By Dan Campana
Joe Gliniewicz duped us all.
He convincingly window-dressed the part of Fox Lake’s “G.I. Joe” in recent years to fool a community and, ultimately scores of people across the country. Including cops.
When his colleagues found him dead, the media descended amid an air of cop-killers on the loose, a national context of a war on police and the shock of a small-town police officer murdered as he neared retirement.
Reporters ran with the Gliniewicz narrative they gathered from family, friends, people on the street and police briefings. The majority did, anyway. A few wanted more official answers to nagging questions early on, but most – including the visual-driven TV news crews – chose the pomp and circumstance of a massive funeral to honor a man in a badge over unpopular story angles – such as a department turmoil or the possibility of suicide.
Investigators did their job, and it took time. The media did its job, but time isn’t a luxury with deadlines and newscasts looming.
As the head of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force George Filenko said in announcing Gliniewicz took his own life before his indiscretions caught up to him, “There are no winners here.”
The community lost because Gliniewicz betrayed their trust.
Police in Fox Lake and throughout Chicagoland, not to mention officers coast to coast, lost because Gliniewicz deepened the black eye law enforcement has worn in recent years. Sure, he’s a bad apple, but this one stings a bit differently given the circumstances.
Investigators lost only in the sense that, for doing a diligent and thorough job, they uncovered one of their own as a crooked cop and were criticized by some for not revealing it sooner to the public.
Frankly, as an outsider who understands the fundamentals of police work, this investigation unfolded the way it had to – perceptions notwithstanding.
Which brings me to the media. In general, reporters, editors and producers lost because they can’t undo their glowing coverage of Gliniewicz immediately following his Sept. 1 death. They can’t retract the countless times the word “hero” or his patriotic nickname were used, directly or through others, while covering the story. They can only go by what their reporting got them for the last two months. And, frankly, by the time some outlets considered the Gliniewicz’s story might not end neatly with an arrest or a trial, it was too late.
That’s the rub; this was a perfect storm. Investigators had to do their job the right way, which meant keeping public details to a minimum no matter how much speculation circled. The media reported what it did because of the hand it was dealt – the perfect suburban tragedy.
No TV station or newspaper was going to skip Gliniewicz’s funeral because of a lack of clarity about how he died. That’s what makes it disingenuous for a few self-righteous reporter-types to now loudly criticize investigators as contributing to the prolonged celebration of Gliniewicz that now has so many people feeling hurt and confused.
The media makes its own decisions on coverage based on competition and reader/viewer interest, so this isn’t about a cover up or cops trying to screw with the media. Local reporters only warmed to other angles – such as the clichéd “Why is it taking so long?” story – when investigators went mum while the complex probe slowly developed the details we now know.
This was a plain and simple mess with no right answers for reporters who now struggle to grasp the story Gliniewicz left behind. The hard lesson for all media with a stake in this case is accepting nothing is as it seems. It almost never is. The belief in a perfect story, tragic and otherwise, interferes with the journalistic process.
Could hard-charging reporters have filed Freedom of Information requests and scrutinized Fox Lake officials to see what might be lurking in Gliniewicz’s history? Sure. But, the squeaky-clean, good-guy image he projected likely would dissuade that approach. Reporters always have hindsight to open our eyes to see what more could have been done with a story. It shouldn’t be used as a tool to lay blame on others when second-guessing coverage decisions. Reporters generally did right by what they knew and what they believed to tell the story. Investigators did right by the law to reach the proper, yet hard-to-swallow, conclusion.
It’s Gliniewicz who did us all wrong.
Dan Campana is a Chicago-area freelance writer and communications consultant. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org