The New York Times is the most important newspaper in America, and that is unfortunate, for in their pages, ordinary criminals are frequently treated with extreme deference and sympathy, even respect. Some types of criminals are excluded from this kid-glove treatment, but that is a subject for another day. For the most part, ordinary (property, drug, violent, sexual) criminals comprise a protected class in the Times. Even when it must be acknowledged that someone has, in fact, committed a crime, the newsroom’s mission merely shifts to minimizing the culpability of the offender by other means.
There are various ways of doing this. Some have to do with selectively criticizing the justice system: for example, the Times reports criminal appeals in detail without bothering to acknowledge congruent facts that support the prosecution and conviction. They misrepresent the circumstances that lead to (sometimes, sometimes not) wrongful convictions while showing no curiosity about the exponentially higher rate of non-prosecution of crimes.
Then there is their intense personal interest in — advocacy for — offenders. They pen long profiles of criminals, detailing their difficult childhoods, their self-reported rehabilitation, their suffering in prison, and the social conditions that allegedly “drove them” to victimize others. These stories rarely include more than passing mention of offenders’ crimes, if they even do that.
Here is the crux of the problem arising from their pro-offender biases: you cannot easily empathize with both a rapist and his victim, so the victim must be erased, or maligned, and the crime erased, or minimized, in order to enhance the reporter’s fictional vision of the criminal.
It is as if these people labor in irony-poor air beneath a giant, pulsating edition of Camus’ The Stranger.
In addition to sloppy ethics, this allegiance to one side of the story leads to sloppy reporting. Sloppy reporting is hardly the worst sin, but it is one that might embarrass them more deeply than the act of reducing victims to one-dimensional, inhuman flotsam.
That part, after all, is entirely intentional.
Last Thursday, the Times ran a typical crime-denying story about the travails of sex offenders who have been released from prison and now live in a homeless settlement under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami. The sex offenders’ advocates say that they are living in tents under the causeway because local laws restrict convicted sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of zones where children gather, and they can find no other place where they may reside legally.
The Times reporter spoke with two of the approximately seventy sex offenders who live under the bridge. He did not bother to note that there are hundreds of registered sex offenders who actually live in apartments near the bridge and throughout the city. You can see the location of registered sex offenders living either on or near the Julia Tuttle Causeway at the Florida Sexual Offenders and Predators website. Go to “neighborhood search”; enter “3400 Biscayne Blvd., 33137″ (an address near the bridge), and choose “five mile radius” and “map” to view the entire downtown. The men dwelling under the bridge appear on the left shore of the causeway.
Some of the men living in apartments have been registered quite recently, so I don’t know why it is that they have housing while others are “forced to” reside under the bridge. Is it a question of money and not just the living restrictions law? Are they addicts who would be homeless anyway, and that is the only place where they can live while homeless? Is it simply getting harder for offenders to find housing because they have to register their addresses now, and landlords are understandably hesitant to accept them as tenants because then their other tenants and neighbors have access to their criminal records? Is the housing problem caused by sex offender registration laws, as much as by sex offender living restriction laws? What are the additional circumstances, not reported by the media, that end in an offender moving under the bridge? Such questions are not addressed in the many news stories about the poor-sex-offenders-living-under-the-bridge.
There are thousands of homeless people in Miami: the ones who are not sex offenders, however, are not currently a pet cause in the national press.
The sight of so many sex offenders in one place is startling: it is no solution for them to live there, of course. But then, when you expand the search area on the sex offenders website to see the sex offenders living throughout the city, something else becomes startling, as well. Some streets seem filled with offenders. There are seven hundred registered sex offenders in downtown Miami alone. When you look at that map, at flag upon flag until the city disappears beneath them, you can understand why people said: “Enough. We don’t want any more of them near us.”
That is another thing you will not read in the New York Times.
The A.C.L.U. is using this sex offender encampment to challenge living restriction laws, and so “Julia Tuttle Causeway” has become a sort of national rallying cry for activists who oppose placing restrictions on where convicted sex offenders may live. These activists unabashedly include reporters who have done an especially poor job of covering the living restrictions issue from all sides.
For example, one reporter writes that there is “no proof” that living restrictions prevent crime, and then another reporter repeats that as fact, yet they do not bother to write about instances of convicted offenders being picked up and returned to prison for refusing to stay away from restricted zones. They never discuss cases where family members tried, and failed, to have a threatening offender returned to prison but could not because, prior to these laws, the bar was often too high to do so. Parole officers were hesitant to act without adequate power, or they were sympathetic to the offender, or apathetic, their apathy aided by vague laws. For one tragic example, see the Silver Comet Trail killer, here and here.
Now, large numbers of convicted sex offenders who would have flown under the radar before the registration laws and living restriction laws went into effect have instead been removed from the streets for violating the terms of their release. Of course, there is no way to count the number of potential sexual assaults that are headed off by enforcing this part of offenders’ sentences. But that is part of the story, if you actually report the story objectively.
Enforcement of living restrictions is complicated. At what point do restrictions become too onerous? Too cost-inefficient? How many men are returning to prison for violating them? How many of these men attacked additional victims while they were breaking the laws? Are strict registration rules, without living restrictions, perhaps the better choice?
Or do living restriction laws offer poor communities the only chance to avoid becoming dumping grounds for huge numbers of sex offenders, even if it is a piecemeal, inefficient approach?
The Times doesn’t care to answer such questions. Faced with a complex subject, they retreat to their preferred narrative, that the men living under the Julia Tuttle Bridge are victims of government oppression:
Under the bridge on Thursday, tents and plywood shacks competed for space with rusty bicycles, a skinny cat, and a beige lawn chair. In a sign of the camp’s bereft permanence, a yellow electrical cord attached to a generator snaked through the camp flat against the ground, pounded by countless footsteps.
Bereft permanence. And make that completely innocent victims: otherwise, the narrative grows muddy. But how do you make the case that these seventy convicted sexual offenders are innocents deserving of sympathy? Shockingly, rather than reporting their official records, the reporter does this by allowing the offenders he interviews to describe their own crimes:
Patrick Wiese, 48 . . . said he served time in prison after having his stepdaughter touch him inappropriately. . .
Look at how carefully the reporter crafts this phrase: “after having his stepdaughter touch him inappropriately.” Having her . . . touch . . . inappropriately. A whisper of a crime. A transitory moment, a merely “inappropriate” gesture, and now he lives under a bridge, poor man, poor Humbert Humbert, three solid years of the countless pounding footsteps and extension cords and relentless sun.
Of course, that is not what really happened.
Here are the crimes for which Patrick Wiese was convicted: three counts of molesting a child under the age of 12 over a period of nine months. The disposition is available on-line. Why would a reporter fail to check the record?
Or rather, which is worse: failing to check the official record, or checking it and then intentionally misrepresenting it?
I have a hard time believing that the Times wouldn’t bother to do a simple, on-line fact check, so I think the reporter looked at Patrick Wiese’s record and tried to figure out how to make Wiese sound as “innocent” as possible, even though the only way of doing so would be to collude in obfuscating — denying — his repeated sexual assault of a young child.
The Times, after all, wanted its readers to see only one thing: a bridge, with broken men huddled beneath it, abused by the world, not abusers. And so the reporter, doing his job, denied through careful omission repeated instances of sexual torture in the interest of advancing this agenda.
You know, like Rumsfeld did with Abu Ghraib.
Only when Abu Ghraib happened, the Times howled to the heavens. Then, they took a stand in favor of total transparency. They rejected arguments about the safety of the troops in wartime, calling them a smokescreen for a political agenda. They published an “important,” line-in-the-sand essay in which Susan Sontag raged over the horror of subjecting male prisoners to sexual abuse, titled “Regarding the Torture of Others.” They published scores of other articles exploring every aspect of those violations, slowly, graphically, outragedly.
Add to that, ironically. For when this Times reporter was required by routine standards of journalistic accuracy to note the repeated sexual assault — the repeated sexual torture — of a child, “under twelve,” the Times allowed that crime to be swept under the carpet in the interest of advancing their agenda.
Some victims of repeated sexual abuse are just more important than others, I suppose.
It would have taken one sentence to present a correct record of Patrick Wiese’s crimes. Not only should the Times have done that, but given the subject of the article, they should have noted his denial of the serious nature of his crime alongside the official record documenting it. The article, after all, was supposed to be about measures taken to address recidivism by sexual offenders.
How do you justify talking about recidivism policy while denying the recidivist nature of the crimes committed by the very person you are using to illustrate the subject?
Consider the particular horror of this instance of child sexual abuse. The victim was a child, under twelve; she was forced to live with her rapist. He had access to her all of the time; she was also forced, for months, or years, to behave as if the rape was not happening. She had to go to sleep at night with him in the house. She was told by him that she was the one who was guilty of touching him. She was told that “touching” him (one must assume sexually manipulating him) was a minor thing, nothing to take seriously or tell. And then, after enduring the horror of repeated assault, then police interviews, and frightening exams, and a terribly frightening trial, a reporter comes along and says to the world precisely what the rapist said to her: “She touched him.” “Yeah, it was inappropriate. Touching.”
I know several victims of childhood sexual assault, and this type of denial on the part of others is every bit as soul-corroding as the assaults themselves.
Consider this, too: anyone who works with childhood sexual abuse victims will tell you that prosecuting abusers is incredibly difficult because circumstances make it very easy to avoid leaving the types of physical evidence that can hold up in court. After all, offenders live with their victims; they often dress them and undress them and bathe them and lie down next to them in their beds, so unless a child-victim is so severely injured that he or she is brought to the hospital directly following an assault in which semen was left behind, or the victim is infected with a traceable venereal disease, there is little chance of proving forcible rape. Oral sodomy is even more difficult to prove.
So when I see an offender with a record of one or three instances of “inappropriate touching,” I suspect that’s the tip of the iceberg. I suspect the conviction is the result of a plea bargain agreed to just to get the sick bastard away from the child and onto a registry, which is the most victims can reasonably hope for in the courts these days, as jurors increasingly demand DNA evidence or actual photographs of the crime.
One would think the amount of denial of crime that is built into our criminal justice system would be enough: enough of a burden to place on victims; more than enough of a burden to place on a child who has been forced to live with her abuser until somebody finally forced him to live somewhere else. Like under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami.
But in the newsroom of the New York Times, there is never enough crime denial, never enough opportunities to bury what has been done to victims in order to make the offenders the only real victims in sight.