From AJR, January/February 2000 issue
Death in Vegas
The fatal drug overdose and the suicide of two respected staffers stunned the Las Vegas Review-Journal's newsroom. The way the paper covered the tragedies raised serious questions.
By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (email@example.com) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.
ON AUGUST 22, 18 DAYS before he died, Rafael Tammariello published his last column decrying the war on drugs.
One of several libertarian voices on the decidedly conservative editorial page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Tammariello had written before about what he called the "failed war on stupidity." In May he had urged Oscar Goodman, who was about to be elected mayor of Las Vegas, to summon the courage to call for legalizing drugs.
In his final anti-drug-war column, Tammariello outdid himself. He compared the drug war to the Holocaust, its warriors to Nazis. "Drug users," Tammariello wrote, "are the Jews of 20th century America--hounded, persecuted, shipped off to prisons and labor camps by the hundreds of thousands. Like Hitler's anti-Jewish laws, our Drug War compels people into depravity and criminality--and then we persecute them on the grounds of their depraved criminality."
He called for a return to the sensibility of the 19th century, where opium dens were centrally located, heroin could be ordered through the mail and narcotics were purchased legally by the famous and the obscure. Drugs, he concluded, were a mere "eccentricity," "causing a 'problem' no more serious than skipping church."
Readers of the Review-Journal were to soon learn Tammariello was a man who lived what he professed. On the night of September 9, Tammariello's wife Joan, the training/systems editor for the Review-Journal newsroom, found her husband on the floor of their bathroom. Blood stained the crook of his left arm and the tip of a syringe that Las Vegas police investigators found in a wooden box on the bathroom counter near his body. The residue in the syringe was heroin.
Just hours after he had declined to write his close friend's obituary, Kenneth James Evans, a feature writer at the paper, shot himself in the head with a .38-caliber revolver. Evans' wife told police her husband "was extremely despondent over losing his friend and coworker, Rafael Tammariello," according to the police report. The report did not disclose the contents of a one-page note, written by Evans and found near his body.
Rarely has a newsroom suffered so much loss so publicly. Jane Ann Morrison, a veteran political reporter for the Review-Journal who took over the somber duty from Evans, says she sobbed through the reporting and the writing of Tammariello's obituary. Police reporter Glenn Puit, who assembled Evans' obit, says he seriously considered getting out of the business after writing a follow-up story detailing Tammariello's drug-related death. The paper's best-known columnists, John L. Smith and Jon Ralston, offered up written tributes to their colleagues before attending back-to-back funerals. Publisher Sherman Frederick hired a grief counselor, who conducted group and private sessions and remains to this day on retainer for the paper's 117 editorial employees.
For an excruciating week, the staff of the 158,541-circulation Review-Journal struggled through its anguish while continuing to produce stories for a city inured to excess. While city boosters are yoked, for better or worse, to the lurid image, many of the journalists on the R-J staff detest the Las Vegas stereotype that would have trivialized the deaths of their friends, Managing Editor Charles Zobell says. The leadership of the Donrey Media Group-owned newspaper decided early it would not let that happen, acquitting itself professionally, maybe even courageously, under the circumstances, Zobell says.
"I don't know that we would have handled it any differently than we did it," Zobell reflected two months later in a coffee shop booth at the Palace Station Hotel and Casino.
But the question, say observers and critics--the people Zobell has come to refer to as "our enemies"--is whether the paper should have handled it differently. The Review-Journal has taken fire for waiting nearly a week to report that Tammariello's death was drug-related, doing so only after a local television station broke the news. Some staffers are disappointed that, months after the traumatic deaths of two top writers, the paper had yet to do a major piece putting the tragedies in context. A former R-J reporter-turned-investigator complains that a proponent of drug legalization who died using heroin was lionized in a manner befitting a national hero.
"I've thought it over a hundred times and, given the dynamic of the situation, I don't know that I would have done anything differently," Puit said over lunch at a Caribbean restaurant in Las Vegas. "I don't think a single reader thought we should have handled these stories any differently. I believe deep down in my heart that we intended all along to cover these stories as news. But I think we became so distracted putting these people to rest that getting a newspaper out became secondary."
Crucial from the very start was an overarching desire to protect Joan Tammariello from any further hurt, Zobell says. Mary Hausch--a former managing editor of the Review-Journal, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a friend of Zobell's and others in the newsroom--says she believes this noble but misplaced desire compromised the coverage and the newspaper.
"Perhaps there is this loyalty to Joan, but you have to be willing to cover yourself like you would cover anybody else," Hausch says. "You have to be willing to ask yourself, 'Had any other public person died of a drug overdose, would you cover it in the same way?' I don't think the R-J can say they'd do it the same way."
Regardless, the deaths in Vegas and their aftermath shine a spotlight on the challenges of covering a story all-too-close to home while coping with the overwhelming grief of a newsroom in mourning.
RAFAEL TAMMARIELLO HAD A devoted following for his acerbic and incisive columns on the front of the R-J's Sunday Focus section. Those who agreed with nothing Tammariello wrote admired him for his clear, consistent thinking and prose. The announcement of his death brought accolades from local and state elected officials, who lauded his erudition and civility.
"Nobody called and asked me to say nice things," says former Nevada Gov. Bob Miller (D), now an attorney in Las Vegas. "It wasn't that I agreed with what he wrote. In fact, I almost never agreed with Rafe. It was that he was sincere in what he wrote."
In the column that led the Focus page the Sunday after the columnist died, the paper's editor and Tammariello's friend, Thomas Mitchell, wrote, "the collective intellectual candlepower of the city of Las Vegas dimmed" the night the 48-year-old columnist died.
Zobell described Tammariello as intellectual, introverted and respectful of the political opinions of others. Tammariello was generally well-liked throughout the newsroom, social but preferring to keep the company of a small group of close friends, he says.
Evans, 46, was less broadly known in the community and in the newsroom than Tammariello. Evans had once worked for the Nevadan, the now-defunct Review-Journal Sunday magazine, but he had left in 1992 to manage media relations for the Nevada Commission on Tourism. He returned early in 1998 to work with Special Projects Editor A.D. Hopkins on a three-section, 196-page project profiling 100 people central to the development of Las Vegas and southern Nevada.
The first section ran February 7, the second May 2 and the final installment on September 12, two days after Evans' suicide. The series, expected to be published as a book called "The First 100: Portraits of the Men and Women Who Shaped Las Vegas," played to Evans' gift for native Nevadan storytelling.
"K.J. was a gifted feature writer whose sense of humanity was matched only by his sense of humor," wrote columnist Smith. "Oh, how that man loved to laugh."
Evans was particularly valuable to the Review-Journal because he had served his apprenticeship at little Nevada newspapers in towns like Tonopah, Lovelock and Elko. He knew the Nevada the tourists who couldn't see past the lights on the Strip never see, Zobell says.
"Those were the stories he could tell," he continues. "He had a superb knowledge of Nevada. He appreciated the color of the state, and he could convey that in his stories. It's hard to find another like K.J. Evans."
To the small circle at the newspaper who had any contact with him, Evans seemed delighted to be able to harness what he did best for a project like "The First 100," Zobell says. That is what Evans allowed people at work to see. Because he worked from home and researched zealously at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, most of the staff knew little about him.
"Rafe's the one they knew," Zobell says. "That's part of the sadness, that people didn't know [Evans] better. He was so cheerful, so enthusiastic. It caught me off guard that there was so much pain in his life."
No one interviewed for this story admitted to knowing of the pain behind the laughter. Hopkins and Mitchell declined to be interviewed. Mitchell, who was close to both Evans and Tammariello, prohibited AJR from coming into the Review-Journal newsroom. City Editor Annette Caramia, Joan Tammariello's close friend, says, "I don't want to talk about my personal grief for some newspaper publication."
Joan Tammariello was also not ready. "It's too close to my husband's death for me to want to comment. I hope you can understand," she says. "I am trying to work here. You can understand how hard that might be, and it doesn't seem to be getting any easier."
ON THE NIGHT OF THURSDAY, September 9, Joan Tammariello made a 911 call around 7 p.m. and followed it with a call to Caramia. The Clark County coroner pronounced the columnist dead at 9:40 p.m. From the descriptions in the police report, it was clear Joan Tammariello made no attempt to hide the evidence of what the coroner would later conclude was a death by accidental "opiate intoxication."
The police report noted finding a spoon with residue in it near the wooden box where the bloodied syringe was found. Also near the box was a black substance on wax paper. Inside the box was a baggie containing "a green leafy substance" and two prescriptions for Valium, one for Tammariello and one for his wife. A Dr. Ramirez in Mexico prescribed the Valium for the Tammariellos, according to the report.
The report also noted that, in 1995, Tammariello had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempted possession of dangerous drugs after an arrest for possession of dangerous drugs and a forged prescription, both felonies. When asked by police whether she knew about her husband's drug use, Joan Tammariello said Rafael used to smoke opium, but she had not seen him do it recently. Rafael had been drinking heavily, she said, and had been depressed for about 18 months following the suicide of his daughter.
The Review-Journal deadline would have given the paper around two hours to report on Tammariello's death. Caramia, who had come to the Tammariello home, would have had to inform or have another editor inform a police reporter, who normally would not have asked about what appeared to be an accidental drug overdose or a suicide.
Caramia told at least one other editor about the columnist's death that night, but says "I recused myself from making decisions on this, because I was just too immersed in other things at the time. I certainly wouldn't second-guess what they decided to do on this."
What the newspaper did the first night was nothing. In the morning, according to several reporters who were in the newsroom, word of Tammariello's death began to circulate. Because of his age, rumors spread that he had died of a heart attack. The rumor became part of the first printed report on the death. Ed Koch of the Las Vegas Sun, the afternoon paper and the Review-Journal's partner in a joint operating agreement, reported in a short story that Tammariello had died of "an apparent heart attack." While Koch's story said the Clark County coroner confirmed the time of death, the coroner did not confirm the speculation in Koch's lead.
Review-Journal Editor Thomas Mitchell told readers in a September 26 column that he called Evans the morning after Tammariello's death to tell him the columnist had died. He asked Evans to accept the honor of writing his friend's obituary.
"I reasoned he had the time, the ability and the sensitivity to do justice to such a difficult and personally daunting task," Mitchell wrote.
"I was wrong. So damnably very wrong.
"K.J. broke down crying on the phone and said he could not handle the assignment. He had been too close to Rafe. I was unaware of other problems he was battling."
Mitchell turned to Morrison, who in 19 years with the Review-Journal had become a specialist in writing the obituaries of well-known political figures. As she worked through the day, Morrison did not learn the cause of death--but she did hear that the police report included mention of drug paraphernalia found near Tammariello's body.
Rather than track down the police report or pursue the drug angle, Morrison focused instead on collecting comment from Mitchell, Publisher Frederick and several of the state's top political figures.
Inside the newsroom a kind of catatonia set in, with people wandering by Morrison's desk to say how sorry they were that she had drawn the heartbreaking assignment.
"I do a good job with obituaries. I give you a good send-off. But I wasn't thrilled to get this one. I cried throughout the day," Morrison says. "In hindsight, I do wish I had put a simple sentence in saying that drug paraphernalia was found, but I was getting that information thirdhand. Am I beating myself up for not calling Joanie, who had the firsthand knowledge? Absolutely not. But I was probably not as aggressive as I should have been."
Before Morrison's obit had been put to bed that night, Evans also had died. The coroner pronounced him dead at 9:10 p.m. Friday, September 10, an apparent suicide. The Evans police report revealed Tammariello and Evans had shared not only friendship but depression and drug use. Evans' wife, Kathy Reardon, told police that Tammariello and Evans had on several occasions crossed into Mexico from San Diego to buy Valium. Police found a half-filled bottle of Depakote, an anti-depressant prescribed to Evans, and two empty Valium containers in the trash at his house.
But because the Tammariello and Evans police reports had not yet been read by Review-Journal reporters, readers, as well as most of the staff of the paper, had no idea just how tightly intertwined were their deaths. While Puit assembled a news obituary for Evans similar in tone to Morrison's for Tammariello, Mitchell was putting together a tribute that filled the R-J Focus section on Sunday, September 12.
Mitchell compared Tammariello's place in Las Vegas to H.L. Mencken's in Baltimore and Mike Royko's in Chicago, calling him "the scribe of its gamboling gospel and the champion of its contrariness." Columnist Ralston echoed what many on the staff thought of Tammariello: While they seldom agreed with him, they respected and liked him.
On the front of the Nevada section that Sunday was a column in which Smith admitted to readers that he was "awed by the irascible brilliance of Rafael Tammariello's intellect for nearly 15 years." Above Smith's column was Puit's obituary, disclosing Evans' suicide.
BUT THE REVIEW-JOURNAL had not yet reported the cause of Tammariello's death, a fact that caught the attention of Glen Meek, an investigative reporter with KTNV-TV (Channel 13) in Las Vegas. He began to suspect that Tammariello had died from something other than a heart attack. Still, Meek says he had higher priorities early in the week.
"On Wednesday I had run out of excuses, and I called the cops to ask for the report," Meek says. "They said, 'That's funny, you're the first person to ask for this.' "
On Wednesday night, September 15, Meek led his report with the irony that a columnist who had battled for drug legalization had died of a drug overdose. Meek's story hewed to the facts disclosed in the police report. They were the same facts Puit got when he picked up the Tammariello report that same day. In fact, Meek and Puit, who had been friendly, passed each other in the hallway at the police department. Each reporter knew why the other was there.
After seeing Meek's report, Puit was furious. "It made me sick to my stomach," Puit says. "The way he did it, using Rafe's column, was all self-promotion. I usually respect what Glen Meek does. He's a good reporter. But this went too far."
After replaying the tape of his report two months later, Meek defended the reporting. The connection between Tammariello's columns and his manner of death was more important to the story than his place as a public figure in Las Vegas, he says. Never once did Meek consider using some of the more notorious television tabloid methods, he insists.
"There were no shots of me standing over the corpse, no shots of me getting thrown out of the R-J trying to get comment. I wasn't doing Sam Donaldson," he says. "If I had wanted to, I could have gone over to the victim's house and gotten shots of me knocking on the door."
At least as galling for Puit--whose story ran the following day--was the impression that a TV station goaded the Review-Journal into giving up unpleasant details about one of its own. The newspaper had earlier decided to wait until the coroner's office completed its toxicology report on Tammariello. The toxicology testing alone is a warning to a reporter, but a check of the police report would have provided a clear indication of what toxicology was looking for.
"It was a simple, stupid mistake," Puit says. "The most basic thing you can do is get the police report, but we had no idea [of] the cause of Rafe's death. You always expect tox to take weeks to confirm anything.
"We hardly ever get beat on a story, but we got beat on this one. You know, this sounds funny, but this might not be the worst story to get beat on.... I don't think a lot of people in the newsroom care whether we got beat on that story or not."
As for what he did report, Puit says, "Maybe this is going to sound self-serving, but I think I was the only one who had the guts to do the [Tammariello drug death story] after everything that had already happened. People were legitimately worried other people in the newsroom were going to blow their brains out. The newspaper business is already a depressing business. I had to take a day off after I wrote the [Tammariello story]. It put me in a two-week depression."
REVIEW-JOURNAL STAFFERS might not have cared that they had been beaten on the story, but some Las Vegas journalists outside the newsroom did.
In a four-paragraph brief September 16 for Media Watch, a regular feature in the weekly alternative newspaper CityLife, Managing Editor Geoff Schumacher reported Tammariello had died of a suspected heart attack and Evans of a self-inflicted gunshot. The following week, Media Watch reported the details Meek and Puit had reported. And a week after that, Schumacher ran a commentary by Al Tobin, an investigator in the Federal Public Defender's Office in Las Vegas and a much-respected former Review-Journal reporter.
Tobin excoriated Tammariello for "profound intellectual and journalistic dishonesty," for writing about legalizing drugs without admitting he was a user. He was the writer of the kind of editorials "that left you wondering if they were written by a right-wing Libertarian on smack," he wrote. After apologizing for any feelings he might have hurt, Tobin concluded the column hoping Tammariello was "someplace where your soul is being bathed in God's warm, loving light, and the smell of death and drugs no longer surrounds you."
Tobin apologizes for neither the tone nor the message. As far he is concerned, Tammariello and the Review-Journal had it coming after a Sunday, September 26, column written by Mitchell with the headline "Reporting honestly in the face of grief."
"Were they guilty of covering up anything? No, I don't think that at all," Tobin says. "They were guilty of overkill. What frustrated me was the pedestal they put him on. I understand he's one of your own. A little tribute is all right. But three columns and all the politicians saying these glowing things. I don't think Mother Teresa got that much ink when she died."
Miller, who served as governor of Nevada for 10 years, says he believed the Review-Journal accorded Tammariello a tribute commensurate with his importance to its readers. And although he didn't know about the heroin overdose at the time, Miller's eulogy for Tammariello would not have changed had he known beforehand, he says.
"As bizarre as it sounds, I think the way he died probably establishes his sincerity," Miller says. "He lived what he believed. I think it makes him the opposite of a phony. It also makes me more fortified in my opposition to what Rafe espoused."
In his September 26 column, Mitchell acted as a kind of compassionate ombudsman, walking readers through the decisions he made in covering the deaths. He challenged the external and internal whispers that the paper withheld the police reports. And he attempted to sweep away the contention of Tobin and Meeks that Tammariello compromised his libertarian views by the way he died. He did not, however, explain to readers why the newspaper took six days to pick up a police report that would have confirmed what several people in the newsroom knew from the day Tammariello died.
"There is no rulebook for how to commit journalism," Mitchell told readers. "It is truly the first and last bastion of situational management. All things are relative. No decision is completely right or utterly wrong. One can defend or condemn either side of an argument as to what to report and when."
The decisions were made, he wrote, about friends and co-workers "who died too young and incomprehensibly.
"This double shock enveloped the newsroom in suffocating numbness. There were the usual feelings of grief, disbelief, blame, self-blame, guilt, self-doubt, and, yes, anger. The devastation was compounded by the fact that Rafael's wife, Joan, is a longtime Review-Journal employee."
Publisher Frederick came to Joan Tammariello as a friend on the night her husband died. The decisions Frederick made in the aftermath were made to protect and comfort Joan and the rest of the staff, he says. He says he is incensed that the newspaper was portrayed as negligent in its coverage and wounded that critics failed to consider the circumstances.
The newspaper's critics "missed the story," Frederick says. "It's a story about a newsroom that got knocked on its ass and is still trying to recover from it." To assist in the recovery, Frederick moved quickly to bring into the newsroom Steven C. Kalas, an Episcopal priest and grief specialist. Kalas met with editors and managers on the Monday after the deaths and told them to look out for absenteeism, missed deadlines, short tempers and a general malaise that is the first sign of clinical hysteria.
The first group session drew about 10 people, Kalas says. While protecting the confidentiality of individuals, Kalas says group members had difficulty reconciling the professional images of Tammariello and Evans with the manner of their deaths. He assured the group that both men had demons and that there was no shame in being unable to reverse the fatal decisions they made.
Private, individual sessions with employees followed. In all, about 15 percent of the staff met with him, no better or worse than in the corporations and the schools he has visited in the wake of other tragedies. Internally, the newspaper is doing about as well as can be expected, Kalas says. Some dealt with the shock of having learned of the deaths by reading it in the paper.
Kalas says the paper moved quickly, as it should have, to disseminate the news to its employees but should have moved more rapidly in its reporting. The newsroom didn't need to add professional doubt to personal agony, he says.
"Anecdotally, I know staffers who were aware of all of this from the start," Kalas says. "There had been discussion of the cause of Rafe's death among staff members before they saw the cause of his death in the paper. They knew something was awry, and I think some were looking for answers. Whether or not the newsroom is divided over how the paper covered these deaths, I can't say."
BONNIE BUCQUEROUX ISN'T so sure the paper has been as sensitive as it should be, either to its employees or to its readership. Bucqueroux, the coordinator for the Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University's School of Journalism, says the Review-Journal has left its reporters with at least two dilemmas.
If the paper pulled any punches to protect staffers, will the newspaper apply its usual standard or its exception when reporting the next time on a peccadillo or tragedy involving a public figure? Bucqueroux asks. One standard is not necessarily better than the other, she says, but the Review-Journal risks its credibility by failing to be consistent.
Newspapers should not choose to be more compassionate, says Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. No one would suggest papers refrain from doing stories on child abuse, racism or sexual assault because they are hurtful, he says. And although there has been no suggestion of it, what if, through its benign neglect, the Review-Journal ignored the possibility of heroin dealing or other criminal activity in its newsroom? Gottlieb asks.
"Sometimes this job hurts," Gottlieb says. "While it is probably human nature to protect or think you are protecting your own, a newspaper doesn't do itself any favors by not reporting or delaying the reporting of something it knows it should report. We as journalists don't deserve special treatment by affording ourselves special standards. In my mind, they took advantage of an incident to go all touchy-feely when they have left a lot of issues unexamined."
Gottlieb also struck at Bucqueroux's second dilemma--deciding what moral obligation a newspaper has to find meaning in tragic stories. Bucqueroux teaches a model for newspaper coverage in three acts: the initial coverage; the inevitable follow-up; and, finally, the story or stories that place the horror in its human context.
"It is our contention that if we are to delve into the lives of individual victims, it needs to be done for a purpose," she says. "There is a nobility in Act Three stories, and newspapers have a vested interest in doing them."
A review of what followed the initial reporting in Las Vegas suggests that the local newspapers and television stations covered the stories in a straight, albeit delayed, fashion in Act One. The Review-Journal Act Two follow-up ended September 22 with a four-paragraph story, on page 9 of the B section, on a Clark County coroner's ruling that Tammariello died of an accidental drug overdose. After its initial heart attack story, the Las Vegas Sun ran an editorial tribute to Tammariello and Evans and two Associated Press stories on the police report disclosures and the suicide of Evans. Meek did not deem the Tammariello story significant enough to follow.
The relative silence of the Las Vegas Sun was perhaps the most surprising, given the animosity between the two newspapers and their editors, Mitchell and Sun Editor Brian Greenspun. Or perhaps not. Sun Managing Editor Michael J. Kelley, who was in charge of the coverage, says he didn't believe the two Review-Journal employees were big enough public figures to merit more coverage. Besides, Kelley says, he has no taste for trashing the dead.
"Then we would have had everybody doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons," Kelley says. "I was taught that the people who read obituaries keep them as family treasures. I'm not here to trash Tammariello and Evans. I'm here to write news stories."
The Sun took a stab at an Act Three news story on October 24. Kim Smith wrote a lengthy piece on the rise of heroin deaths and the spread of addiction in Las Vegas. Smith mentioned Tammariello and Evans once in paragraph nine and never again.
One Review-Journal reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, says she is hopeful the paper can reach the place where it can write in depth about what happened.
Natalie Patton, an education reporter for the Review-Journal and a longtime colleague of Joan Tammariello, expressed her disappointment that some fellow staffers found out about the writers' deaths by reading about it in the newspaper or seeing the KTNV-TV story. "I can't understand why Mitch [Editor Mitchell] won't talk about it, and I told him so," Patton says. "We preach openness. We demand openness as reporters. We should be willing to talk about this openly."
BUT WHILE FREDERICK told a Review-Journal newsroom gathering that there would come a time for the paper to tell its story, Zobell says that time wouldn't be soon. "It is still pretty raw, and our biggest worry is still for Joan," he says. "We'd like for her to be comfortable here. We want very much for Joan to stay with the Review-Journal. She's a very important part of our staff, and we like her very much."
Joan Tammariello is unlikely to suffer from public scrutiny, according to almost everyone familiar with the story. In a town where murder and drug abuse are commonplace, in a state with the nation's second-highest suicide rate, Tammariello and Evans "were a blip on the screen and gone," former Review-Journal Managing Editor Hausch says. "The public didn't care about it more than 15 minutes after it happened."
Nor was Hausch surprised that no one wrote to the newspapers questioning the coverage. This semester, Hausch had to convince some of the students in her media ethics class that Tammariello ought to be covered. The consensus had been that he had a right to privacy, she says.
"Journalists hold people to higher ethical standards every day. They don't allow people ethical lapses," Hausch says. "You can use the cloak around Joanie to cover your ethical lapses, and maybe the public wasn't paying attention this time. But you have to be careful because you don't ever know which ethical lapse is going to blow up on you."