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Crime Reporter Recounts The Emotional Toll Of The Beat


There were nearly 800 homicides and more than 4,000 shootings in Chicago last year. William Lee of the Chicago Tribune has had a byline over many of those stories. That's how reporters gain fame and win prizes for reporting, often the saddest stories about crimes, wars and loss. But William Lee wrote a column this week in which he said the day-to-day of covering such stories in his hometown since 2009 has become almost too much to bear. William Lee joins us now from our studios in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

WILLIAM LEE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: A lot of people would become just more jaded to protect themselves. What's happened to you?

LEE: I think pretty much (laughter) the same thing. Writing the column was a little bit of catharsis for having to deal with this. I had a bad couple of weeks with the stories I was covering, and I just - I needed some type of, I guess, release valve to kind of just give people an idea of some of the things that we see every day.

SIMON: Recognizing that it's not pleasant, can I ask you to tell us about some of those things?

LEE: It's really hard kind of - you know, to kind of break down which part you find troubling. Some things you don't find troubling right away until you're at home much later. Some things are troubling right in front of your very eyes and you're trying to make sense of it. I interviewed a young mother whose daughter was shot in the head as a 4-year-old-girl, just shot in the head and miraculously survived. Everyone would've thought what a great story that was until I - until we caught up with the mother a year ago and they charged the gunman.

And she said her little girl was still struggling, having nightmares every single night, you know, waking up screaming, please don't shoot me. And the little girl's two older siblings were also having, like, just very difficult times adjusting. The older - the oldest brother felt like he had to be the family's protector, and the middle child never wanted the family to be outside. They didn't - she didn't like being in cars anymore. So it's like all of these sort of damaged children that we have left over. And Chicago is - has so many of them.

SIMON: Yeah. What happens when you go home?

LEE: (Laughter) What, indeed. I probably - as a younger man, I drank probably a little bit more than I do now. It's a common thing. A lot of reporters and a lot of cops do it. But after a while, you pull yourself from that. Now I just - on my weekends I completely remove myself. I - you know, I'm surrounded by books. I have movies. I go out with friends. I have, you know, long brunches where I ask them about their lives and all those sorts of things, talk about the sports or something (laughter) and just kind of, you know, break it, you know?

SIMON: And speaking of sports, has it occurred to you to tell the folks at the Tribune, I want to be on the sports page now, I've served my time?

LEE: I've thought about it, but I just am, you know, scarred in that a lot of these stories affect me in some way. I want to know more about them. I want to get to the bottom of it, and I want to be able to quite frankly be the first person to be able to say, well, this is what it is. You know, this is the general gobbledygook that the police gave us. But within that is this greater, you know, more interesting story.

SIMON: What is at the bottom of it, Mr. Lee? Have you developed any thinking about that?

LEE: Well, the problem - I should make it clear to people who aren't - you know, not from Chicago. The problems aren't new. It's been going on for a while. The economic base for Chicago's been dying for decades. You know, 40, 50, you know, 60 years. And what you still have is you still have a huge population of young people of all races who don't work. Now, on the African-American South and West sides, you have a large segment of young men of color who aren't working and who aren't in school right now. And so whenever people kind of ask, well, what's at the root of this crime and gangs and drugs and shooting, it really is a lack of money. The drive for money will do very many terrible things.

SIMON: Not for a moment to say you're wrong 'cause I don't think you are, but on the other hand I find myself a little perplexed by this. I mean, that - those are urban trends. That happens in the boroughs outside of Manhattan in New York. That happens in Los Angeles. And yet Chicago has more murders than New York and Los Angeles combined.

LEE: I think that what it is - what it comes down to is that Chicago's been able in - I guess in decades past been able to kind of hold it together with masking tape and macaroni. And...

SIMON: I mean, as you talk about the lack of money, Google's opening new headquarters there, Caterpillar's opening new headquarters. I mean, some neighborhoods, as I don't have to tell you, are - never been better.

LEE: Well, that's the whole thing. If you are a - you're the beneficiary of this if you're a suburbanite who - maybe you had kids in college. They come home, they have these degrees. If you're poor and unskilled, you're stuck.

SIMON: So you're going to stay with it for a while?

LEE: You know, somebody's got to, I suppose (laughter). You know, this is my hometown, and as long as I want to know, as long as I can stand it.

SIMON: William Lee is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Thanks so much.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.