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The way we are

What if you were born in the early 1950s in Eastern Montana and, by the mid-1980s, are a reporter for the Billings Gazette? There, at Montana's largest newspaper, you became a bit of a nerd. It isn’t enough to write your stories on those early dumb computer terminals that are popping up in newsrooms over the country. No, you must get and learn how to use one of those slick new notebook computers, the term used before “laptop” came into common use to describe a computer someone could pack up and take anywhere.

After all, a notebook computer equipped with an acoustic modem will allow you to type a story on location, then find a phone to blast your words at 300 bits per second back to the home office for editing and publication. No more are you at the mercy of high school kids taking your dictation over the phone and mangling people's names and other elements of your prize-winning prose. And what if you are just enough of an independent cuss to not want to use a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 computer, a “Trash 80” as thousands of journalists lovingly called the machine. These have to be checked out from the Gazette's slim supply. No, you have to buy a portable computer of your own, first, something called an Epson HX-20. Then, when the upgraded Epson PX-8 came out, you have to get one of these beauties from the downtown Billings shop that carried them.

The PX-8 puts you in serious nerd territory. It uses a version of the CP/M operating system, it has a built-in microcassette drive to store files on tape, and you can see your work on an 80-column by eight-line display. And for someone who makes his living by slinging words, you can set up this computer for word processing with the Portable Wordstar program. Wow!

And then, by about 1987, your budding interest in personal computers leads you to meet a fellow Epson PX-8 enthusiast in Billings. So, one Sunday afternoon that year, you drive to the home of Chris Dennis and spent a couple of hours talking about computers. You learn that Chris is an anesthesiologist at Billings Deaconess Hospitals, one of two large hospitals in the city.

You don’t give your passing encounter with Chris Dennis much thought until about two years. That's when, on Tuesday, December 7, 1989, you open the Gazette and read this headline: “Billings man kills family, himself.” And you realize that you rubbed shoulders with a murderer, a man who hid a history of spousal abuse in Alaska and Montana behind the facade of medical professionalism until finally evil broke through on a winter weekend just outside Billings, beyond its fast-growing West End.

Now, 33 years later, the memory lingers. You think of what Chris Dennis did, how he shot and stabbed his wife and her two young daughters by a previous marriage to death, then committed suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning. The memory doesn’t haunt you. It doesn't keep you awake at night. It makes you say that some people are skilled to a high degree at deceiving others. Even someone like you, a reporter educated to seek facts and conditioned by decades of experience to exercise healthy skepticism about human nature, while not sinking into the corrosive cynicism he had witnessed in one or two of his reporter colleagues.

How indeed.

And then you think of one of the two Gazette reporters who covered the murder-suicide story. And how it affected her, enough that the paper carried an editorial headlined, “That’s the way we are,” on the day that the news of the tragedy broke.

“We’re all hard-bitten and cynical and insensitive and don’t give a damn about anything getting ink on the paper by deadline,” wrote Gazette editorial page editor Gary Svee.

“That’s what we hear, and hear it so often that we begin to believe it, begin to play the role assigned us by strangers we meet at parties, in check-out lines on the street.

“And then comes a story where a man and a woman and two little children are alone in a home with a gun, and there are no survivors.”

Editors, conditioned by dozens, maybe hundreds, of scenes of mayhem and violence, dispatch “hard-bitten, cynical, tough reporters and photographers to the scene. They watch police pick up the pieces of four lives ended before they could even begin, the opinion piece said.

Learning that the man and wife had only recently married, and the innocent victims included girls, ages four and five, from a previous marriage, the shaken journalists return to the newsroom. They describe sheriff’s deputies who had to hold handkerchiefs to their eyes to maintain the appearance of toughness after witnessing the tragedy.

And the reporter, a colleague whom you respect for her professionalism, says, “I have to find something different to do.” She walks back to her desk and starts typing on her keyboard. She has a deadline to meet.

That’s the way newspaper people are.

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Jamie Larson