by Wilson Lee
Friday November the twenty-eighth, nineteen ninety-seven
My assignment today was a story about the last roasted chestnut/popcorn/candy apple vendor in Toronto. His name is Franco Grosso and he usually parks his cart in front of the Royal Ontario Museum on University Avenue. During a city crackdown on street vendors last year, Franco received a number of tickets, which he couldn’t afford to pay. This story was just asking to be framed as the proverbial David and Goliath story. Smelling a media op, councillor Howard Moscoe took this case on and managed to get the city off Franco’s back and talked the museum into leasing Franco a spot for a dollar a year. It was the perfect “human interest” story for all parties involved: Franco gets to keep vending, Moscoe gets a bit of publicity, the museum is shown to be humane, and I get a story.
I started making my calls to set up interviews. I even woke Moscoe out of bed; he didn’t mind too much. But before I could get any further, I was yanked off the story when the assignment desk heard police over the scanners discussing a fatal accident at St. Elizabeth Park school in Oakville. I hooked up with Pedro, a camera operator who drives an unmarked minivan because he likes to do police surveillance stories, and Martin, a new camera operator from our sister station the new VR, who was along for the ride. When we got there, CFTO was already on the scene and had their remote truck set up. We did a quick interview with Sergeant Frank Phillps, who told us that a fifteen-year-old student was killed when a car pinned him against a wall during an auto shop class. The police officer wouldn’t reveal the student’s identity, pending notification of the family. (That’s something the media generally respects, even when we get the name independently.) I also asked the Sergeant about the theft of the Grey Cup the previous night from a bar in Oakville. The sports desk requested it since I was already in Oakville. There was also a huge group of students and teachers at the front of the school. I approached one of the teachers to introduce myself, but he freaked on me, telling me to leave. I stepped off the school lawn and tried to talk to him from the sidewalk, which is public property. He wasn’t very cooperative. So I walked further along the sidewalk to try to approach a group of students. They freaked on me too, screaming at me to leave the school. The teacher I had initially tried to talk to ran after me and started to scream at me, “haven’t you learned anything from Princess Diana’s death?” That comment was too stupid to respond to, so we decided to leave. The students started swearing and throwing things at us as we left.
We drove around the neighbourhood for a while and came upon a group of students. We pulled up beside them and I tried to talk to them about what happened. They too started screaming at me. One student was totally in my face. I told him I’d listen to him as soon as he stopped watching the six o’clock news. That thought paused him for just a second, but then he just kept right on screaming at me, accusing me of disrespecting his friend’s death. He was clearly upset over his friend’s death, so we left. We drove around some more and came across a smaller group of female students, who weren’t hysterical about our presence. We managed to figure out the student’s name was Ben Clement. But they couldn’t tell us much. I asked them if they had a school yearbook so we could get a picture of Ben Clement. They said they didn’t have one at home. I decided to go to the main library to see if they had any yearbooks; they didn’t. I thought about going to the hospital where Ben was taken to try and speak with his family, but decided against it. We went for lunch in downtown Oakville and I made some calls. I managed to get a hold of the board superintendent, who agreed to meet me back at the school for a brief interview. Dusty Papke confirmed that a fifteen-year-old student was crushed and killed by a car while in auto shop class. He told us the school board was planning to bring in grief counselors to help the students. I was sure they would be discussing the presence of news media. I have to admit the whole confrontation was a little unsettling. I couldn’t come up with an immediate defense to the accusations that were being hurled at me. I kept asking myself, why am I covering this story?
It was about three o’clock and classes had been canceled and most of the students had left. There were still a few and one of them approached me and started screaming at me again, asking me why I was disrespecting his friend. I told him I’d speak to him and answer his questions if he just chilled out. He calmed down and I asked him how I was disrespecting his friend. He just said I just was. I asked him what he meant by that. He said we were sensationalistic. I asked how and he said all television news programs are. I suggested he was confusing local news with American tabloid news programs such as Hardcopy and Inside Edition. I asked him for specifics. He said his friend died because of an accident, why was it necessary for me to cover the story. I asked him how he knew it was an accident, isn’t it possible that somebody screwed up; was the car properly maintained? Did the supply teacher who was teaching the class follow proper safety procedures? Did any of the students deliberately tamper with the car? There were too many questions that had to be answered, if only to prove that it was an accident. He asked me to leave him and Ben’s family alone so they could grieve. I asked him whether any of Ben’s other friends, neighbours, teachers, and Oakville residents had a right to know what happened. He paused for a second and said those who knew him could get details from friends and family. I asked him if he trusted the veracity of stories passed from one person to another. He paused, then asked why I couldn’t just leave the police alone to do their investigation. I asked what made him believe the police would conduct a proper investigation if nobody was watching their work. And on and on we went, me trying to rationalize my presence there and he trying to delegitimize my interest in the story.
I gave him my phone number and asked him to call me if he had any problems with the story. I didn’t hear from him. The story came in at one minute and twelve seconds.