beacon, as did they rest of us. I, in fact, was a Beacon paperboy, biking around my rural route with a heavy bag of papers slung over my shoulder.

The Tuesday paper. By this time tv news had already reported the arrest and the first shocking revelations, but, of course, didn't have the chops to uncover anything other than the most obvious or what details the police gave the media.

The story broke Sunday morning. Hard as it is to imagine now, this was early on in the 24-hour news cycle. The internet was still unknown to most people and only used by a few hundred academics who blathered about its unlimited potential. There were no smart phones, early laptops were heavy and unaffordable. 24-hour cable news was on the rise, but had yet to take over the media landscape. The first Gulf War, which put CNN on the map, had ended earlier in 1991. In fact, CNN was the only cable news channel. FoxNews was still five years from launch! So a Sunday news event really didn't blow up until Monday, when news staffs returned to work. Weekend newspaper shifts had only a skeleton crew, as the weekend papers were put together on Thursdays prior. In the case of the Dahmer story, that meant the first story was reported and written on Monday and didn't make print until the Tuesday paper! As I wrote, it was a different, much slower-paced world.

I wasn't scheduled to work that Monday. I was in my home studio working at my "real job," punching out the week's City comic strip. But when my wife excitedly called me with the news about Dahmer (see the book for details) I threw down everything. The Beacon cops reporter was the first to call. I coughed up what info and memories I had off the top of my head to help him start his reporting. I didn't have time to process anything. I couldn't believe this was happening, and was almost dizzy with disbelief, but the journalist in me kicked on the auto pilot. There was a huge story breaking and I had a job to do. I drove down to my parents house to fetch my yearbooks for the Beacon to reproduce. I well remember digging through dusty boxes in the folks' dimly-lit basement, uncovering material I hadn't seen since I lived at home in high school. Pictures and drawings that now had a new, utterly chilling, meaning. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I pawed through my papers, not the last time I'd have that sensation in the weeks and months ahead. I drove to Akron from there and spent the rest of the day working with reporters and editors to piece together the tale of Dahmer's young life.

Over the next week, a team of Beacon reporters tore into this story. They were competing tooth and nail with the larger Cleveland Plain Dealer, 50 miles north, for ownership of the story from the Ohio end. The PD, however, was a lousy newspaper at that time, one the Beacon regularly scooped. And the Akron paper had a huge advantage. Me.

To make it even a more personal battle, I had worked at the Plain Dealer from 1986-1989 as a staff cartoonist and had left, with quite a few hard feelings, to develop The City. I took some shots at the PD in my strip, and monolithic dailies at that time, before the internet and enjoying a virtual stranglehold on local news and opinion, were not used to being criticized, and certainly not viciously satirized. so I was, in 1991, persona non grata to Plain Dealer management. I took great delight in assisting the Beacon as the Dahmer story unfolded. PD editors were livid and my sources at the paper passed on several of the rants the editors directed at me.

Note: All that has now changed. The once-mighty Beacon has changed ownership several times and is now eviscerated and irrelevant. The Plain Dealer has also changed and is now the best paper in the state and one of the finest in the Midwest, largely thanks to a mass influx of Beacon personnel. Most of the top editors are former Beacon ones, as are many columnists (including my wife) and writers. The strangest twist of all? The City now runs in the Plain Dealer!

The Beacon put our an entire special section devoted to the Dahmer story. Very well done. It was the high-water mark, not only for local coverage, but something that easily topped anything the national media produced.

But back to 1991. I worked elbow to elbow with the reporters. I provided them with names and places and contacts. I tracked down other people who were willing to talk (there weren't many). I provided yearbooks, photos and drawings. And, most of all, I recounted the strange antics of Jeff and the Dahmer Fan Club.

Everything that came out about Dahmer's young life, originally came from me. The fake fits, the drinking, the bizarre behavior, the Command Performance, everything. It was reported in the Beacon in the morning and then later that day the local TV news stations did the classic rip-and-read, re-reporting what the Beacon printed and pretended the scoop was theirs. Local radio did the same. By mid-week, the national media was swarming around the story. Cars and tv trucks lined the quiet country road, where Dahmer's boyhood home was, for several hundred yards in either direction. And the NY Times and Time and all the rest followed in the Beacon's wake, pouncing on anyone who appeared in a Beacon story for quotes and comments. I was amazed at how many big-time media outfits lifted quotes. I popped up in all manner of publications, ones I had never spoken with directly! I didn't talk to any other media, much to their respective frustration. Eventually, my recollections became the stuff of urban legend. It's a strange feeling, being the originator of something like that, but there are so many aspects of this tale that are surreal to those of us who swept up in it.

Above: the Beacon's political cartoonist, Chuck Ayers, weighs in on the media feeding frenzy. The editors weren't altogether pleased with his opinion here, as I recall. Give Chuck high marks for kahones.

I thought the Beacon did a good job with the story overall that summer. But the very nature of a daily paper limits the scope. Stories aren't long and everything is rushed into print, especially when the competition is so hot. The stories are dry– just the facts, ma'am– and don't really delve into details of the time and place, or of the culture of the school. By the middle of August, the story had pretty much played out in the media, at least until Dahmer's trials in January and May 1992. As I packed my backpack for my trip to Czechoslovakia, I noted that there was a story here that was not being told, not well enough anyways. Not like I could tell it.

The seed for My Friend Dahmer was planted.

1 comment:

  1. "I once said 'Hi' to DAHMER"

    That cartoon was hot sauce man, thumbs up to Chuck Ayers. Pretty good job writing this article, Derf, it must have felt weird learning about your old mate from high school rise to infamy while remembering all of those stuff that seems so bleak in retrospect from one day to another.

    A few days ago I picked up the 24-page comic book you released on 2002 and it somehow made more sense now than what it did when I first opened the comic. My favorite scene is still the one in which you and your mates from high school joke about how Dahmer might have been a serial killer after graduation. Which is what sadly happened.

    While reading the thing I can't help but feel like you guys actually had a point, but I guess his antics and the way other people perceived them painted him into a corner he couldn't get off.