Tears well up as I start writing this—sadness and horror surge through a veil of persisting disbelief.
On Saturday, January 27, my husband, Bob, our daughter, Cindy, her husband, John, and I gathered around a gently bubbling cheese fondue in celebration of Bob’s 76th birthday. As we toasted his future, someone pounded on our door. When Cindy flung it open, a Dartmouth College professor—almost incoherent—begged for help. She had gone to our nearest neighbors for dinner and found them, Half and Susanne Zantop, collapsed on a bloodied floor.
Cindy and Bob, a physician, sped over while I called 911. Then I waited, wondering what had befallen our cherished friends and whether my family was in danger, too. I waited until my dread spurred me to phone the one person who might tell me something—the Sunday editor of our regional newspaper, the Valley News. Since I wrote occasional features for the paper, I knew about scanners that monitor police communications.
“Steve, something awful has happened next door; have you heard anything on the scanner?”
“No,” he said. “Oh, wait a minute.” Silence, then his somber voice.
“They are saying ‘two down at 115 Trescott.’” “Down” is police talk for dead, I think he added.
An eternity passed. I looked out the door every few minutes, as though I could will Bob and Cindy back. Then I saw them dragging along the driveway, heads bowed, shoulders slumped. A policeman walked behind them, but when I rushed out calling, “Don’t tell me they’re dead,” he turned away.
“Mom, come in the house,” Cindy said, and she told me Half and Susanne had been murdered.
We went through robotic motions until the Valley News editor phoned to ask if I would give an interview. Without hesitation, I agreed. I wanted to shield Bob and Cindy, who could barely speak. And I believe in the mission of the press: to inquire, to inform, to foster understanding.
In 1945, I was the editor in chief of my college newspaper, aiming for a career in journalism. But my mother’s puzzling psychiatric illness steered my inquisitive mind toward psychology instead. I practiced psychotherapy for 50 years, but continued writing, too. My Valley News editor was a strict mentor, insisting on clarity and accuracy in every phrase. His high standards, along with daily perusal of the Valley News and The New York Times, shaped my confidence in the press.
“I’m sorry to have to ask you about this,” the reporter said when he arrived.
“It’s really alright,” I reassured him. Me, the mom, me, the therapist, me, the fellow writer. Me, still strangely composed.
His story, published the next morning, was factual and dignified. That day, requests for interviews began coming in by phone, e-mail, fax and by knocks on our door—we finally lost count at 47.
“Mom, write a statement to hand out to the media,” Cindy advised before she and John left for home, but that sounded too mechanical. I wanted to honor Half and Susanne with spontaneous, heartfelt words.
At five a.m. on January 29, the technical crew for “Good Morning America” began setting up satellite connections. At 8:15 that morning, Bob and I were being interviewed live.
“Ms. McCollum, you were friends of the Zantops, you’ve been neighbors for a number of years. Tell us something about them, if you would,” said Jack Ford, the host.
“A few minutes ago, they were described as active members of the Dartmouth community,” I said. “They were, in fact, active members of the world, and I think for that reason the loss is an international loss, a tragedy for the world. What I mean by that is—partly because of their background as Germans, their learning about the Holocaust, their awareness of what can happen to a country if the citizenry are complacent about what goes on—they were passionately involved in every aspect of life. They were politically extremely aware, astute; they were catalysts; they energized a wide circle of colleagues and friends to learn about the political process, to learn about the significant issues—to get out and vote. And they became citizens of the U.S. only three years ago after agonizing over it because they were deeply rooted in Germany.”
Jack Ford broke in: “It sounds like it’s not an understatement to describe them as beloved members of the Dartmouth community.” He didn’t get it. This intelligent, experienced newsman didn’t comprehend. I pounded the sofa in frustration.
But when I viewed the tape as I prepared to write this article, I saw him glancing at his watch, perhaps scarcely hearing my words. Yet he had allowed me one minute, 16 seconds for my message. I thank him for that.
In contrast, we worked with “Dateline” for five and a half hours, resulting in a glimpse of my tearful face and very few words. Other interviews were scheduled, cancelled, rescheduled, then some shows were never aired. I didn’t see all the coverage, but in terms of my aim of portraying two remarkable people, our grueling TV time seemed mostly squandered.
Much of the early print coverage that I saw was responsible and broadly accurate, although words I never used were attributed to me: “pool of blood,” for example—the image revolts me. But a grievous miscommunication was published in The (London) Times. Combining material from our 90-minute interview with information from others, the reporter wrote a detailed story that I read online. My gaze froze on these words about Susanne: “This vigilance took the form of a lifelong determination to dissociate herself from Germany and its history.”
Wrong! Susanne dedicated her scholarly life to exploring German literature and the history that shaped it; she took students to Germany on terms abroad; she visited her family. I was angry and embarrassed that this misconception seemed to emanate from me.
Worse, though, was my sense of betrayal in an interview with a Boston journalist. I told all reporters that the police had asked my husband not to describe what he saw that dreadful night and most accepted that. This writer guided me through a thoughtful discussion of the Zantops, her manner earnest and respectful. Then, after an hour, she suddenly blurted, “Is it true their throats were cut?” I almost threw up. “For God’s sake! These were my dear friends!” I protested.
She flushed, apologized and described the relentless pressure she and colleagues were under to supply every detail to their editors. Her newspaper and others were competing intensely to attract the most readers.
Relentless pressure for us all.
Most mornings, my husband and I went skiing, renewing our sense of life in the bracing air, enjoying our rhythmic body movements, spotting tracks of tiny critters in the snow. But our 46-year marriage was strained by the media demands. The interviews tortured Bob, reviving the ghastly memory of the sight he had seen next door. They interfered with his style of coping: compartmentalizing his pain, not allowing it to engulf him. I urged him to avoid the sessions, and at times he did. Still, he was bombarded by phone calls: “Just one question, Doctor McCollum,” a frenetic reporter would plead.
For me, the more thoughtful interviews were therapeutic, allowing me to go over and over the tragedy like a traumatized child after surgery. The reiterations slowly anchored my sense of reality; I’d been sliding in and out of disbelief, as though this must be a film like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”—a film that would end.
Yet the intense discussions took their toll, and Bob worried as I developed what I called “mediatitis”: a hoarse voice and dry cough. I kept misplacing things and, normally fleet of foot, I began staggering. One evening I slid into a hot bath to soak the aches away, and 90 minutes later Bob found me slumbering in an empty tub. Fortunately, the drain had slowly leaked.
“Why are you doing all this?” His voice was harsh with irritation.
“Because I need to,” I snapped. Since late childhood, when I tried to be the linchpin holding together a severely troubled family, the capacity to meet challenges has been a foundation of my self-esteem. This seemed like another traumatic time in which I could be useful, and I had received notes of appreciation, one from Dartmouth’s president and his wife.
Yet I couldn’t fully answer Bob’s question. I needed to sort through the media experience, so I began working on an article that ran in The Dartmouth on February 22.
But on February 16, The Boston Globe published a story that sundered the community. In part, it read, “Investigators believe the killings…were crimes of passion, most likely resulting from an adulterous affair involving Half Zantop, according to authorities close to the case.”
On February 21, a retraction appeared on the front page of the Globe. But those words failed to assuage the anguish stirred among the couples’ friends and daughters. There was outrage, too, and some of that leaked on me.
“Audrey, I think it is really best not to talk to the media at all. They sensationalize absolutely everything and misquote everyone.” This e-mail message came from one of the Zantops’ intimates, a brilliant scholar, a wise and warm mentor to students, and a friend of mine. “I do think you should know that the response to your statements has not been uniformly positive…. I find the media spins hurtful, painful and your participation seems to me to feed the frenzy,” she wrote a few days later. “I don’t see what can come out of telling the press and TV that Susanne and Half were wracked by professional anxieties—the Globe uses that to imply that Susanne’s work habits drove Half to affairs….”
Reading her words, I felt drenched with shame.
I searched the Globe. For a background story, I had indeed mentioned the Zantops’ academic worries. But so had others. “The way [Susanne] pushed herself all the time was very hard on a lot of us, including Half,” said a colleague. I felt relieved that I wasn’t alone in painting a realistic portrait of their lives.
Had I stoked the media frenzy? Had my attempt to honor dear friends actually caused harm?
Frantic, I put these questions to a Newsweek correspondent who had interviewed me, then stayed in touch by phone and e-mail. In his communications, I had sensed integrity. “Here are my thoughts about whether your comments ‘feed’ the media frenzy,” he wrote in reply. “I don’t think they do. What they do is feed the frenzy surrounding you specifically, because once reporters see you quoted, more will call…. But as to the story as a whole, your participation…has no effect…on the media’s appetite for reporting the story. If you don’t talk, they move on to the next potential source…. We’ve already seen the sorry effects of an information vacuum…. Sadly, the lack of information fuels speculation and rumor and, inevitably, error. That’s a problematic dynamic in the media, but one that persists independently of your choice to take reporters’ questions…. No, you have not abetted the media’s intrusions into the community.” I sent him an e-mail hug.
But after the Globe fiasco, I felt wary of the press. And when two teenagers were arrested as suspects in the murder, and media spotlights shifted toward them, I was relieved. Yet the self-doubt stirred by my friend’s reproaches lingered on and infiltrated my grief about Half and Susanne. Grief is composed of sadness and longing, and often anger, too. When guilt is stirred into the psychic stew, clinical depression takes over. For two months, I teetered at the edge, ruminating often.
I hadn’t experienced “the media” as a juggernaut: Nobody forced me to speak. Others in the community did feel harassed, especially when reporters began tracking rumors. I don’t know if those distressed people exercised their options—to hold a press conference, hand out written statements, say “no comment.” One group did hire a security guard.
For me, it was startling to discover that in speaking with one reporter I might essentially be speaking to 20; that is, I was unaware of the transmissions of wire services and of affiliates within TV. Each time my comments were relayed, changes of context or wording could occur. Quotation marks were excessively and carelessly used.
Most reprehensible, though, was the Globe’s choice to publish a defamatory story attributed to anonymous sources—an account of alleged adultery that some readers still believe. True, I cite unidentified persons in this article. Yet their comments were private communications to me. Their viewpoints and roles are important, but not their names. In contrast, the Globe’s informants made statements for public consumption, but were unwilling to accept responsibility for them. Combined with market pressures to attract readers with sensational content, the use of such sources leads to a serious blurring of fact and fiction—an abrogation of responsibility to the public.
For my part, in identifying with journalists and in using reporters as quasi-therapists, I had been somewhat self-serving. Yet I also did some damage control, quashing at least one vicious rumor and diverting some pressure from those unwilling to speak. And I did contribute to several richly textured portraits of two remarkable people.
In crisis, I did the best I could. That realization brought peace.
Audrey McCollum is a retired psychotherapist and the author of five nonfiction books including “Smart Moves: Your Guide Through the Emotional Maze of Relocation,” and “Two Women, Two Worlds,” a memoir of her 16-year friendship with a mountain dweller in Papua New Guinea struggling to lead women into the modern world. This article is an expanded and updated version of “Mediatitis,” published in The Dartmouth on February 22, 2001.