By Suzy Wetlaufer
William Morrow & Co.
The conflict between personal ambition, truth and ethics has always played a prominent role in journalism, both in print, and in the newsroom.
Such conflict is at the center of Suzanne R. Wetlaufer's '81 suspense thriller, Judgement Call.
Wetlaufer tells the story of Harvard-educated Sherry Estabrook, whose life is driven by characteristics common among Harvardians: ambition and parental pressure. In an attempt to escape her privileged past and prove to her parents and herself that she can make it one her own, Sherry becomes a reporter.
Most of Wetlaufer's narrative focuses on Sherry's work on a story about a teenage drug hit man for a fictional newspaper, the Miami Citizen. As Sherry pursues the story, her young source pursues a bizarre "romantic" relationship with her.
The end result is a bloody conflict rooted in questions of family background ambition and Journalistic ethics, making Judgement call more than a more suspense thriller. Wetlaufer says she hopes the book is "meatier" than other books of its genre. it is.
Readers, especially those with backgrounds in journalism, will understand the dilemma at the heart of the novel: whether or not to the report a source who has committed a crime to the police, and by doing so, lose an important front page story.
To many, the solution to Sherry's dilemma is very obvious. Any reporter world acknowledge that Sherry wrongly let her relationship with her source get out of control. They would agree that she should not have sacrificed justice in order to preserve "her byline."
Wetlaufer acknowledge in the interview that sherry is no a "typical" reporter, and that she has a "unique horrible agenda" stemming from her family back ground--a past that fuels her sometimes irrational ambitions to succeed on her own. Sherry feels that success as a reporter, in breaking this one story, is one thing that her rich and powerful father can't bestow upon her.
At the highest levels of the national media talent and ambition such as Sheery's are almost the norm. In a tremendously competitive business, ethical responsibility and even editorial supervision can too easily fall by the wayside while a reporter is intent on the big, prizewinning story. Wetlaufer describes this flaw, this loss of persepective and judgment that sometimes occurs in journalism, precisely.
"IF [Sherry] turned Manuel into the cops, she knew the story would die. Her story would die. She could say good-bye forever to the huge front-page package featuring one very quotable 16 year-old cocaine assassin played prominently beneath her byline in 18-point type. She could forget the awards, the dinner with...the publisher, the thoughtful interviews on TV about crime reporting and journalistic ethics."
It's really unavoidable; despite all the nonsense about objectivity, good reporters have to continually wrestle with editors, sources and their own consciences about what to put in the story and what to keep out. As the stories get bigger and bigger, the calls get tougher and tougher to make.
In Judgment call, Wetlaufer underlines the fact that ethic aren't absolute. Promises and morals depend on how big, how important a particular story is. Wetlaufer has done reporters and editors around the country a kindness by raising these questions in the form of a thrilling novel instead of a dry essay in Neiman Reports. (No offense to Neiman Reports, which I read cover to cover.)
Wetlaufer, who herself worked for The Crimson, the Associated Press and the Miami Herald, has a reporter's eye for detail that brings a dose of real life quirkiness to her tale. In one scene Manuel pauses to toy with a gold thread hanging form the robe of the statue of Jesus mounted on the dashboard of his black Camaro.
But Wetlaufer should have drawn more on her broad experiences in journalism to make Judgment Call a richer newspaper novel. The book would have profited from more to the flavor of a major metropolitan daily newsroom novel. Newspapers attract odd characters like a magnet, but Wetlaufer shares with us only a precious few stories that don't directly relate to the main plot. The reader wonders if there was other news in Miami during the time Sherry was reporting her story.
Still, Judgment Call in a fun and exciting read, both for the suspense and thrills--Wetlaufer has already sold the book's rights to action hungry Hollywood--and the more serious issues that anchor the book in reality.