News that a body found this week in Costa Rica appears to be that of Cody Roman Dial – R-2 to a lot of friends and acquaintances of the Dial family here in Alaska – brought feelings of regret and a little guilt.
Twenty-seven-year-old Dial was the sort of smart, capable young person upon whose future Alaska depends, and when he went missing in Costa Rica in July 2014 the search there started off rather slowly. A pair of Red Cross search teams on foot went out on July 23 to begin probing the edges of the lush and overgrown, 164-square-mile Corcovado National Park along the southwest coast of the Central American nation.
A day later, the Alaska Dispatch News first reported that a search was underway for the son of well-known local adventurer Roman Dial. The story was not well received. Some people thought it some sort of invasion of the privacy of the Dial family, though R-2’s story was already out there. It had been reported previously in “The Tico Times,” an English-language online newspaper based in San José.
Still, because of the negative reaction in Anchorage, a story that should have stayed in the news and might have mobilized a wide world of adventurers familiar with the Dials to launch a large-scale search for R-2 disappeared for a time from the state’s largest newspaper.
No, actually, it was worse than that.
Four days after the first story appeared, there was another with a headline that said this:
“Cody Dial reportedly seen in Costa Rica hostel a week ago.”
Below the headline, the 13-paragraph story said that “the news comes from his father, Alaska Pacific University Professor Roman Dial, who is now in the Latin American country searching for his son.
“Peggy Dial, Cody’s mom, was too distraught to talk on Sunday, but indicated it should now be reported that Cody is no longer missing. In a Saturday post on Roman’s Facebook page, she reported, ‘Good News! Cody Roman was seen on the 21st and Roman is following confusing leads! Getting closer to our boy!'”
Whether that report slowed efforts to organize the kind of search that might have found Cody is hard to say, but Men’s Journal magazine, which wrote an exhaustive story about the hunt for R-2, indicated that the search didn’t really amp up to include a helicopter and a significant number of ground teams until Aug. 2.
Only days later, Costa Rican authorities suspended the search, having found no sign of Cody. “Search-and-rescuers believe it is possible that (Cody) Dial left the park and may be elsewhere in Costa Rica,” The Tico Times reported.
Over the course of the days that followed, Roman with help from then Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska tried to get the U.S. military involved in the hunt for Cody as it had been involved in the search for other Americans lost there. But the effort eventually went nowhere.
It wasn’t until the middle of August, with Cody now missing for almost a month, that Roman was able to enlist Brian Horner from LTR Training Systems (Learn to Return) in Anchorage and some other Alaskans to help him launch his own covert search and rescue mission.
It, too, proved futile. Afterward, it was hard not to wonder how differently things might have gone if Cody’s story had attracted the kind of attention it deserved in Alaska where the Dials were well-connected to a broad network of wilderness survival experts, including a bunch of the pararescue jumpers (PJs) from the Alaska National Guard’s fabled 210th and 211th Rescue Squadrons.
Public exposure invariably influences bureaucratic action. There is no denying this. When three gray whales became trapped in the ice off Barrow in 1988, the U.S. government raced to rescue them not because there was any sort of environmental crisis – there wasn’t; the North Pacific ocean is chock-a-block full of gray whales – but because dramatic television video of the doomed whales sadly surfacing to breathe through a fast closing hole in the ice had stirred strong public emotions.
I wrote that first ADN story about R-2. I admit to hoping it might stir the sort of organized SAR effort that was going to be required to find Cody if he was going to be found. Journalists probably shouldn’t confess to thinking such things, but I’m long past done with playing the game wherein we pretend we’re somehow objective robots immune to human thoughts and responses.
The reality is that journalists are anything but. It was human weakness that led me to write the second story. It downplayed the situation in a way I knew at the time was wrong, and it may have undercut initial efforts to organize a larger search for R-2.
The story was written in response to what was going on at the Alaska Dispatch News, and not in response to what was going on in Costa Rica. It was written because although the Dials aren’t quite friends they’re more than acquaintances and because there were those mumbling about how the reporting on Cody’s disappearance had made life miserable in Anchorage for his parents.
The second story was a huge mistake, and I regret it. R-2’s disappearance was news. The ADN should have stayed the course to cover it as news no matter what the public opinion.
Someone should have told me: “Do your damn job.”
Or at the very least assigned the story to another reporter to follow the search or lack thereof.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the story disappeared from the news for another week, and by the time it briefly returned the sense of immediacy that might have spurred Alaskans and the U.S. government to action was gone.
The Coasta Ricans, meanwhile, appear to have done the best they could with limited assets, a huge search area, and what appears to have been some reservations about looking for a renegade hiker from Alaska who ignored a Costa Rican requirement tourists hire guides.
As The Tico Times pointed out in almost every story it wrote, R-2 “planned to enter the park through an entrance near the Conte River, a region off-limits to tourists.”
In the summer of 2014, the Alaska Dispatch News, a merger of AlaskaDispatch.com and the Anchorage Daily News, was still in its infancy. Dispatch majority owner Alice Rogoff had purchased the Daily News only about three months earlier from The McCaltchy Company, but she’d really never taken over.
The new ADN was sort of living in limbo as less than a dozen online journalists from Dispatch tried to adjust to life with a couple dozen or more print journalists from the Daily News. Tony Hopfinger, an aggressive editor semi-famous for being arrested by goons working for U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller while trying to ask some pointed questions, had moved up to the job of president of the new company.
David Hulen, a self-described “fair and decent” guy who’d previously worked for McClatchy, had taken over as managing editor. The Hopfinger-Hulen marriage was an interesting one. Where Hopfinger was bold; Hulen was restrained.
When the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew out in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and started spewing more crude oil into the water than anyone could have imagined, Hopfinger had a reporter on the scene with days. Given that BP was one of the biggest players in the Alaska oil patch and that the 49th state had lived through the Exxon Valdez oil spill nightmare, Deepwater was a story Hopfinger, his then-wife and business parter Amanda Coyne, and others at Dispatch thought had to be covered by Alaska reporters.
No other news organization in the state sent a reporter. The Daily News, which had far more resources than the Dispatch, was content to save money and run whatever coverage the wires provided. Hulen was schooled in that system.
It is not bad; it is not good. It just is.
When it came to the R-2 story, Hopfinger’s instinct would have been to send a reporter to Costa Rica to join the search for the missing son of a local wilderness celebrity. Hulen’s instinct was to hold a meeting.
We talked about the Cody story. It was decided not to further any pain the Dials might be suffering. I confess I did not argue. Hulen prides himself on being thoughtful and considerate. He likes to roll things around a lot before making a decision.
Hopfinger was always the opposite. He was old school journalism. That school had simple rules: Follow the story. If people don’t like it, tough. Follow the story.
Nothing to criticize
Following a story is not always popular. Sometimes it can anger readers. Sometimes it can get reporters fired, something with which I have some personal experience. Sometimes it can upset newspaper owners.
In some ways, Hulen was in 2014 just trying to follow directives. Rogoff wanted a kinder, gentler Alaska Dispatch News. We talked about it. She told me she wanted to find me a job “where you don’t generate so much controversy.” She might have told Hulen the same thing, though I’ve never asked him about it. The last time I called him to talk he didn’t return the phone call.
Clearly the least controversial thing to do with R-2 missing in Costa Rica was to generally ignore the story. Media are rarely, if ever, criticized for what they don’t report. It’s the big bias the public generally doesn’t understand.
Cody’s story was an interesting and heart-tugging mystery involving the son of a local celebrity, but there were plenty of good reasons to justify not doing it. There are always good reasons to justify the stories not done.
I’m generally not a go-along guy, but I went along on this one. I’d heard enough about “adding to the Dials’ pain.” I didn’t want to hear anymore.
Sometimes journalism sucks. If you want to do it right, you sometimes have to write difficult stories. You sometimes have to ignore the fact some news will make some people unhappy and just cover the damn news. You sometimes have to upset friends.
I didn’t want to do it. I confess.
Roman, Peggy and I go way back. I’m a parent, too. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to lose my daughter. Not only did I not want to write about Cody, I didn’t even want to think about him.
I knew full well how dire the situation. He’d been missing almost two weeks when his disappearance was first reported. That’s a long time. If he was somewhere out there in the Costa Rican jungle injured but alive, the survival window was closing and closing fast.
I did suggest ADN assign another reporter to follow the story and keep it in the news. Then I begged off as personally too close to the situation. Another reporter was assigned, but not much more ever got done. R-2 just sort of faded away.
On Sept. 6, the ADN reported Roman’s suspicions Cody might have fallen victim to “foul play.” It was the last R-2 story of 2014.
When the Dials set up a GoFundMe account four days later to try to finance a continuing search, it never made the news. Cody would be gone until this year when there came the report of human remains found along with Cody’s passport in a ravine in Corcovado some ways north of what Roman thought the prime search area.
A cause of death has not been determined, but The Tico Times reported “foul play unlikely.”
It is hard now to avoid the thought Cody might have fallen into a ravine and died there because he was injured and couldn’t get out. It is hard not to wonder what might have happened if more SAR assets had been made available to launch a massive search. It is hard to keep from thinking about what might have happened if Cody’s disappearance had stayed in the public eye in Alaska.
The media influences everything and in many ways. Dropping the Cody story was the kinder and gentler thing to do. Friends and family in Anchorage were freed from regular reminders he was missing. But at the same time, the lack of news killed any sense of urgency for anyone to push for a greater effort to find R-2.
I can’t fault Hulen. He made a rational decision that largely reflected the desires of his boss. I can fault myself. I should have just gotten on a plane and gone to Costa Rica to do what we did at Dispatch when Deepwater started spewing oil: Cover the damn story.
But sometimes that’s a lot easier to say than to do.