Just ego?

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 9.07.18 AMThe big event in criminal-justice literature right now is the impending publication of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The author, a crusading advocate and leader of Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, already plugged his book on The Daily Show, an early indication of how much attention we can expect from his memoir about his work.

There should be no doubt about the eloquence of his words (check out his TED talk, if you aren’t among the million-plus who have already), or the impact of his work (from the wrongful-conviction case that launched his career to the leading role he played in convincing the Supreme Court to abolish mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles). But wouldn’t the reader be better served by reading an independent appraisal, rather than a memoir?

That’s the question at the heart of The New York Times Book Review’s full-page review today. And the reviewer asking it has the professional standing to do so: Ted Conover, the respected journalist who has made a career of an immersive reporting style married with literary writing. Conover’s work, while often placing himself at the center of the action, is not about self-glorification. It’s not the sort of self-indulgent journalistic memoir that drives me nuts, where the subtitle of far too many magazine articles and books could be “this thing happened to me, and so I want to examine it from the perspective of me, me, me.” Instead, Conover participates in whatever he writes about to understand and explain it better.

Here’s how Conover addresses this key question about Stevenson’s book:

As I read this book I kept thinking of Paul Farmer, the physician who has devoted his life to improving health care for the world’s poor, notably Haitians. The men are roughly contemporaries, both have won MacArthur grants, both have a Christian bent and Harvard connections, Stevenson even quotes Farmer — who, it turns out, sits on the board of the Equal Justice Initiative. Farmer’s commitment to the poor was captured in Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (and Kidder’s advance praise adorns the back cover of “Just Mercy”).

A difference, and one that worried me at first, is that Farmer was fortunate enough to have Kidder as his Boswell, relieving him of the awkward task of extolling his own good deeds. Stevenson, writing his own book, walks a tricky line when it comes to showing how good can triumph in the world, without making himself look solely responsible.

Luckily, you don’t have to read too long to start cheering for this man. Against tremendous odds, Stevenson has worked to free scores of people from wrongful or excessive punishment, arguing five times before the Supreme Court. And, as it happens, the book extols not his nobility but that of the cause, and reads like a call to action for all that remains to be done.

Because it’s Ted Conover who’s joined the Stevenson fan club, and because he’s applied his judgment to the memoir-as-bragsheet question, I’m more apt to believe him. Then again, I’m already a Stevenson admirer. He’s one of the sources for my upcoming series on crime victims’ place in the criminal-justice reform movement. Now, at least, I have Ted Conover’s word for it when I wonder if Stevenson should have deferred to someone else to tell his story.

On the nightstand: Saturday, 10/18/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Craig Malisow revisits the Houston serial-murder spree of Dean Corll and Wayne Henley through the eyes of a woman who witnessed their final act. The rest of her life has been in turmoil since then, and yet she was considered more a suspect than a victim. (Houston Press)
  • Robert Kolker documents eight New York City traffic victims and the circumstances that prompt their families to seek solutions that will prevent the next fatality. (New York)
  • Ashley Cleek’s story on the only Scottsboro Boy to be pardoned during his lifetime examines the ripple effects on lives long after an injustice and the difficulties of pursuing reparations. (Life of the Law)
  • Rebecca Davis O’Brien reviews Probable Cause, a book of photography by Matt Gunther from nine years Gunther spent on the streets of Newark photographing Newark police and the people they encountered. O’Brien grapples with a central question about the images: Is it possible to depict a troubled police department in a troubled city without taking a stand on the righteousness of the policing work? (The New Yorker)

This not-quite-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

On the nightstand: Thursday, 10/16/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Tanya Erzen paints a startling portrait of Louisiana’s faith-based education system in its toughest prisons. A program that arguably discourages prison violence and gives inmates a constructive outlet also appears to be coercive and unconstitutional proselytizing, in a plantation-like setting where the warden rules absolutely. (Guernica)
  • Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of insider trader Mathew Martoma in devastating detail. The central mystery: why Martoma didn’t snitch on his hedge-fund boss, and instead took the fall in a huge insider-trading scandal. (The New Yorker)
  • Gary Gately conducts a Q&A with Jennifer Gonnerman about how she reported her story for The New Yorker about the nightmarish mistreatment of a teen imprisoned on Rikers Island for three years without ever getting convicted of anything (which I summarized here). She provides interesting insight into how she learned of the story, how she reported it, and how it fits with the rest of her work. (Juvenile Justice Information Exchange)
  • In another how-he-did-it story, IRE’s Shawn Shinneman interviews Chris Baxter of the Star-Ledger and NJ.com about how he used FOIA, a strategic leak, and persistence in building a database to tell the story of a questionable death of a man in police custody. (IRE)
  • On the blog, I posted an update on my series about crime victims (with some audio snippets) and I critiqued news coverage of the Harvard controversy over a new sexual-misconduct policy, and what that controversy and coverage says about our approach to crime victims.

This not-quite-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Fight coverage ignores key facts

This New York Times story about the controversy at Harvard over its new sexual-misconduct policy illustrates everything that’s wrong about fights involving crime victims and legal policy.

The story concerns a protest by Harvard law professors over the university’s new policy. The professors complain that the policy denies “the most basic elements of fairness and due process” in procedures that “are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused.”

So, how about an example? Or just a summary of what changed beyond opponents’ characterization of procedural weaknesses? Nada. By focusing almost exclusively on the he-said/she-said of the fight without ever bothering to describe the substance of what the fight is about, the story begs the reader to choose sides based on preconceived notions. Vote yes if you think campus rape is out of control and needs to be taken more seriously by colleges. Vote no if you think the recent controversies are an overreaction.

In the words of a Harvard sophomore prominently quoted in the Times story in opposition to the law faculty’s concerns:

 “It just seems like they’re defending those who are accused of sexual assault. Harvard is trying to create these policies to protect those who need defending.”

What a sophomoric argument (heh). In other words, anyone who dares to question how the ultimate goal gets reached has taken the wrong side in this struggle.

Too often, whatever the topic concerning criminal justice and sentencing, we’re asked the same question — in effect, are you for or against the victim? If for (and who would want to say against?), then no solution is too extreme.  That kind of mindless approach, fostered by press coverage like this, has given us over-criminalization, extreme punishment, and other overreactions borne of assumptions about what victims need and what will protect others from becoming victims.

So what are the details of this policy that, as Walter Olson points out at Overlawyered, drew the objections of law faculty from across the ideological spectrum? The letter itself goes into some of the details, but in a summary fashion and obviously from only one point of view. The Boston Globe‘s news story on all of this barely improves on the Times‘ version. Tovia Smith’s story for NPR goes into a bit more depth about a process stacked in victims’ favor, but still fails to dive into the particulars of how exactly this all functions. This Harvard Crimson story from last July, when the policy was enacted, does a better but not great job of explaining what’s changed.

I surrender. I will wait for a more in-depth story by someone, eventually. I could just read the policies new and old and try to make up my own mind. But reported journalism is supposed to do this work for me, the casual reader, and then bring in the voices of experience to put those facts in perspective. What a disappointment when it only does part of the job on such an important topic.

Project update: hours of audio

It’s been a little over a month since I last posted about my work in progress on my Soros Media Fellowship project, a series on crime victims. I had hoped by now that the first installment would have been published by Slate, but first I missed my self-imposed deadline and then changes at Slate delayed us further (the series originally was to be edited by Dahlia Lithwick, but now it’s being overseen by Slate’s deputy editor, John Swansburg). I’m not complaining — this is the nature of this work, especially when dealing with long stories and big projects — and I’m certainly not lacking for things to do.

Which brings me to the point of this post, beyond simply noting that I still can’t predict exactly when the series will go public (but soon!). When I’m not reporting on the six remaining stories (and updating the first installment as it sits in a queue) — tons of reading for research, talking to people who work in this field, lining up and conducting interviews, setting up my next road trips — I’m transcribing. And transcribing. And more transcribing.

Because I record most of my interviews and the scenes that I observe in the field, I’m left with lots of transcription work afterward. Even if I could afford to farm that work out, I wouldn’t because of the value I get from listening to the recordings. As I replay them and take notes, I jot down ideas and notes in the various story outlines. This person might be quotable on this point in this story. This idea needs to be explored in that story. And so on.

The transcripts themselves are not really transcripts. They’re paraphrased notes and observations — as I listen, I’m reminded of what I saw as the words were spoken, and I refer back to my handwritten notes for more observations of what I saw — and then exact quotations only in cases when I think I might end up using a quote. Along the way, I note the elapsed time in the recording, so that I can easily find a specific passage again. I tend to overestimate what might end up useful to me later on, in part because I hope to turn the project into a book after my Soros year is over. So, if a conversation is particularly helpful to my stories, a one-hour interview might take three hours to transcribe. From my weeklong trips in Texas and California, and from dozens of phone interviews since May, I have more hours of recordings than I can count. And nearly every day I add to them.

That all adds up to a mighty backlog. So, while I wait for my new editor’s thoughts on part one and the plan for the rest of the series, I stare and type.

Sounds awfully exciting, I know. Actually, the good news is that I find my subjects’ voices, words, and messages inspiring, even on rehearing. I hear things I didn’t notice the first time, or need to be reminded of when I finally get around to transcribing sometimes weeks or months after the fact.

I’ll give you a taste of what I mean from an interview I’m transcribing this morning. The person speaking is David Guizar, who lost two brothers to street violence in South Los Angeles and now devotes his life to helping survivors and working on gang intervention and violence prevention. Here are two brief snippets from my talk last month with Guizar at his home.

In the first excerpt, he talks about the trauma of losing his brother when Guizar was only 10:

Then Guizar speaks of his reaction at age 39 when another brother was murdered, and he faced a choice in how to respond:

When I tell Guizar’s story, I’ll explain how his and his family’s experiences in two separate murders many years apart colored their perceptions of justice, both bad and good, and how Guizar channeled his emotions in a more positive direction the second time around.

On the nightstand: Tuesday, 10/14/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Daniel Alarcón’s gripping narrative, “The Contestant,” takes us inside Peru’s seamy reality-TV industry, where a family becomes a tool for an exploitative show. After sparking a retaliatory murder, the show and its “news” competitors swoop in to pick through the remains. (California Sunday Magazine)
  • In a demonstration of Huffington Post’s aspirations to produce originally reported journalism — that is, when it’s not stealing its content (I guess the polite term is “curating”) or duping writers into working for free — this Ryan Reilly report on Christy Lopez explains the expertise and attitudes of the lead Justice Department lawyer in the probe of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department. (Huffington Post)
  • Who better than former prisoner Shane Bauer to describe the remarkable art exhibit of Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz? The contemplation on prisoners of conscience even manages to tweak the U.S. at an installation run by the National Park Service. (Mother Jones)
  • Joe Nelson reports on a battle over the constitutionality of local laws in California that go well beyond state law restrictions on sex offenders. (San Bernadino County Sun)

This not-quite-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Stories, justice, and subtlety

This new feature at The Intercept by Liliana Segura is one of those stories that resonates deeply without clobbering the reader over the head with an explicit Big Idea. There’s no nut graf, no polemics, just a pure, sad narrative.

It’s the story of two exonerees, William Lopez and Jeff Deskovic. Last February, The New York Times‘ Alan Feuer focused on the pair in a well-done story that asked about the coping skills of recently freed, long-imprisoned men who were wrongfully convicted. Soon after that story was published, Lopez’s life unraveled. That’s what Segura writes about.

I won’t spoil the story by giving away the plot — Segura’s writing is too good to be misappropriated by a blogger — but the heart of the story concerns the relationship between Lopez and Deskovic, and how it changed, or perhaps never was quite what it seemed, from when Feuer first looked at the pair. She has more questions than answers; she cannot right the wrong that was done. But Segura accomplishes something profound nonetheless.

Though the writer is too subtle to force-feed the point to us, we readers are, of course, free to find meaning in this terribly tragic tale. I see it as Journalism as Justice, a concept I’ve written about before, but can be summed up in this case like so: The courts took far too long to straighten out these crooked cases, and never got around to compensating Lopez for his lost life. But where judges and prosecutors and cash could not set things right, a beautifully told story — confronting the truth, exposing the tragedy, and doing so in with memorable writing — just might have to suffice.

On the nightstand: Wednesday, 10/8/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Andrea Jones starts her feature story in policy-wonk mode, describing the debate over sentencing reform and the criticisms of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes. But her story shifts into high gear when she tells seven stories of unjust sentences in the war on drugs. (Rolling Stone)
  • Richard A. Webster’s impressive series “Dying at OPP” is now in its second week of stories about “institutional failings and institutional indifference” in how New Orleans jail deaths get counted and investigated, and how surviving family members are treated. (New Orleans Times-Picayune)
  • Yale law professor James Forman Jr., in his review of Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, faults the author’s study of urban police-community relations for generalizing too much from the anecdotes that her research uncovered about young black men in a perpetual war with each other and police. Like Dwayne Betts’ review last July in Slate, Foreman gives Goffman credit for her vivid portrayal of the social damage caused by overly aggressive policing. But they both accuse Goffman of ignoring the law-abiding majority by focusing exclusively on the law-breaking minority, and thus inviting the very tactics that she decries. (The Atlantic)
  • Radley Balko puts the DEA’s latest drug-informant scandal in perspective, reciting a list of cases that show, he says, a culture of dehumanizing drug offenders. (The Washington Post)

This not-quite-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

On the nightstand: Tuesday, 10/7/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Dax Devlon-Ross’ long narrative on a North Carolina murder case explores racial bias in jury selection. The story focuses on how a state law and a sympathetic judge forced officials to confront the issue, but also on how fraught it remains in our supposedly post-racial society. (Virginia Quarterly Review)
  • Thanks to Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate, I learned about This American Life’s new spinoff podcast Serial, and that its first lengthy serial is a murder story. Mathis-Lilley describes how the story, at least based on its first two parts, goes far beyond the simplistic approach often taken in true-crime storytelling.  I’m subscribing and hope to critique it at some point.
  • In my first post about Graeme Wood’s controversial Atlantic story on prison gangs, I noted some critical omissions but mainly distanced myself from Andrew Cohen’s tweeted critique. Now that Cohen has expanded that into a full-blown, link-filled takedown, I eat my words. Cohen makes a convincing case for why Wood’s examination of gangs at California’s Pelican Bay prison wasn’t just one-sided; it failed for lack of essential context. (The Atlantic)
  • Dana Goldstein, in only the second preview story published by pre-launch criminal-justice-news site The Marshall Project, looks in depth at West Virginia’s schools-to-prisons pipeline. Though not the worst state on this score, West Virginia is near the harsher end of the spectrum for treating teenaged misbehavior as crime. Taking the conversation from the abstract to the specific, Goldstein views the stats and trends through one illustrative case: a troubled kid who clearly didn’t belong behind bars.
  • On the blog, I praised Alex Campbell’s BuzzFeed investigation for its depth and narrative power in exposing the ultimate blame-the-victim horror.

This not-quite-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Right kind of buzz

Critics often lump in BuzzFeed with other clickbait content mills: purveyors of recycled junk-food posts that feed off others’ original reporting. So it’s especially gratifying to see a piece of work as ambitious and righteous as Alex Campbell’s long feature on women serving lengthy prison terms for their abusive male partners’ crimes against their children.

From its dramatic central anecdote to its data-driven core, the story demands attention — the right kind, not just empty buzz — and incites outrage over misapplication of state laws meant to impose accountability on parents who fail to protect their children. The story drives home its point that abuse victims unfairly take the blame, and serve excessive sentences, for not escaping the hell they found themselves in.

Campbell uses a transparent and clear system to pinpoint dozens of cases, and most likely many more, in which an abused wife or girlfriend got at least 10 years in prison for failing to stop her partner from harming their child. He talks to advocates immersed in this world for perspective. He has enough depth to his reporting to identify and address key points (do men ever get charged for what their female partners do the kids? why don’t the women just leave?) And then he has the skill to tell the stories in a compelling way.

The sum of these parts is original journalism for which Campbell, a BuzzFeed staffer, and BuzzFeed can be proud — and that goes a long way toward countering criticisms of BuzzFeed’s model. More on criminal justice, please!

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business