Intrusion Alarm

Kobe Bryant. OJ Simpson. Robert Blake. Scott Peterson. Michael Jackson.

The list goes on — a roll call of the disgraced.

Rapists and murderers and molesters, oh my! What hath California wrought. (I can safely say this because I’m writing from the smug and secure East Coast.)

And what hath so-called journalists done to themselves as they pry into bedrooms and love nests, poke down dark alleyways and bright boulevards, cozy up to prosecutors and defense attorneys, analyze DNA with the cockiness of whiz kid grad students and generally turn once-in-a-while respectable journalism into a three-ring free-for-all that’s better left to latter-day Walter Winchells or Hedda Hoppers?

When we’re not down in the dumps about Al Qaeda or about another four years of Bush & Co., then we’re moping about our country’s obsessions with scandals and the sorry condition of the reporters who earn their wages by them. These people have raised voyeurism to a new level. They poke around, usually not invited and occasionally undesired. They listen to others’ worries and woes, prodding them into revealing their deepest secrets and intimacies. They’re delirious with anticipation of the stories they’ll be telling and the headlines they’ll be seeding.

But there are many dangers when burrowing your way into other people’s business. You can’t seem overeager, or people will treat you like a lovesick puppy. You can’t seem too reluctant, or people will think you don’t give a damn. You can’t hang around too much, or people will tire of you quickly. You can’t remain in the background, or people won’t remember you.

This is especially true if an editor back at the home office is hounding you to get the goods — and get the dirt. But even a reporter who’s under the most grievous pressure has to maintain his humanity and his decency and be a mensch. He can’t succumb to expediency and convenience. A certain prophet who is not studied in journalism school (not that any of them are) alluded to the qualities of a mensch. “He hath shown thee … what is good,” Micah said, “and what doth the Lord require of thee: to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Journalists may not think about God (unless, maybe, they’re on the religion beat), but their calling card should be justice, mercy and humility. If it was, maybe more people would trust them. And maybe journalism, in general, would have a better reputation, especially in the current 24/7 news cycle.

I have a certain familiarity with the dance of manners and ethics involved in covering a sensational story. While writing a book about Fred Neulander, the New Jersey rabbi convicted for hiring a hitman to kill his wife, Carol, I had to comport myself with the finest delicacy, not as a ploy, but as a way to preserve my own humanity in the face of Neulander’s monstrosity. I allowed myself only so much emotional trespassing. While I wanted to hear their story, I never imposed myself on the rabbi’s children. They’d suffered too much to put up with an outsider like me.

I also didn’t wish to impose myself on Carol’s three siblings. Their pain, too, was incalculable. But they were in a slightly different category than the Neulander children — while also contemptuous of the rabbi, at least they didn’t have to wrestle with the double horror of their father killing their mother. What developed was a relationship that was respectful, yet wary; they understood my purpose in telling this story, and they cooperated — to a point. Beyond that, they kept their own counsel, as well they should, for certain pains are too personal to be entrusted to anyone, especially a virtual stranger.

There was a third tier of people with whom I needed to talk: detectives, lawyers, neighbors and jurors, friends who’d known Neulander or his wife since childhood; congregants who’d sat through Neulander’s sermons, bared their souls to him in his office or trusted him to transmit Jewish values and Jewish ethics to their children.

This tier was the easiest to crack. These people were the least personally involved with the case. With them, I could use the journalist’s usual frontal assault: introduce yourself on the phone and hope for the best. That worked most of the time.

Primarily, I learned, as a writer, that if you live with a crime long enough, it seeps into you. You cry at the trials. You hug the siblings of the victim, and they hug you. You keep your distance. You know that the best thing most of the time is just to keep your trap shut and let people talk when they feel it is safe for them to talk — or when they feel they can do nothing but talk.

In the end, you become nothing but present: you are in this moment because, as awful as it may be, there is no other moment. You may still be an intruder, but perhaps not as much as you’d initially feared. Your refusal to leave the story to go onto happier, more buoyant enterprises, brands you with legitimacy and a dedication that draws people to you, even those whose privacy you were so careful not to “violate” at the outset of your work.

True, I was in a separate category than the daily journalists who follow murders and fallen celebrities. With time on my side, I could slowly and gently cultivate tips and sources. That’s the relative luxury of book writing vs. a daily deadline. But the underlying dynamics of justice, mercy and humility should apply across the board. Without them, we succumb to the unruliness of ambition and the insularity of our egos.

Arthur J. Magida’s “The Rabbi and The Hit Man” (HarperCollins) has just been released in paperback. He is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore.