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DMN Goes Gratuitous With Battaglia Murder Story

Battaglia
Shortly after I hired on at D Magazine, in 2001, a manuscript came across my desk. Someone at the magazine, probably Wick, had hired a freelancer to write about three recent high-profile murders, all involving family members or people who were romantically involved. I forget the details of two of the murders, but the third was John Battaglia’s filicide. He shot two of his daughters while their mother listened to the horror on the phone. Our story related the gruesome facts of that unimaginable scene and the particulars of the other two murders. It wasn’t a work of art, this story. I’ll never forget the last line (even if I can’t recall two of the names). It went like this: “One thing the [name], [name], and Battaglia murders show is that killing your loved ones doesn’t solve your problems.”

I told Wick that we should spike the story. There was no point to printing it — other than to drag out the corpses so that people could gawk and cringe. Wick agreed. And here I should mention that Wick knows (knew?) Battaglia. Wick’s daughter Loddie and Battaglia’s daughter Faith were good friends. They played together at each other’s houses. Battaglia drove carpool.

So on Friday, when I saw Channel 5 tease an upcoming death-row-interview story in the Morning News about Battaglia, my interest was piqued. There was the one degree of separation thing. There was the story I’d worked on more than a decade ago. And this was the first time I’d seen the fruits of the new union of Channel 5 and the News.

The story published Sunday. It was the centerpiece of the front page. And it never should have seen print.

If you are going to put the face of a child killer on the front page of 360,000 newspapers 13 years after the crime, then you’d better have a good reason to do it. Mary Jean Pearle, the mother of those two girls, declined to comment for the News story, but when Battaglia was sentenced, she told him in court that he was worse than Hitler and Dahmer and that she hoped he’d burn in hell. From what I can tell, Pearle still lives in Dallas. Is there a grocery store in town that she could have gone to this weekend without seeing that man in the checkout line? And then, in a picture beneath him, her two smiling daughters? Pearle is just one person in town who surely felt sick at the sight of John Battaglia.

Here is the justification that writer Sarah Mervosh and her editors offered for the story in the News. The lead talks about the two rose tattoos Battaglia got, one for each daughter, immediately after killing them. Then, starting with the fourth paragraph, the story reads:

As part of a yearlong “Deadly Affection” series, the Dallas Morning News recently interviewed Battaglia and two other inmates convicted of domestic murders to better understand the mindsets and motivations of such killers.

Experts say Battaglia likely felt trapped by his own mistakes and feared losing the people he loved most. So he killed them — a perplexing mentality that experts say is common among domestic murderers. Another inmate, struggling with mental problems, strangled his girlfriend. The third shot a longtime boyfriend while high on methamphetamine.

Though their motives were varied and complex, this much is clear: Domestic killers don’t just kill someone they are supposed to love. In their world, the love they feel is real. But so is the hate. The anger. The shame. Those feelings trump all else — even love — because in the minds of domestic killers, no one’s needs are more important than their own.

It’s a weak justification, and it’s an even weaker conclusion. Later in the piece, Mervosh quotes a criminologist talking about one of the other two murderers, the one who was high on meth during his crime. The criminologist says, “None of us are perfect. Even if the victim did things — they were taking drugs or they cheated on their partner — that doesn’t mean that you deserve to die.” This is true. Also true: killing your loved ones doesn’t solve your problems.

Online, the News gave the story the “Snow Fall” treatment, which is the universal signal in today’s print world that the editors are super proud of a story. The additional images are even more offensive. In one, Battaglia strikes a decidedly playful pose, crossing his legs at the knee, shooting a coy smile over his shoulder through the bullet-proof glass of his interview stall. It’s appalling.

Sarah Mervosh is a good, young reporter. Her work on the West explosion, in particular, stood out. She recently won an award for a profile she wrote. But this story about the three murderers was a mistake. We don’t learn anything. We just get purple prose — the girls “were rendered lifeless by a cascade of bullets on a spring evening in 2001” — and the sense that folks at the paper were giddy that they got three jailhouse interviews. Each killer was mentally unhinged and/or smoking meth. Their mindsets were crazy and high. Trotting out the murders all these years later isn’t a lesson. It’s sensationalism. The victims, the families of the victims, and the readers — we all deserve better.

  • kk.

    THANK YOU Tim! I couldn’t agree more. Back when this happened, Battaglia and his lawyer were putting together their defense and were interviewing investigators. A guy I know went in to speak with them, within a minute he knew he wanted no part of it. Before he left he asked Battaglia why he did it. The smug, offhanded response was, “the bitch was using the kids as weapons, I disarmed her.” The DMN gives this cold blooded child murderer this attention now? Despicable.

  • The Grammar Belle

    Amen.

  • Erick

    Another anti-DMN post, eh? What’s wrong, are they eating too much of your ad dollar lunch lately? Or is this about settling scores on behalf of your publisher (again)? Can’t he do his own dirty work?

  • Tim Rogers

    Presumably, Erick, I couldn’t do media criticism unless I worked at KERA or some other nonprofit? I read the paper. I have thoughts about what I read. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

  • Erick

    I asked about the why (i.e. your motivations), not the what (i.e. your right to criticize).

  • Dubious Brother

    ” Each killer was mentally unhinged and/or smoking meth.” Don’t you have to be mentally unhinged to smoke meth in the first place?
    I haven’t read any of the DMN article but maybe they are running it in support of the death penalty since my question is why is Battaglia still breathing?

  • Tim Rogers

    Oh, okay. Let me try to answer your question, then.

    Our publisher is Jennifer LeBlanc. Our owner is Wick Allison. Neither asked me to settle a score (again). I wrote this post because I am constitutionally incapable of reading something in the local media that I feel is flawed and NOT commenting on it. I wrote this post because without criticism bad work of all sorts would be allowed to flourish. I’m not qualified to give my opinion on dance or music or architecture or visual art. But I know something about journalism and writing. I wrote this post because I want our city’s paper to do a better job. I wrote this post because I think a public conversation about the paper’s shortcomings has a better chance of leading to improvement than would a private email to an editor or writer.

    Finally, I wrote this post because when I saw that story in the paper, I thought about Mary Jean Pearle in the grocery store, and that made me mad.

  • john

    I think Tim is selling this story short. I was thinkning about killing my family until I read Sarah’s piece. Good thing she wrote it. Also probably wont give any ideas to lonely depressed psychotic people craving any kind of attention.

  • Bill Marvel

    Murder, especially murder of loved ones, is perhaps the most mysterious crime of all. More than random killings of strangers or killings for gain, such stories trouble us. We talk about them, we read about them.
    The DMN series does not solve the mystery. There is perhaps no way of solving the mystery. But it frames the question again and forces us to consider it. What kind of person could do this? Is he somehow just different from the people that I know, from myself? In what way?

    No story that does that is ever gratuitous.

    It’s one thing if the story is just poorly written and fails to engage the reader. But that doesn’t seem to be your complaint here, Tim. Your complaint seems to be that it was written at all.

  • Brett Moore

    Is this going to end up in the “if it saves the life of one child” line of argument?

  • Tim Rogers

    Time plays a role, in my mind, Bill. Posing those questions, even if they’re futile, in the wake of the crime seems worthwhile. That wake doesn’t last for 13 years, though, especially when the questions have no real anwers. To seek out the murderers, to say to them, “You killed someone. What were you THINKING?” to splash the story on the front page of the Sunday paper, to publish glamor shots of a child killer (“Okay, now let’s try one of you sitting on the counter, maybe with the glasses and looking over your shoulder? Oh, yes, that’s great!”) — nope. Gratuitous. Poor judgment. Shouldn’t have happened.

  • khenk

    I was a friend of Michelle’s (John’s previous wife) when she met John, had a whirlwind courtship and married John, when she gave birth to their daughter, and when he beat her to a pulp and she was hospitalized for days… My heart sank when I saw John’s picture on the front page. I dont know if death row inmates have access to newspapers (I assume not) but I can assure you he’s loving the attention! It made my skin crawl – and like you, I can’t come up with any legitimate reason to rehash that awful, awful story.

    Frankly, Tim, I think that you sometimes get a little petty where DMN is concerned, but in this instance, I think you are spot on.

  • jethro

    Anti DMN post, eh? No just a fucked up pointless story Erick, eh?

  • Christine Allison

    Completely disagree. This article did not perform a noble, elevated purpose. This is a newspaper. There was no news here. It did not frame a question again, it just told a terrible story again. With this logic, the DMN could re-run every single bizarre murder story so we could ponder what kind of person could do this? I am very close to this story, so would be quick to take issue in any case. But you have not made the case that this story is anything but gratuitous.

  • Media Gal

    Dallas desperately needs better coverage and analysis of our local media. But Tim’s missives distract rather than add to the conversation about local journalism. There’s a troubling intellectually dishonesty in his ongoing criticism of The Dallas Morning News, not the least of which is because his employer competes ferociously with several DMN media properties for ad dollars, readers, specialty publications and business influence. 

  • Tim Rogers

    So you’re with Erick (commenter above). I can’t engage in criticism of local media unless I’m unemployed or employed by a nonprofit. Sorry, that’s not reasonable.

    Take issue with my argument, not my employer.

  • Media Gal

    That’s than an excellent fake argument used as a redirection. You have a great future in PR. Also, thank you for being able to separate your beliefs from your company’s business interests. The independent voice is rare in the world of city magazines.

  • Annie

    Oh come on people. Do you not have any sense of empathy for the mother who so horribly lost her children? How does a woman or anyone ever recover from hearing something so heinous? Yes, the human spirit is full of resilience….but like Tim pointed out, should she really be forced to see that man’s smirk on the front of her city’s newspaper? Can’t we let her live in some sort of peace?

    Take time to critique Tim on things, sure, but in this case, he very solemnly points out how it’s the memory of these girls and helping their mother find solace in her life that are the real reasons why this article was so misguided.

    Also, isn’t it known that murderers often seek notoriety for their crimes? This series of articles seems to give the bad guys just what they seek.

    And the photos of him were downright creepy.

  • Bill Marvel

    “Also, isn’t it known that murderers often seek notoriety for their crimes? This series of articles seems to give the bad guys just what they seek. ”
    Isn’t it time bury this tired old piece of pop psychology?
    No writer I know of writes about murders in order to give the murderers notoriety, to glamorize them or satisfy their need for the spotlight. We write about murders for the same reason we write about any extreme human activity. Because it is a mystery, perhaps the ultimate mystery. Because it is profoundly disturbing, and therefore demands to be examined clearly and honestly. Not with eyes averted.
    If for one reason or another the writer is not up to he job, the result may sensationalize the crime or the criminal. But if the writer IS up to the job, the result can be illuminating and cathartic. Such writing is always “news,”no matter when the murder happened.
    Without attempting to judge this particular story — I’ll leave that to Tim — the non-fiction writer who chooses murder as her subject faces special problems. Those who knew the victims — or the killer — may still be alive. Old wounds may be reopened. (This was Tim’s problem with the piece.)
    But murder is, by definition, a public act. It requires a reaction from us, whether we care to give one or not. Blood cries out, as they used to say, if not for vengeance, then for understanding, and if not for understanding, then for acknowledgement. (You can be sure that, though they may not have wanted to see it in print, every one who knew the kiiler or his victims talked about this crime endlessly, compulsively. We humans are wired that way. It’s one of the very things that binds us together,)
    It is not – cruel as this sounds – the writer’s work to supply solace to the victims or their families. We are interested in closure only as it may or may not become a part of the story. We are not therapists, nor should we seek to be. Good therapy often ends up as bad writing. A writer’s role is to see clearly and to think deeply. And to write well. Only then will our work have any real value.

  • Tim Rogers

    I suppose I’m a bit less romantic about the role of the writer, Bill. Very little writing rises to the level of art. Most of it is craft. It’s a trade. And, like every trade, it should be practiced responsibly.

    Forget generalities about why writers write and why we should tell stories about murders. How did THIS story illuminate? What catharsis could it possibly have provided? I agree that a writer should see clearly and think deeply and write well. That is why I think this story has no value.

    Otherwise, yes, in general, I agree with everything you said. I really do.

  • Brett Moore

    But, what if it saves the life of just one child? JUST ONE!

  • Long Memory

    I’m a pro-choice, pro-Death Penalty Christian, and I embraced the conundrum of that. But I would give up the Death Penalty in a second for a law that says that when you go to prison for Life With No Parole, that your name is never again printed or broadcast. I just couldn’t read that article about that murdering Battaglia, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that there’s nothing new there. What is it? Sweeps already? Let these people be blotted out. If they find Jesus, let that be between them and Him; I don’t want to read about it. I agree with those who say that the piece was despicable. I hope that good young writer feels good about herself, though.

  • kk.

    I read the story because I assumed that there must be some newsworthy development for them to put that LARGE picture of that monster on the front page. I don’t know the mother of the murdered girls but I lived in the same community and we have many mutual friends and acquaintances. When this happened it was devastating, gut wrenching. No one who knew her or the girls will ever forget. We followed the news stories at the the time looking for a WHY and hoping he would be locked up forever. It was NEWS at the time, I read what was printed and I remember.
    Nothing in that article brought a shred of new information to the table. Nothing. Zip. Battaglia is sitting in jail where he belongs rotting away – we knew that. He must’ve been excited to hear from reporters again. To be photographed and hear that his picture was going to in the paper again. And to know that this being dredged up again would allow him to cause more pain to his victim, after all these years he got a vehicle to wave his crime in his ex-wifes face. To again, even from jail, hurt the person he set out to hurt once again. A good day for John Battagia, thanks to the DMN story. And once again – WHAT was the point again? People that kill their families are bad. But they loved them! WTF is the point again? I don’t care if Tim has an ax to grind or not, I’m glad someone is saying out loud that this was $hitty reporting, all it did was give murderers attention with no real purpose.

  • Dubious Brother

    I agree that this article should never have been written and the 3 subjects should not be around to be interviewed. I find it curious that the author chose 3 white murderers to write an article about somehow linking lingering love to the killing ( I have not read the article but have seen the pictures and headlines).
    Is this reflective of the DMN readership?
    Did the author ignore the fact that Black women are 3 times more likely to be victims of relationship murders than other races?
    Was the author afraid to talk to Black people?
    Does the author feel that Black people are incapable of love?
    Are all the Black murderers from 13 years ago already put to death?
    Was the DMN afraid to do the article about Black people in fear of the racist accusation?

  • Long Memory

    I’d like to ask also, Just What are They Thinking down on Young Street? They apparently have a “section” on domestic violence. Mmmmmm. Can’t wait. And why didn’t they write a piece about the University Park guy, back about the same time as Battaglia, who strangled his wife with a lamp cord, as I recall. I think he’s still doing time in South Texas. Why not him? Perhaps that one hit too close to home?

  • Long Memory

    It was Patrick Timothy Richardson, who got 60 years for strangling and slashing the throat of his wife IN FRONT OF THEIR KIDS. That was 1999. Why not mention of him?It appears he’s in the lockup at Beaumont. Not that this would have made what the DMN did into a story, mind you.