The headline that got away

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One of the more lowbrow features in the Orlando Sentinel is its Monday review of supermarket tabloids. Under the heading "Stories We Missed," the paper reproduces in miniature the front page of one of the tabs, along with half a dozen or so of the more ludicrous headlines from several of the papers. Aside from cheaply filling space alongside Monday's page-two celebrity fluff, the gimmick has an added benefit: It lets the Sentinel pose as a high-quality paper looking down its nose at its inferiors. Even as the paper reproduces some of the more grotesque photos from the tabs, it seems to sneer, "How crass! You'd never catch us doing this."

Well, almost never.

"Nude man found dead on killer whale's back," said the Weekly World News-worthy, four-column front page headline over the Sentinel's story on the hapless drifter who died at Sea World after apparently hiding in the park past closing and slipping into a breeding tank with a killer whale.

The headline was true enough. But the tone mixed with a touch of titillation was a bit much. The victim's state of undress surely was not one of the most important facts in the story. That he was on the whale's back also seemed an odd fact with which to lead the paper. Readers had a right to wonder whether the paper was revealing a kinky sex-with-animals tryst that had gone too far. Instead we got some dumb guy finding a way to go somewhere he shouldn't have gone and getting himself offed by a wild animal clearly out of his weight class.

Is this news? Well, sure. `see Water torture, July 15, 1999` But how much different is it, really, from a drunken spring breaker who goes splat off the fifth-story balcony of a Daytona Beach hotel and gets relegated to a news brief deep inside the paper?

To be sure, death by killer whale is intrinsically more interesting and certainly less commonplace than college kids striking pavement. And discussion of the Sentinel's poor handling of the story would be just that, if not for the revealing display of the paper's news judgment right after the whale tale.

Two days later, the paper reported that an off-duty Orange County deputy sheriff, "a one-year veteran," shot and killed an "armed suspect" who was shooting at someone at the Greyhound bus terminal on John Young Parkway. The story ran as a five-paragraph short at the bottom of an inside page in the local section. This was followed the next day by another five-paragraph story, equally buried, that identified the victim as a 48-year-old cab driver. Only lower in the story do we learn the victim fired just one shot, which missed; that his target "has an extensive criminal history"; and, most telling, that the deputy nailed him three times in the chest.

Every word is based on the account given by a sheriff's department spokesman. The paper even used a quote from the guy the cab driver fired at. But the paper attributes the quote by saying the cabbie's intended victim "told investigators." In other words, the paper never talked to him.

In the first-day shooting story, the paper quotes the sheriff's spokesman indirectly as saying the deputy, coming upon the incident when picking up family at the bus station, identified himself and drew his gun. Then, in direct quotes, the spokesman says: "The suspect turned, pointed his weapon at the deputy at which time the deputy fired, killing the suspect."

None of this is supported by anything but law enforcement's version. Nothing suggests the paper bothered to seek a witness to a shootout in a public place in which someone died by a lawman's bullets. The first-day story doesn't even mention how many shots were fired. Also unanswered: Had the cabbie been the victim of a crime at the hands of his shooting target? Did the deputy need to shoot three times? Were other lives put in jeopardy by the deputy's handling of the incident in what, at 9:20 p.m., presumably was a busy bus station?

More important is whether the sheriff's office's version is accurate. Without hearing from someone besides the sheriff's spokesman, readers can't know.

In its first-day Sea World story, the Sentinel offered up a three-column photo of tourists being directed away from a canceled show, a two-column file picture of the murderous mammal and a fact box on just how big and bad killer whales can be -- all on page one. Inside was another story on how killer whales really don't go around picking fights with humans -- just in case you were planning a quick dip. The message was clear: Major titillation with a freak accidental death is worthy of the newspaper's efforts and the community's attention.

Equally clear in the treatment of the bus station shooting was the paper's position that when a cop kills, well, it's sort of OK; the police version is all anybody ever needs, anyway.

But the next time the Sentinel is looking for "Stories We Missed," it should skip the supermarket rack and send a reporter to the Greyhound bus station -- or to the administrative review promised for a certain deputy.

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