People With Passion: William Lee

People With Passion: William Lee

A People with Passion series

Chicago journalism

October 21, 2011: William Lee

In the 16th installment of Jack M Silverstein's Chicago journalism People With Passion series, Chicago Tribune breaking news crime reporter William Lee discusses the ways that citizens turn into killers.




I remember I was watching this journalism movie the other night – Absence of Malice, this obscure Paul Newman vehicle – and it says, “You don’t write what happens. You write what people tell you.” And that’s basically, unfortunately the way it is. You’re getting different versions and you’re judging them based on whatever evidence is around.

My job is to get everyone’s version, and tell you what the information is, and then let you make a decision. My job is not to tell you how to feel about anything. And a lot of people don’t really understand what a newspaper’s function is. They think, “Hey, tell me what to think about this so that I can blame someone. Tell me who to blame.” And I just can’t tell you to do that.

The point as far as breaking news is to just tell you everything about the case as I know it. What I can confirm. Is this confirmed? If it’s not confirmed, I’ll back off of it, I’ll wait, I’ll stay on it until I can, but right now we know that this many people were shot at this location at this time, and this is what they think it is.

You have a quote on your Tribune bio about “People would be amazed to hear what actions turn citizens to killers.” I think that was approximately it. Answer that for me.

You’d be surprised. Any time you’re a human being, you’ve been mad enough to kill somebody. Some people have it much more in the forefront of their personality than others, but if you’ve been alive for at least five years, you’ve been mad enough to kill someone. And then, you know, you put some people in good neighborhoods, some people in bad neighborhoods. Those things have definite effects on a person’s willingness to kill. You have young men in situations where they don’t make a whole lot of money and it’s hard for them to get out. They don’t see a pathway out, so they have to take the avenues that are open to them. Unfortunately that’s maybe drugs or gang violence, gang life. And those things lead to violence. You have this faction fighting against this faction, and they’re only blocks away. Their parents grew up in the same neighborhoods. They may have gone to high school together. They may even be acquainted with the person whom their now mortal enemies with. But they’re only mortal enemies because they’re told to be. That person’s trying to kill you, so you have to kill them first. That person shot your boy so you have to go shoot them. When you look at it from the outside, it just seems like a really strange thing that you’re willing to kill someone because you’re programmed to.

I’ve worked in politics before. When I was city news, I was the Cook County Government reporter at one point. When I was working at the Southtown I was part of a team where we were examining police corruption in a south suburban town. I’ve done those types of things. They’re worlds apart. You have to build up to show this one monolithic act of corruption, whereas these little things will only affect a few people who are involved. They’ll rip apart families. It’s interesting to show how a family one day is content, happy, and then the next day the entire family is just pulled apart. Children lose their parents, and that sort of thing.

Whether you’re talking about large-scale corruption or just street crime, it comes from a good place because they’re thinking maybe they’re afraid of what their lives are going to become or they just want to provide for their family. A drug dealer has the same concern for his family as a politician who takes bribes. They’re saying, “The ends justify the means.” The politician might have grown up in a blue collar neighborhood and said, “I’ve gone through a lot of stuff. I’m going to do whatever I need to to make sure my family doesn’t have to struggle.”

Everyone has that same sort of thing. The difference is, we look down more on the drug dealer. We say, “He should know better.” But a politician is a person elected by the people. Therefore their acts could be seen as more heinous. I’m not taking a stance on it one way or another – that’s just sort of how it works out. That coming from a bad place, wanting to do better, and saying, “I’m willing to do whatever to get there.” I think that’s the overall parallel. Or maybe just one bad mistake leading you to a chain of bad mistakes. That’s exactly what it is. That’s all a newspaper is. It’s just a daily log of people making the wrong decision.

Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama's inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.




Enjoy this interview? Click here for a longer version as Will discusses his path to crime reporting, a crime reporter's relationship with police, and why he thinks the night time is the right time (to be a crime reporter).

Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming up next week: Jon Greenberg, columnist, ESPN Chicago.


(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)

November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens, Our Urban Times founder

November 4, 2011: Andrew Barber, Fake Shore Drive founder

October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt, Chicago Tribune, managing editor

September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder

September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer

September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO

September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher

August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist

September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor

August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor

August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer

August 18, 2011: Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times, sports columnist

August 15, 2011: Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader, investigative reporter

December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)

August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist

August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune, columnist

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