Tag Archives: New York Times

A different Ferguson effect

We journalists like to talk about the distinction between a topic and a story. The topic of my latest story, in this Sunday’s New York Times business section, is the role employers can play in hiring more former prisoners for good jobs after their release. I developed that topic from chatter I heard in the criminal-justice policy world and from asking a question, after reading umpteen stories about the desperate need to boost employment numbers as a prisoner-reentry strategy. The question: What’s in it for employers?

Once I knew that was the topic I wanted to write about, I needed to find an example of a place where the problem is being tackled in a creative, market-driven way. What drew me to St. Louis was the merits of the program I focus on. It is, all my sources agreed, the most ambitious and effective of its kind.

But its location makes for an irony. It’s not one that I explored in the story, but that’s what blogs are for. That this program blossomed in the shadow of Ferguson, Missouri, speaks to a more complicated narrative about that region’s approach to crime than the one we’ve heard again and again after the death of Michael Brown.

I’m not saying the Brown protests lack authenticity. Whatever the interpretation of the facts surrounding Brown’s death, it’s clear that the systems of justice in Ferguson and St. Louis County were exposed as severely unfair and racist in multiple state and federal probes.

And I’m not saying that the program I wrote about is a response to the Ferguson controversy. In fact, it started in 2002, long before the protests in the St. Louis area.

But it’s an example of how the common outside view of a place can obscure contradictions. Though in the story I focus on the business rationale for this program, what’s just as interesting to me is that the people running it are motivated to change lives for the better. Their primary job is to enforce conditions of supervision once someone gets out of prison. But, to do that job, they choose to focus on helping those people adjust and creating conditions that make it more likely for them to succeed.

The upshot of the story is how difficult and detailed such attempts can be. But the underlying message is just as important: Someone in a position of power is trying, on a fairly grand scale.

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.

What reporters do

The reaction to John Eligon’s story yesterday on the front page of The New York Times shows one truth, at least: Critics don’t need to read an entire story, nor do they need to think much about what that story contributes to a larger conversation about an incident as heavily analyzed as the death of Michael Brown. They simply run a few facts and phrases from the story (that they probably got second hand) through the filter of their choice and then denounce the story.

Through interviews mainly with Brown’s family and others who know the family, Eligon composed a portrait of a young man who was neither the thug caricatured by defenders of Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, nor the perfect-in-every-way youngster that his supporters wish for. He was, by Eligon’s telling, a normal kid with fairly normal ups and downs. And Eligon told that story by doing his job as a reporter: to find and confirm facts about a newsworthy subject.

Does Eligon’s storytelling equate to an argument that Brown deserved what he got? Of course not. Even though Brown’s biography sheds no light on whether Wilson’s actions were justified, they still matter because now we know more about Brown, this person at the center of such controversy. What we do with those facts is up to each of us.

Not wanting to know these facts is an act of willful ignorance. How does that help inform a debate that boils down to thug or innocent victim?

Many of the story’s critics (again, I would guess few even read the full story) seized upon one phrase — that Brown was “no angel” — without noting, or knowing, the words that preceded that: an anecdote about a religious experience Brown told his parents he had involving images of angels and Satan. Eligon’s use of “no angel” to transition from that to the full, seemingly fair summary that follows makes sense in context.

Even the Times‘ normally level-headed public editor skips that context to criticize use of the phrase — because, I guess, people will seize upon two words, regardless of how they were used and the full context in which they were used.

Context and facts don’t always matter when we have bet on one horse to win. Once the bet has been placed, we don’t want nuance or inconvenient truths. We only want to win.

A reporter’s job is different, and Eligon did his job.

“Our good friends at the AP”

The New York Times has been accused in the past of churlishly refusing to share credit with competitors. It’s gotten somewhat more generous recently. Still, I was surprised at first that this lead story — on NYPD’s decision to shut down a controversial anti-terrorism unit that spied on Muslims — reached back to 2011 to give a nod to the Associated Press for first breaking the story.

Perhaps this explains the motivation: A member of the team that won a Pulitzer for AP’s work on the 2011 series was Matt Apuzzo. Yes, that would be the same Matt Apuzzo who left AP to join the Times last December, and who shares a byline on the Times‘ story today with Joseph Goldstein.

BREAKING: conservatives support justice reform

The critic’s voice in my head is grumbling about the steady stream of stories expressing surprise at the bipartisan turn in the criminal justice debate, as if it’s a sudden, new development that conservatives are talking like liberal reformers. For weeks, maybe months, it seems an everyday event that a writer makes the discovery: hey, Republicans sound reasonable on this “smart on crime” theme. The latest example comes on the front page of today’s New York Times, in this Jeremy Peters story.

It is only surprising if you haven’t been paying attention lately. The sentencing-reform community has been talking about this for years, as I posted here (noting that sentencing scholar and blogger Doug Berman wrote about it for The Daily Beast) and here (my summary of a history of the right’s moves in this direction by political scientists, David Dagan and Steven M. Teles in Washington Monthly). Back in November 2012, Berman provided a deep archive of his posts on the topic. So, no, it’s not new or all that surprising.

But so what? Each story, when done well (as Peters’ is), provides new developments and examples. More to the point, every big social change starts small and grows. First insiders notice, followed gradually by everyone else. Journalists rarely lead these movements. We react to what we see and hear.

And it’s not as though the change has caught on. All I need for a wake-up call is to talk to people who don’t spend all day every day obsessing about these topics, or read the comments on the typical crime news story. That provides a quick reminder that decades of hype and propaganda fuel an ingrained set of beliefs: that violent crime is out of control, that prisoners are coddled, that judges are soft and sentences light, that we just need to pound the felons harder to bring this chaos under control. All of those assumptions are demonstrably false, but try having a reasoned conversation about it with true believers.

So repeating the message, provided it’s based on solid evidence, can only help. I just hope my journalistic brethren learn to include a graf of context — may I suggest it appear in the top third of the story? — the proverbial qualifier that starts “to be sure” and goes on to note that this has been percolating for some time. I know that might bump you off the front page, the magazine cover, or the top of the website. But, on this topic, a little less hype is a good thing.

Bill Keller’s big bet

“What a coup for this new venture to get someone of his caliber.” That’s Jill Abramson’s apt description of the move by her predecessor as the top editor of the nation’s most important newspaper to the top editorial post of The Marshall Project.

I’ve eagerly kept my nose pressed to the glass to watch as this criminal-justice-journalism startup comes into focus. Now that New York Times columnist Bill Keller has announced he will join the nonprofit in March, it’s clearer still that Marshall Project founder Neil Barsky has grand ambitions for a site that he describes as “an agenda-setting resource for up-to-the-minute news, in-depth reporting and commentary about criminal justice” — or, more colorfully in today’s Keller story, as a journalistic wakeup call to a “bizarrely horrible and weirdly tolerated” system that needs fundamental change.

Beyond Keller’s star power and clear abilities at managing a major news organization, the move strikes me as intriguing because Keller isn’t particularly known for his devotion to the cause of covering criminal justice. The Times certainly maintained its commitment to covering legal affairs under Keller, but it’s actually Abramson who, before her work at the Times and Wall Street Journal, tilled these fields at The American Lawyer and Legal Times and who presided over one of the more obvious examples of the kind of work Barsky et al. probably envision, John Tierney’s Time and Punishment series in Science Times. So what Keller’s hiring really signals is The Marshall Project’s ability to grab attention, set sights on a big general audience, and spend real money. To that point, the project’s announcement includes this reveal: “The Marshall Project will have an annual operating budget of $4-$5 million, and a full-time staff of 20-25 journalists.” That’s not off the charts huge, but it’s real enough to make the site’s announcements quite credible.

Keller compares his move to that of Wall Street Journal editor Paul Steiger to ProPublica. In the the six years since, ProPublica has proven itself a major and respected force in producing original, reported journalism on government. Can a site with similar aspirations thrive when focused only on criminal justice? That’s Keller’s and Barsky’s bet. This is as good a way as any to grab a broader public’s attention (beyond nerdy enclaves like this blog) to ensure that we’ll all be watching.

Biker stories, full of ambiguity

Today’s New York Times features a remarkable piece of reporting and storytelling by reporter Serge Kovaleski, whose extensive reporting in the underground culture of outlaw motorcycle gangs (as law enforcement would characterize them) or motorcycle clubs (as the bikers prefer) led to this report on the Hells Angels’ campaign to protect its trademark through ostensibly legitimate means: lawyers, civilized threats, and litigation. Accompanying the story is Kovaleski’s how-I-did-it video, lushly videotaped and produced. It’s a great package.

A few observations:

  • In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for reporters with guts like Kovaleski who, channeling Hunter Thompson, venture into media-hostile territory to tell important stories.
  • Isn’t it curious that a subculture that straddles legitimate and illicit worlds, and that flies the pirate flag in many contexts, can use mainstream legal tools to enforce its rights? I would have liked a little more explicit grappling with that odd notion. Then again, that’s really the whole point of the story, and maybe keeping it vague lets us readers ponder it on our own.
  • Similarly, notice how the final few seconds of that video include a voice-over from Kovaleski, sounding as though it was tacked on at the last minute. The message? “To be sure,” he adds, these groups have no shortage of real outlaws committing real crimes, including murder. Perhaps someone up the editing chain decided the picture presented was a bit too sanitized?

I don’t question the Times‘ or Kovaleski’s honesty or depth of reporting. My only point is that this kind of story confronts one of life’s wonderful gray areas where, as Kovaleski himself says in the video, these groups/gangs aren’t all one thing and can’t be easily characterized. That’s the best place for a journalist to go in search of nuance and understanding.

Rich multimedia makes this story

I read The New York Times six days a week in digital form only, on my computer browser or apps for my iPhone and Kindle Fire. I get the print edition delivered on Sundays, out of respect for tradition; because it’s a good deal (when I subscribe to Sunday-only home delivery, all-access digital subscription is included); and because the Times Magazine is, to me, a more pleasurable reading experience in print. It’s a quarter-mile hike down to the paper box at the road. In the winter (and, yes, winter arrived here today with a vengeance), I start by reading online and switch to print after I’ve made the trek in daylight to the road.

The only reason this matters to anyone but me (if it does) is how my routine gave me a fresh, clear comparison today between print and digital. Because I ended up reading “Two Gunshots on a Summer Night,” the fabulous front-pager by Walt Bogdanich and Frontline producer Glenn Silber, in digital form first, I had a much richer reading experience than if I had simply been patient enough to wait for the print edition.

I’m a big Bogdanich fan. So, when he writes about a murder mystery and possible police wrongdoing, paired with records-intensive study of domestic-violence enforcement when police officers are the suspects, I am SO there. But the digital experience with this story is so much richer than in print, I looked at the print version only to see how flat and plain it looked by comparison. The answer: pretty plain, not to mention intimidating (there’s something more daunting about two inside spreads on the jump versus a long scroll down).

Audio, video, interactive diagrams, documents, lush photography — the Times is really getting good at this stuff. And it’s not superfluous. Videos demonstrate the key points made about the forensic evidence far more powerfully than mere text descriptions ever could. And they pack an emotional punch, such as the one at the very end of the report (which makes most sense when seen in full context, so don’t just skip ahead!).

The broader system story gets touched in the main story and handled succinctly in a sidebar by Sarah Cohen, Rebecca R. Ruiz, and Sarah Childress. The main story sticks with a riveting narrative about the shooting death of a young mother, Michelle O’Connell, and the troubled investigation into whether she committed suicide or was murdered by her boyfriend, Florida sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks, in a breakup argument. In the end, a special prosecutor declined to file charges, citing insufficient evidence.

I’ll probably watch the Frontline version, too, to round out the comparisons. Some stories are important and compelling enough that they deserve reading and viewing multiple times from multiple perspectives.

Son of “Snowfall”

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 9.07.45 PMIf “Snowfall,” The New York Times‘ sports desk’s premier storytelling innovation of 2012, got too much attention — and there’s little doubt about that, no matter that it was a good yarn — then the latest sign of literary life from the same desk has gotten too little.

Last Sunday’s “Tomato Can Blues,” by staff sports writer Mary Pilon, offers “Snowfall”-like razzledazzle in its stunning illustrations by Attila Futaki and an audio version narrated by Bobby Canavale of Boardwalk Empire. But what really caught my eye was Pilon’s deep reporting and lush, gritty writing. She has a topic made for noir — a down-and-out mixed-martial-arts fighter’s scheme to fake his death and rob a gun shop — and she makes the most of it without lapsing into caricature or cliche. Because she reported the hell out of the story, including an interview with robber/fighter Charlie Rowan, and because she clearly has the chops, Pilon turns an otherwise sad, semi-ordinary crime into a thriller.

The Times‘ smart strategy to get progressively more magazine-y, especially on Sundays, and to turn features into long-form e-singles (in fact, as with “Snowfall,” or in spirit), makes for high-end content worthy of the paper’s high subscription prices. I’ll take this kind of flight to quality in the news business over endless tales of layoffs and curtailed visions. Others can follow the Times‘ lead. All they need are reporter-writers of Pilon’s quality, and the will to innovate in production and design. The stories are out there.

Sentencing math doesn’t add up

One of the most irksome errors in legal journalism occurs when reporters perform sentencing math in such a way that it adds up to a falsehood. Often repeating a hyped claim made in many prosecution press releases, journalists stack the maximum possible sentences — all the counts against a defendant, run cumulatively — and act as though the sum is a realistic possibility. In truth, most sentences fall somewhere in the range between minimum and maximum of the most serious count that’s proven. The rest of the sentences usually run concurrently. Then, either parole or good-time credits will likely apply, making the prisoner’s actual time served even shorter.

The latest case to feature crazy sentencing math is the federal prosecution of “Anonymous” digital activist Barrett Brown. In today’s New York Times, reporter-columnist David Carr’s lede states that Brown is “facing charges that carry a combined penalty of more than 100 years in prison” and later states baldly that he’s “facing the rest of his life in prison.” Nowhere does Carr, in an otherwise detailed and skeptical account of Brown and his case, attempt to report out the realistic exposure Brown faces.

I don’t mean to pick on Carr, whom I admire. The unchallenged, unexamined cumulative “sentence” has been repeated in Rolling Stone (in the headline), Huffington Post (“a whopping 105 years”), and two local newspapers where Brown faces trial, The Dallas Morning News and Dallas Observer (which compounds the error by intoning that after his arrest Brown was “thrown in prison for what could be the rest of his life,” ignoring the distinction between a jail holding a pretrial defendant and prison holding a convict).

I’m not just being picky. These are not mere semantics. Even though it’s impossible to predict an outcome, and sentencing guidelines rely on a host of variables, we at least should avoid the lazy shorthand that charge-happy prosecutors use to hype cases and pressure defendants. Brown’s case is important and severe. But writers can note the questionably harsh treatment of Brown without claiming he actually faces a 105-year sentence. He won’t get anything close to that.