Thursday, June 12, 2008

Just A House Fire

by Doug Cummings

They say write what you know.
I know some weird stuff, I guess. . .

It was just a house fire. I went because it was six blocks from my house and nearly Christmas. I was a reporter for one of Chicago’s all-news radio stations and if decorative lights were the cause, that had story potential.

Other than a little smoke and a couple of hoses trailing into the building, there wasn’t much to see. I asked a neighbor across the street what was up. She’d noticed smoke pouring from the roof. No flames, just smoke. She called 9-1-1. Didn’t know if anyone was home. A very low key fire, I thought. Probably not enough damage to be newsworthy.

I asked a cop if there were any injuries. Standard reporter question. I expected the usual, “You got to talk to the Commander.” Or, just a, “No.”

Instead, he ordered me to get back in my car and leave. Weird. I saw no point in arguing that you can’t kick a reporter out if you let all the other civilians stick around. I headed for my car but wound up across the street, standing with the neighbors.

That was when I thought I smelled gasoline. Five minutes later, the first of the detectives showed up. Another fifteen minutes and who should appear but both the police chief and the fire chief. To a simple house fire? I knew the police chief. I asked him the same question I’d asked his officer. He said, “Nope, just the fire. Nobody hurt. No news here. You can go on home.” We had a history. I didn’t believe him.

A house fire with the smell of gasoline strong enough it reached my nose across the street. Detectives and both chiefs at the scene and more detectives arriving. Only one part of the cast was missing. I called a friend in the coroner’s office.

Shortly afterward, I went on the air with the first report about what turned out to be a torture murder/arson resulting from a homosexual love triangle.

The confrontation with the cops and the secrets they tried to keep started me thinking. Coincidentally, weeks later, home invaders hit my aunt and uncle’s house looking for valuable art. All they found was an elderly housekeeper but they beat her to death. I suddenly had my opening scene. Then I covered the search for two murder victims in a river under a bridge. And found the book’s title, Every Secret Crime , as part of a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote hanging in a detective squad room.

Every Secret Crime is fiction. But it sure feels real to me.

Doug has been shot at, driven cars at 110 miles per hour, arrested criminals and been in some hellacious fights. And it's safe to say that all of these adventures, while moonlighting as a deputy sheriff during college, prepared him well for his life's work as one of Chicago's finest crime reporters and author of the highly acclaimed Reno McCarthy crime novels. Doug began his twenty-five-year broadcasting career as a television investigative reporter before discovering his passion for the immediacy of news-radio. He worked as an anchor, reporter and talk-show host in Kansas, Missouri and downstate Illinois before settling in Chicago. In more than seventeen years as a crime and breaking news reporter for the former WMAQ Radio and then WGN Radio in Chicago, Doug received awards for his coverage of dozens of stories including murders, train crashes, fires, school shootings and tornadoes. His reports have been heard on every major network. Doug lives in suburban Chicago with his friend and colleague, Socks-Monster, the feline action-hero, who recently received rave reviews for his cameo role in Doug's second novel, Every Secret Crime. They are currently hard at work on Doug's next book.


Martha Reed said...

Doug, welcome to the Working Stiffs! Can you tell us more about your character Reno McCarthy? How did you stumble onto him?

Joyce said...

Hi Doug! Thanks for visiting today. Your book sounds fascinating!

Since you worked in law enforcement for awhile, do you think that helped you as a reporter?

Our dept. has had issues in the past with certain TV reporters who, to put it bluntly, lied to make the stories more exciting. We don't talk to them anymore. We go to the reporters who go out of their way to get things right.

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Doug. Fascinating stuff. I can't wait to read it!

Doug M.Cummings said...

Thanks, you guys.
Martha, Reno is a little bit of who I am and a bit more of who I'd like to be. I added just a scoche of really bad attitude and he appeared. He's tough. He doesn't like cover-ups and lies. He seldom plays within the lines.
I was trying to come up with his name and one morning in winter I covered a really awful story; seven people shot to death at a fast-food joint. During the many hours I sat outside that restaurant putting the story together for my station and CNN, the name Reno McCarthy popped into my head. Beats me why, but that's how he was born.

Doug M.Cummings said...

Joyce, it's always amazing to me the extent to which some reporters will go to get a story. A police chief buddy of mine told me about a newspaper reporter who not only could read upside down as well as right side up, but used what he found in the paperwork on my friend's desk to break a couple of stories. And then there was the Chicago TV reporter who went to a pool party at a murder suspect's house with her two kids in tow...and got caught by another station's camera. Oh, and fired!

I absolutely think being a cop helped me as a reporter. When you've walked a mile in another person's moccasins and all that. As far as I'm concerned, lying to make a news story more exciting is the same as lying on the witness stand. It's abuse of the public trust.
And then there's the reporter at KYW in Philadelphia (I knew him, unfortunately, when he worked in Chicago) accused by the FBI of nosing around in a colleague's computer to find juicy gossip about her. Come on! If true, how lowlife is that?
Then there are the reporters who, as you say, go out of their way to make things right.
I'd like to think that's most of us!

Doug M.Cummings said...

Joyce another thing. These Citizen's Police Academies like you guys have been writing about are marvelous. What a great way for reporters to learn something useful. It's funny, though. Rooms full of cops used to attend our media training classes but the couple of times I offered to train my colleagues about cops, most of them said, "Not interested!"

Kristine said...

Hi Doug, your book sounds intriguing, as do the stories that inspired it.

I studied journalism in college but decided early on that I didn't have the guts to be a news reporter out in the field. Now I work behind the scenes, and I'm much happier.

But I'm still a news junkie.

Doug M.Cummings said...

Hey Kristine!
As long as you have fun doing what you're doing, that's what it's all about.
I always thought it would be fun to be an assignment editor until I saw all the antacids on one editor's desk!

Joyce said...

An assignment editor's job must be a little like coordinating a group blog. :-)

Martha Reed said...

But Joyce, you do it so well!

Doug M.Cummings said...

They say Tagamet is best but Gavascon been berry bery good to me.

Kristine said...

Joyce, you've got that right. Any time you need to rally people to get stuff written and done on deadline, there's usually some form of indigestion involved.

It isn't surprising that the highest turnover in the journalism field are usually in editorial...and also the highest rate of antidepressant use.

But I love the idea of journalists, though, which is why I usually write about them and read books about them. Doug...your book sounds right up my alley!

Doug M.Cummings said...

Cool Kristine. Hope you enjoy it.

Doug M.Cummings said...

Socks Monster the Feline Action Hero reached his paws into an official Reno McCarthy hat late this afternoon and withdrew a name...the name of a person who submitted a comment on this blog today and thereby has won an Official Every Secret Crime t-shirt.
Will Kristine please C'monnnnn Downnnnnn...
(email me size needed and an address and Socks will take care of the shipping!)

Kristine said...

Yay!!!! I won!!!!