by Paul Hiebert
For almost a decade straight, Kerry Burke has been reporting on crime for the New York Daily News, primarily homicides — or “murder and mayhem,” as he tends to call it. Burke was one of the reporters featured in Bravo’s short-lived 2006 reality series “Tabloid Wars,” which documented how writers and editors at the Daily News manage to put a great deal of the day’s activities into a newspaper that’s ready for sale the next morning. It got him a good bit of attention back then; now it’s 2012, and he’s still at it, contributing stories from all over the city, from waiting for Beyoncé to Occupy Wall Street to, of course, straight-up crime.
Burke landed an internship at the Daily News in 2002 after basically accosting an editor in the hallway, pressing writing samples into his chest. On Burke’s first day, he covered a honeymoon turned bloodbath. Eight months later, Burke was made staff. A former rock critic and a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, he has an official shift of 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., but it doesn’t always turn out that way. For several years, he ate spaghetti for breakfast. These days, Burke says he’s trying to carve out more time for his family. Just prior to our conversation, Burke was investigating a stabbing that occurred near a subway station. Payback for an earlier robbery, he surmised, but nothing enough to be newsworthy.
Did the Bravo show portray your profession accurately?
I really only saw the rough cuts to make sure I wasn’t getting fucked. It’s not like I want to be on television. It was a grueling process because all of a sudden I had to run around with a film crew. I still had to get into that goddamn building, but now with a camera on my tail.
Don’t get me wrong: they were gracious, they were good and they were very talented people. They did right by us. It was honest.
So when on the job, what’s the first thing you think about after being assigned a story?
How in Christ am I going to get there first? You need to get there before everything shuts down, before the police version is rehearsed, while the actual witnesses are still around. You need to get a participant, a principal to the story. If that means commandeering a cab, it’s commandeering a cab.
I was the first staff reporter in New York City to not have a car. Having a car was just taken as gospel; it was a condition of one’s employment. But my thing was, one, you’re not paying me enough — especially back then — and two, I can get there first using public transportation or a cab. While my colleagues are busy looking for parking and stuck in traffic, I’m on the subway. Basically, if you’re late, you’re dead.
How do newspapers like the Daily News hear about stories as they’re breaking?
We’re still old school here: we listen to police scanners. But there’s also BNN, the Breaking News Network beeper, which is now going onto iPhones. Basically they’re a service we subscribe to. They listen to walls of scanners and type in stuff. But you know what, it’s not very good. Very often they’re first, but we call it “Buff Beeper Bullshit” because it’s not that accurate. They let us know that something’s maybe up.
When you arrive at a crime scene, what’s generally happening? How do you go about reporting?
Very often it’s absolute chaos. But, you know, I’ve been doing this for a while, and I read scenes to figure out what’s happening when the world’s gone mad. I realize, okay, these detectives are the actual case detectives and those detectives aren’t. Okay, that’s family. Okay, the shots had to have come from over there. You figure out what happened just by looking at the lay of the land and everybody involved.
I see the pack of reporters, and I don’t follow the pack. I try to go off in a different direction. I keep an eye on them — I understand that playing defense is a part of every game — but I don’t just hang around waiting for the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information (DCPI), the press liaison on crime scenes, to give me handouts. Basically, what they give is cop version.
So a DCPI shows up at every crime scene?
No, they don’t. Very often they don’t show up at all. And very often when they do, they don’t talk. I respect what they do, but frankly that’s not where you get stories. If you’re just going to produce all the same stuff as everybody else, how good are you at your job?
How do you get witnesses, detectives, family members and so on to talk to you?
I’m unfailingly courteous. You show people respect and they’ll give you the goddamned world. We’re walking into their lives, very often on the worst day of their lives. They don’t owe us anything. One thing I say is “I’m terribly sorry to bother you. I know this is a difficult time. I wonder if you might say a few kind words about…” and then I turn it into a conversation. I don’t just question them. I open with an apology and I engage in a conversation.
This might seem like an old Catholic-school boy, but I also show up with a shirt and tie. Basically, they don’t know me from jack, and I’m going into their homes, their places of worship, their hospital rooms. A shirt and a tie convey respect. It’s very basic stuff. It also conveys authority: I’m someone you should talk to. I mean, it’s not something I grew up doing. Hell, I was a rock critic for a number of years with a ripped t-shirt and a leather jacket. But this is a remarkably different game.
And dress shoes. Always wear dress shoes. People look at your shoes. Dress shoes say you’re important. They say you’re official. They say you’re employed. People respond to that. I’m nobody special; I just happened to be the dude in the shirt and tie. I’m always looking at these cats that show up looking like second-string Hunter S. Thompsons. People don’t respect them. Detectives don’t want to talk to them.
What’s the most common reason people have for not talking?
People don’t want to speak for different reasons, but I think the biggest one is fear. Some people are afraid of cops, some people have outstanding warrants, some people are afraid of payback, and some people are afraid of being singled out by the media. Other people are dirty; they’re involved. Either they talk or they don’t. And if they don’t want to talk, what are you going to do, take hostages?
How do you deal with being in potentially dangerous situations?
Well, I do that everyday of the week. I’ve never walked away from a story. Violence is the cost of doing business. You keep your nerve, you keep your wits and you chase stories.
Have you ever had to pretend you’re someone you’re not to get access to a person or place?
I impersonate no one. When I go into a place, I do my best not to answer any questions, but if someone asks me who I am, I tell them. If you lie to people, your leverage is gone. Why should they tell you anything if you’re a liar? I know people who’ve done the impersonation thing, who’ve lied to people about who they are and what they’re doing, and they’re malignant. Decent journalists have to repair the damage they’ve done.
Don’t get me wrong: people have looked at me and seen a detective. I don’t rush around telling people I’m not a detective. But I let everybody I speak to know who I am. Sometimes it’s at the beginning of the interview, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes at the end.
Have you ever had to break the news of a crime to the victim’s friends or family?
I have lost count of the times I’ve done that. I know a lot of reporters who won’t do it, and I understand and respect that call. But one, someone’s got to tell them, and two, I do it with as much grace and empathy as I can summon. Frankly, I need their story. I do my damnedest to do justice to the family and to their lost one.
Do you ever receive angry calls or emails after a story’s been published?
Oh yeah. Death threats and all that. But I respond to everyone who writes or calls me, because that’s the test of legitimacy: facing your critics. Often people’s qualms aren’t about how accurate the piece is; the qualms are about how bad the situation is. They’re like, “You fucked us. You fucked us.” No. Tell me what’s wrong with the story. Is Eddie a coke dealer with a prior murder conviction? Yeah, he is. Well, then what’s wrong with the story? Nothing’s wrong with the story except that it made Eddie look like the murdering drug dealer he is.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been sued. Frankly, these tend to be fast hustlers looking for a score. We win because it’s all true and I do more than due diligence. They lose because the story’s true. If you can’t get the story right the first time, that’s going to haunt you. You’re not going to be employed for very much longer.
Do you ever feel that you’re intruding on people’s lives and exploiting their misery?
Well, I am intruding on their lives. Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I’m so polite. It’s not always going to work out for the people involved, but I try to do justice to the story, and thereby justice to everybody involved.
I deal in other people’s agony. I do. You can’t candy coat that. But if you can’t live with that, you shouldn’t be in this game. I’m not some nice person from a nice place. I’m not. I do my damndest to be a decent man and an honest reporter.
But besides the paycheck, you must see some value in what you do.
If these stories aren’t told, then these people don’t count and these places don’t exist. They don’t. I’m from the old neighborhood, as it were, of Dorchester in the Boston area, and I know a little bit about being outside of society. Frankly, the awful things that happened in our neighborhood were the things that really impacted our lives. A homicide in Bed-Stuy says volumes to the people who actually live there. It tells them about the gang problems, the gun problems.
I was talking to some professor who said, “If it bleeds it leads” — implying that these stories aren’t important stories. I was like, “Where are you from, Princeton?” In East New York, people want an explanation for the madness outside their door.
I remember growing up and occasionally some horrific shit would go down in my neighborhood. And it would be ignored by the media. It told us we didn’t count. It made plain that we were outside society. These stories count, just like the people who live in these neighborhoods.
People say, “you’re apart of this ‘it bleeds it leads’ culture,” and I’m like, you bet your ass. I have no apologies for that.
How many stories are you usually working on at a time?
Usually anywhere from one to three stories per day. I try to do one story at a time if possible.
What do you bring with you on a typical day of reporting?
Stakeout food. Years ago I had this girlfriend who pointed out that I lived off of slices of pizza, Chinese takeout and beer, and that this would eventually kill me. She was right. She turned me onto yogurt and muesli. It tastes like paste, but it’s clean, it’s cheap and it’s fuel. So everywhere I go I got this container of yogurt and muesli.
I also carry cameras, flashlights, binoculars, notepads, pens, unread mail. I got bills in my bag and a newspaper to read. I have an iPad, which, in theory, I can file stories on, but that’s been a bad investment because the iPad connection just doesn’t really work when you need it. I have a charger, some plastic gloves, a Hagstrom map of the five boroughs, an umbrella and a checkbook, because the dirty side of the business is that sometimes I have to buy pictures. One time I got in a bidding war with the New York Post for footage of two police officers being killed. Another time I bought security footage of these killers. Before they went out to basically kill people, they went to a Popeyes Chicken. I went to that location and let’s just say I bought $1000 worth of chicken.
What’s one of the longest stakeouts you’ve been on?
A long time ago I was waiting four days around the clock to take a photograph of Sarah Jessica Parker’s baby. I was parked outside the hospital. It was single-digit temperatures. But I got the first picture ever. I squeezed off a few frames of her, the baby and her husband from behind a column near the exit of the hospital. I even got the baby’s face with his eyes open. That picture was worth a great deal of money, but the Daily News accidentally destroyed it. This was back before cell cameras, so I took it with an Instamatic. Someone accidentally destroyed the film.
What do you think about celebrity journalism?
I loathe it. But if that’s the big story, I’m in. Frankly, with all due respect, I didn’t even know who Sarah Jessica Parker was.
What’s your take on blogs and the burgeoning online media culture?
I don’t have a lot of time for that. I’m busy. This aggregation thing, it’s a bad ethos. If people are not producing original journalism, why should people pay attention? Overtime, they won’t. But by then the real institutions are going to be gone, and you just don’t build those overnight. Everyone’s going to be locked into these aggregators until they get bored and realize they don’t serve their interest, and they’re going to look around for the real newspapers and the real newsmakers, and they’re not going to be there anymore. Then what are we going to do?
Everyone’s got to stop aggregating and start producing news. Unfortunately, that costs money. But either we spend it or we lose it all.
After spending several years speaking with both the perpetrators and victims of violent crimes, including their neighbors, friends and family members, have you formed any larger, borderline-abstract theories on why crime happens in urban settings?
Frankly, in New York City we’re, what, 8.25 million people living on top of one another? With those types of numbers things are going to jump off.
The other reason — it’s old and hackneyed — is extremes of wealth and poverty. Poor people kill one another. People desperate for a piece of that wealth parading in front of them get involved in violent situations.
I go into these houses and there ain’t no men. I walk into these places and there ain’t no men. There are mothers and grandmothers, and there are these children that belong to whom exactly? Families are fractured. I see the unwanted children. Sometimes there are males around, but they’re the cats who are living off of the women. They’re on the couch, there for the drink and the drugs or whatever money she has. They’re the broken men. But there are no men. There are no fathers. Time and time again.
How do you prevent yourself from becoming quite sad after seeing these situations on a daily basis?
Like I said, I’m not a very nice person. I’m not from a nice place.
At the same time, I love these people. These are my people. I walk into these housing projects, cause as I child I lived in the housing projects. I know the fields in which I labor. I’m from the old neighborhood, and I know these people’s situations. And I’m always moved by their generosity. You find decency in the most staggeringly bad places.
Paul Hiebert is a writer in New York.