On the morning of May 25, 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz left his Manhattan apartment to catch the school bus and was never seen again. The case was cold for decades, until a suspect came forward last year and confessed to the crime. A trial is set to begin this January, though the authorities are still evaluating the credibility of the suspect’s confession, as well as his mental capacity. Tragic and heartbreaking though it was and remains for Etan’s loved ones, the boy’s disappearance helped spark the Missing Children’s movement; new state and federal legislation soon provided additional resources for preventing and prosecuting such cases. Etan’s picture, in fact, was the first picture of a missing child to appear on milk cartons, perhaps the most visible component of the new public awareness campaign.
The public outcry that prompted policy makers to act was orchestrated in part by the local and national media. Chief among Etan’s champions was John Slattery, a reporter at WCBS-TV, the CBS network affiliate in New York City. Every autumn for almost 30 years, John filed a story on the progress (or lack thereof) of the boy’s case. A parent of three, John approached the story with a father’s heart as well as the keen eye and inquiring mind of a seasoned broadcast journalist.
John Slattery died of a sudden heart attack last week at the age of 63, one month short of his 30th anniversary at WCBS. During the course of his 40 years in broadcasting, John chronicled the triumphs, tragedies and foibles of the city that never sleeps. A four-time Emmy winner, he was one of the first reporters to arrive at ground zero on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, just in time to watch the second plane strike the World Trade Center. He was also there after the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. He braved the elements to cover the blizzard of February 1994 and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
We knew John at America from the many interviews he conducted here over the years, the last one in the office where I write this column. He had come here to talk to me about America’s interview with Pope Francis. His viewers would not have known it, of course, but the papal interview was not just another story for John. He was a man of deep faith and, like so many of us, was deeply moved by the new pope’s words and actions. By sheer coincidence, John was a parishioner at the church in Larchmont, N.Y., where I say Mass a few times a month. I got to know him better there, as well as his lovely wife, Suzie, who was with him when he passed.
John would have loved this issue of America. A lifelong student of politics, he would have liked seeing these two political titans from opposite sides of the aisle talking about the pope, the poor and the proper role of government. “That’s a good story,” I’m sure he would have said.
“You know what I admire about you,” I told John after Mass one Sunday. “During the week you might be interviewing a president or a master criminal, or covering a distant war or a major political campaign; but on most Sundays, no matter what, you’re here working as a lector, worshipping with your fellow Catholics.” He laughed and said, “Father, here I get to read the good news.” That was John: big-hearted, faithful, fast with a quip, down to earth. I don’t know who’ll cover the Etan Patz case this winter, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it with as much intelligence and humanity as John Slattery did. Many people criticize television news, mainly for being shallow or sensational or just plain unhelpful. Some of that is obviously true. But like most things human, television journalism can also be noble and beautiful and true. That’s still possible, though, in my humble opinion, it just got a lot harder.