Media coverage of executions used to be shameless. Reporters played advocate, inserting themselves and their inflamed sensibilities into the story, while victims’ families were ignored or accused of being “vengeful,” a crime apparently worse than murder itself.
Only victims’ families were thus demeaned: offenders, no matter the horror of their actual crimes, were depicted in only the most positive light. They were deemed specially sensitive, or dignified, or talented, or at least pitiful, as if playing up to (or merely embodying) the reporter’s sensibilities magically erased the profound harm these men had visited on others.
Reporters filed bathetic stories detailing this killer’s last meal or that prisoner’s hobbies without mentioning the behavior that had placed the men on death row in the first place, unless, that is, extremely prurient details or a high body count made for interesting reading.
Victims were either ignored, or criticized, or their suffering was objectified.
Such overt expressions of contempt aimed at victims are no longer the status quo. But I don’t believe that what has replaced them in reporting is better. Now, in the interest of allegedly telling “both sides of the story,” journalists dutifully mention the offender’s crime and say a few nice things about the victim’s life. They let the victim’s family have their say — something that rarely happened in the past, though they’re often angling for the victims to say something angry, so they can make them sound “vengeful.”
Then, “balance” accomplished, the reporters get back to the business of valorizing murderers.
This type of reporting depicts victims and killers as moral equals. It denies that there is any difference between being an innocent murdered horribly by some sociopath thug or being the murdering sociopath thug (cleaned up for the cameras, of course, via years of taxpayer-subsidized advice from their lawyers).
When both victim and killer are presented as victims, then who, exactly, is the victimizer?
Obviously, the state, or “society,” or “all of us,” which is the reporter’s real point.
Ultimately, in journalism like this, the victim’s suffering, and the family’s expressions of pain, are merely put through the grinder in the service of the offender in a new way. It’s just a different flavor of dehumanization. And if this disturbing article and video and even more disturbing editorial in the Austin Statesman are any indication of what can be done to crime victims in the name of such moral leveling, family members of should probably just go back to refusing to speak to reporters at all.
In a long feature story this week, the Austin Statesman commits the act of moral equivalency in order to advocate against the execution of David Lee Powell. I say “advocate” here because the reporters are clearly pleading Powell’s case. How clearly? The story is actually accompanied by an emotive video of Powell, his voice cracking and wavering, bestowing his jailhouse wisdom to the article’s reporters, who appear on the screen swaying like awed schoolboys to the rhythm of his words.
The video is a perversion. It’s porn, a pornographic display of Powell’s feigned remorse, which he utters in the carefully parsed syntax of legal dissembling. In the video and on the page, the reporters allow Powell to explain away his failure to apologize to the family of his victim for nearly 30 years. They don’t happen to mention that he spent those years denying responsibility throughout several appeals and re-trials, which is the real reason why he never previously expressed remorse, also why the remorse so exhibitionistically flashed here is unlikely to actually exist:
Saying he is horrified to have caused Ablanedo’s murder, Powell has tried to apologize to the officer’s family and to express regret for the pain he caused by “an act that was a betrayal of everything I believed in and aspired to be.” “I had wanted to do it for decades,” Powell said of his December 2009 letter to Ablanedo’s family. “Although it was obviously too little too late, it seemed like the right thing to do. It seemed like a small, tentative first step towards healing the tear in the social fabric that was caused” by the murder.
He “tried,” you know. Just never got around to doing it until the appeals ran out. It’s clear that Powell doesn’t feel remorse. He doesn’t even really speak of remorse — instead, he starts rambling about being a victim of a justice system that “humbled” and “bruised” him. Throughout this performance, the camera pans to the reporters, making them part of Powell’s jailhouse drama. If their article is any measure of the interactions in that room, it’s an exciting role for them.
The video is clearly edited to convey Powell’s humanity and fragility, and yet it fails to achieve that goal. Raw contempt shines through his lawyerly demurrals despite all the close-ups of his shaking hands and a soundtrack featuring his breathing sounds, amplified for effect.
Powell spends more time talking about SAT scores and high school grades than the officer’s murder. So, for that matter, do the reporters. According to the killer, he “scored the highest score that had ever been scored” on the SAT, and this should define him, not the officer’s murder. In other words, doing well on the SAT should excuse the killing of a human being.
The rest of the article is the usual jumble of schlock, lies, and omissions. Impressively, reporters, Chuck Lindell and Tony Plohetski completely paper over Powell’s long history of appeals, quite an accomplishment in a long article about the long time it has taken to execute Powell because of his long history of appeals.
The result is an awful lot like watching a fixed dog hump the air.
Not that any of this is actually funny. It’s grotesque. It’s grotesque that the Austin Statesman would demean the victims by weighing Powell’s high school grades against the brutal murder of a young cop and father. It’s grotesque that they pose the pseudo-metaphysical question: Has Powell’s Execution Lost Its Meaning? and then paddle around haplessly answering “yes” for five pages, yet pretend that what they are doing is reporting on Powell’s impending execution.
It’s grotesque that they ambush the victims and exploit their losses, both in the article and in a Statesman editorial which intentionally misrepresents statements by the victim’s family (the family did an amazing job responding to the media).
I had trouble embedding the Powell video in the blog today. But please go to the newspaper’s website and take a look. The editorial is here, and the interview with Bruce and Judy Mills, from which their quotes are ripped out of context, is here.
That the editors would behave this way really does speak to a mindset in which victims’ deaths are deemed less significant than their killers’ report cards, or the hobbies they take up on death row, or the fact that they have lots of pen pals . . . all arguments promoted by the fine journalists at the Austin Statesman. If this is what happens when reporters imagine they are inserting “balance” into their death row reporting, I’ll take the bad old days when they just pointed fingers and screamed “vigilante” at people who had lost their loved ones to violence. It was a less dirty fight that way.