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The crying game

By Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline Correspondent

The guy reminded me of my grandfather. Same western shirt, same cowboy boots, same Brylcreem in his hair. Except that I never saw my grandfather cry.

Now, this fellow wasn't blubbering, but he'd choke up every so often and a tear would form, which he'd dab away with some Kleenex wadded up in his fist. And I just sat there and did nothing. Normally, when someone starts crying in the middle of a conversation, your urge is to get out of your chair and put your arm around them, or at least tell them how sorry you are. But this was television, so I just soldiered on.

He was talking about his daughter, who'd been killed by her husband. And sadly, he was one of six straight interviews I'd done for Dateline in which the person sitting across from me was crying. We cover a lot of murder cases at Dateline, and in each case, the person I was interviewing was telling me about the worst thing that had ever happened to them; the sister, the best friend, the wife taken from them suddenly and through violence.

Television is pretty good at showcasing emotion, and there was a time when getting someone to cry on-camera was hugely desirable. "Did she squirt?" one high-profile TV doctor used to ask his producers after they returned from an interview. I suppose there are still people who seek out the tears, but I'm not one of them.

One disclaimer here: Whenever people I'm interviewing start to cry, I almost always ask them if they'd like to take a minute to compose themselves, and sometimes they do. The problem comes when virtually the entire subject you're discussing is so wrenching that tears start flowing every 15 seconds, which makes stopping and starting a poor option, and may actually prolong the interview and thus, your subject's agony as well. So in those situations, I just go on and ask the next question.

The problem with doing that is that to ignore someone else's tears, you have to shut off part of yourself, that part that makes you want to reach out to an adult so shattered by the memories you're provoking that they start to cry. And whenever I do that, I always wonder if that part of me will automatically turn back on when the interview is concluded. So far, it always has. If I sense someday that it hasn't, I'll be facing a tough choice about continuing in this line of work, which has paid my rent for 34 years.

All of that brings me to Tom Richardson, convicted in court of murdering his wife Juanita by pushing or throwing her off a cliff on the shores of Lake Superior, 140 feet to her death.

Richardson gave me an interview not long after his conviction, and under Dateline's lights, we went back over the details of the day Juanita died. At different times in the interview, he would suddenly start to sob, his voice cracking. Seconds later, he'd be composed again, speaking in that flat Michigan accent that made him sound like a homicidal Sonny Bono.

I never saw any actual tears, which made me wonder -- just as Park Rangers at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore wondered when Tom first reported that his wife was missing. One minute, they reported, he was sobbing with his head in his hands; the next, he was perfectly composed. Add to that the three different stories he told police in the first 12 hours after Juanita's death and you have grounds for the suspicion that put Richardson at the center of a murder investigation, and eventually led to his conviction. He is asking for a new trial.

I'd love to cover some stories in which I don't have to ask anyone if they'd like to take a break and dry their tears.  I can ask. But I'm sure not counting on it.

Click here for the whole story of what happened at Pictured Rocks.