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Top Reporter Tracks Real Miami Vice : It’s the Small Things That Count, Herald’s Buchanan Believes

Times Staff Writer

Edna Buchanan, crime reporter for the Miami Herald, will tell you that if a man is killed for playing the same song on the juke box too many times, she must know the name of the song.

When a man killed his roommate after watching a late movie on television, the police did not bother to ask the name of the movie. Buchanan did. It was “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Newspapers need detail, they need to listen to victims and learn their stories, Buchanan told an audience of print journalists Saturday in Newport Beach. “Radio reporters wouldn’t give more than 30 seconds to World War III. . . . TV people, of course, drive (crime victims) berserk, running after them asking, ‘How does it feel?’ ”

Buchanan, 48, estimated that she has covered more than 5,000 murders, rapes, kidnapings and other felonies in her 17 years at the Miami Herald. She has become a celebrity within the profession in the past few years, primarily via her Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for general news reporting and through her book, “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face.”

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Her speech Saturday before an audience of about 400 was part of a symposium sponsored by the Orange County Press Club.

The good reporter, she said, is the one who “knocks on one more door, makes one more phone call.”

She said she wrote one of her best stories when she insisted on knowing what a 75-year-old amputee, killed by a car while rolling his wheelchair down a busy highway, had in his pockets.

Besides two nickels and a dime, the man’s pockets held hospital discharge papers and other government forms. From those, Buchanan learned that a social agency in Key West had put the man on a bus for a Veterans Administration hospital in Miami but made no provisions to get him back home. The man headed out on his own after various agencies rejected his appeal for help in returning to Key West.

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She recalled another story in which a young woman was attacked by five men after her car broke down in a tough Miami neighborhood. She was rescued by a passer-by in a van. Police issued no press release because no one had been killed, but Buchanan was able to dig out the story. The rescuer was later honored by President Reagan.

So much is happening in Buchanan’s life these days that she recently took a six-month leave of absence from the Miami Herald to tackle it.

Her book is in its fifth printing, and Disney Productions has purchased movie rights. (“I thought Disney was Bambi and Snow White,” she said.) And Random House, her publisher, recently contracted with her to write a suspense novel about Miami. (She wondered aloud about writing a novel about a city where “truth is stranger than fiction.”)

One of the things she never wants to do is leave the Miami Herald.

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“I love the city, I love the paper, I can’t imagine why people ever leave there,” she said.

With all the murder and mayhem she has covered, how did she stay “psychologically healthy?” a college student asked.

“Who said I was psychologically healthy?” Buchanan replied.

“The major joy of the job is communicating and being able to be the catalyst for change. We can make things happen. . . . Plus the (police beat) is never boring.”

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There is, she said, “no better human being on earth than a good cop, and no worse creature than a bad cop, and often they are the same cop on two different days, on two different moments.”

When a newspaper reporter asked her about “burnout” on the police beat, she waved aside the issue. Burnout, she said, is self-indulgence. She has no time for it.

One woman mentioned a former Miami Herald reporter now working on the West Coast.

“Tell him I said ‘hi,’ ” Buchanan said. “He was a lousy editor but a terrific guy.”

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And everywhere she goes, these days, someone invariably asks whom she would like to see portraying her if “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face” ever reaches the screen.

“Anybody but Bette Midler,” she quips.


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