Chameleon Man Meets Ticking Time Bomb

The police arrest a suspect in a shocking crime. He turns out to be middle class, with a legitimate job and without a criminal record. He’s a source of instant fascination, so reporters rush to pump his friends and associates for revealing anecdotes.

The results are usually eerie and engrossing, as readers expect, but they often reveal more about the way news is manufactured than about the alleged perpetrators themselves.

Reporters instantly label many of these suspects Human Chameleons. Their neighbors, friends, and co-workers are inevitably “baffled,” “surprised” or “stunned,” and say they have seen nothing at all to suggest a violent side. The New York Times, for instance, recently reported that a man sought in a criminal rampage had shown “no signs of anger” and was regarded as “bright . . . with varied interests [and] always did well in school. People said they were stunned.” (May 8, 2002). The subject was Luke Helder, the college student charged with planting eighteen bombs in rural mailboxes, terrorizing folks from Waukegan to Waco. An art major, Helder reportedly chose the locations of his blasts so they would create a giant “smiley face” on a map of the United States.

In the second, contrasting formula, the subject does display warning signs. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for example, informed readers that one particular suspect had exhibited mounting anger and distress — a growing “dark side” — in the months before his heinous acts. He began raging against the government after a minor drug arrest and “became obsessed with death.” The antithesis of the Chameleon, he was a Human Time Bomb, and an audibly ticking one at that.

By the way, he’s the same Luke Helder The New York Times had cast as an apparently normal guy just twenty-four hours before.

Nonjournalists consider it perplexing when one version of news reality collides so jarringly with another. But anyone who has covered a story on deadline knows such consistency is not the first thing on one’s mind.

Chameleon Man is most likely to make his appearance on Day One of the suspect’s apprehension, when there is little time to probe. Neighbors conditioned by years of news cliché recite the ritual incantations on cue: “He was polite and kept to himself,” “he helped me carry in the groceries. I guess he just snapped.” Neighbors initially described the mass murderer John Wayne Gacy as a jovial guy who appeared as a clown at children’s birthday parties. The reporters can reinforce the theme of surprise with descriptions of the suspect’s apparently peaceful environs — “tree-shaded streets with well-manicured lawns,” etc.

But afterward, reporters often find clues that the alleged perpetrator might have been displaying danger signs after all. Not to worry. They need only shop for new quotations: “He looked lost . . . ,” add fresh supporting material, and — zap! — yesterday’s Chameleon is today’s Ticking Bomb: young suspect grew to defy conformity (Denver Post, May 8) . . . acquaintances say they noticed a turn for the worse in helder (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 9) . . . friends: mailbox bomb suspect changed (AP, May 10).

Once this second theme is established, previously ambiguous data instantly snap into focus as overlooked danger signs. The Washington Post, for example, recently noted that a man charged with leaving his daughter to die in a baking van had “a lawn with bald spots” and “peeling paint around the front door.” Helder’s flagging spring attendance record became a telltale sign. If someone starts blowing off classes, before you know it he could be blowing off limbs. The Washington Post opted for an audacious hybrid of the two standard takes. Its profile begins as classic Chameleon (bombing suspect’s friends are baffled, May 9). We quickly learn Helder was quiet and reserved (“He kept to himself”) but “nice.” “Nothing in their experience suggested that he was violent.” Then, suddenly, Helder is a Ticking Time Bomb, obsessed with the grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, who blew his head off with a shotgun. A friend was convinced Helder would go out the same way and saw death as merely “the way to the next step.” Tick-Tock.

As if testing how many contradictions can be packed into one article, the Post informs us that Helder “sought out people for impromptu jam sessions, asked friends to go with him to concerts, and played his electric guitar as loudly and as often as he could.” In other words, Helder was quiet but loud, reclusive but gregarious. He gave no indication of incipient violence but the signs were as big as billboards.

This was no “on the one hand, on the other hand” piece: it was emphatic in opposite directions at once. And it was not an isolated case.

The Post recently ran a feature about two brothers, twelve and thirteen, who faced trial for beating their father to death with a baseball bat. Headlined a father’s murder baffles fla. town, it declares: “The strangeness of this case baffles even those close to the boys and their father. Why would children of above-average intelligence, neither suffering from obvious deprivation, resort to such violence?” (May 4, 2000).

But in paragraph fourteen, we abruptly discover that the father put his boys in foster homes and that their nightclub singer mother abandoned them. In addition, a male friend of the father has been accused of raping the boys. Tick-tocks? These are more like booms from Big Ben.

This sort of self-contradictory, pushmepullyou reporting has its appeal. Journalists can terrify readers with the notion that violence lurks unseen in the “safest” places, and then immediately reassure them that crypto-maniacs can in fact be detected with vigilance.

More accurate and logical profiling requires restraint: leave the usual labels and formulas in template until you have enough facts to thoroughly fill in the blanks.

Some news outlets did take this cautious approach to Helder (e.g., pipe-bomb suspect is puzzle, USA Today, May 9, 2002), and they managed to combine accuracy with intrigue. After all, everyone loves a mystery in serial form — especially one that eventually gets solved.

Christopher Hanson, a newspaper reporter for twenty years, teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. He is a CJR contributing editor.

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