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Sunday, April 11, 2004

Perfectly lousy journalism

Nothing like the award-winning Oregonian (year after year, voted the best daily newspaper in Portland) to get the blood boiling on Easter.

Today we got an above-the-fold, front page testament to what a wonderful cop and a wonderful guy is Jason Sery, the Portland police officer who shot and killed the unarmed James Jahar Perez two weeks ago. The story (not on line at the moment, but I'll link to it if it reappears tomorrow) runs on for 58 column-inches. Sery got a commendation once when he served on the force in Billings, Montana. His friends and family say he's a saint:

[A] gentle and patient family man. A spiritual person, dedicated to Christian teachings on morality and compassion. A tireless and inventive cop who is a natural at working with the public.
He's gotten a dozen commendations in Portland for his work with neighborhood groups. He doesn't cuss.

How lovely, and how irrelevant. Good people do stupid things sometimes, and when other people die as a result of them, the good people have to be held accountable. I doubt that anyone would ever charge, much less try to prove, that Sery intentionally murdered Perez. The real question is whether he had reasonable cause to kill him, given the facts that Perez was unarmed and that the fatal shots rang out in 24 seconds after the stop was radioed in to the police station. Sery's supposedly model background adds literally nothing to answering that question. Reasonableness is an objective, not a subjective, factual question. If the officer panicked and killed the man without adequate cause, he's committed a homicide that ought to get him thrown off the force, if not criminally prosecuted.

That is so obvious. Why is everyone afraid to say it, and stay focused on it?

The Oregonian's unbalanced report was particularly disturbing in light of the other front-page, above-the-fold story it ran, on Saturday, reminding us yet again that the dead man had a high level of cocaine in his bloodstream when he was killed. The Saturday story, which covered around 30 column-inches, marvelled at how high the levels were, and at how none of the chemical byproducts of cocaine ingestion were present. All of which can only suggest, according to the paper, that the man swallowed a bunch of bags of coke just before he was shot.

Even if he did, so what? If he wasn't armed, he didn't deserve to die. And all the obfuscation in the world isn't going to change that truth in this case.

In a ham-handed attempt at balance, I suppose, The O also ran a very curious pictorial feature on the front page of its Sunday "Living Today" section in which five African-American Portlanders were very briefly interviewed for their views on the meaning of the latest police shooting. The front-page blurb on this piece promises that it will tell us "what it means to be black in Portland." How laughable to claim that it does more than scratch the surface of that subject. And how degrading that it was run in the front of the section of the paper that contains society cocktail party photos, Roseanne Barr's latest doings, Dear Abby, and the horoscopes. Look! We have African-Americans in this city! Now, that's living today!

And of course, one of the five interviewees happens to be a police officer, who'd "never second-guess the officers in the Perez shooting."

I can understand why a paper like The Oregonian runs this kind of material. I was a reporter for a Newhouse newspaper myself once, part of the time covering a police beat in Jersey City, N.J. in the middle of the night. I learned there that the press and the cops get friendly with each other -- often too friendly -- because if the cops stop talking to the press, the press can't get the information it needs to sell papers. There's a lot of one-hand-washing-the-other. It's inevitable.

But this weekend, I think the local fishwrap went a little overboard. Intentionally or not, they're aggravating the frustration and anger that's being felt as a too-limited public inquest and a too-secret, too-familiar grand jury proceeding draw near.

Maybe they should send their "architecture critic," Randy Gragg (stay tuned for another rant about this guy), out to do a piece on buildings in North and Northeast Portland that might burn if the anger and frustration explode this summer.

Comments (10)

First off, let me say I really like Randy Gragg. I find his articles interesting and provocative. I especially like the fact that he holds Portland architecture to a high standard, and doesn't let developers get away with building bland boring structures just because they are in Portland.

Second, I believe Sery's past is relevant to me an interested reader. The Big O is trying to flesh out the characters involved in this drama, and I appreciate it. It's a newspaper not a trial.

I read you for the same reason I read the Oregonian. One perspective is just that.

The more perspectives you have, the more informed your opinion.

It appears the Admin in Portland, unlike the Admin in the White House, is trying to find the flaws and figure out solutions without lying or pretending or covering up. At least our media sources aren't swallowing everything they're told.

I think his past commendations are as relevant as his past experience with African-Americans. That is to say, if one is relevant so is the other.

I also think that the more we know about the situation (and the more human the people - all the people - in the conflict become as a result), it's that much less likely that we will have explosions in the streets.

Yeah, you can call me Pollyanna if you want to...

Jack, you're too hard on the Oregonian ... except when it comes to Randy "Fancy Pants" Gragg.

PS: After nearly seven months, we finally figured out Trackback. Please be honored to know that you are Trackback Numero Uno for WWP. [Why was that so difficult?]

In response to the Big O's story about the medical results, I had the same initial reaction as http://webfeet.blogspot.com in that there may have been a veiled reference to a possible plant of the evidence. I also see the general coverage as mostly okay though I agree with Bojack on the Sunday feature in the Living section.

If anything, the background info on the officer, IMHO, shows his absolute unpreparedness for dealing with inner-city Nort/Northeast Portland. Yeah, Montana is a whole lot like North/Northeast Portland (NOT!!!).

This whole thing just reminds me of an unpleasant exchange I once had with a Portland police officer (though not nearly as tragic).

A few years ago I got a photo-radar ticket in the mail stating that I had been busted for speeding. The pamphlet that came with the ticket instructed me to call a number if I had any questions regarding the ticket. Being inquisitive by nature, I called the number.

It turned out that the number listed was the number of the officer who snapped the legendary photo. I asked him if I could ask him some basic questions regarding photo radar, but, to my surprise, he replied: "You are not supposed to call this number. Do we have a language barrier problem?"

Just because I have a Chinese name and speak with an accent, the officer automatically assumed that I would have a language barrier problem. It doesn't matter that I had been in this country for over 15 years, or that I was finishing up my Ph.D. at that time. To him, I was not worth the trouble.

I know that this one police officer does not represent the entire Portland police department, but I certainly understand the fear/anger/concerns expressed by the black community.

Can one of you explain what EXACTLY is the difference between US citizens of the 'black community', and the remaining citizens of the US?

If special 'preparedness' is required to deal with this special subset of American citizenry (as suggested by 'hilsy'), please explain why.

Wow Yi Hu,

That guy was totally ignorant. Sorry that happened to you.


Thanks for the commentary. It takes courage and fortitude in these times to speak the truth. Keep it up.

Alan Graf


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Perfectly lousy journalism:

» From bad, to worse from worldwide pablo
Two headlines, both involving the most recent police shooting in Northeast Portland, catch WWP's interest tonight: On Sunday, the Daily O breathlessly detailed the Boy Scout world of Jason Sery, the Portland cop who shot and killed an unarmed motorist [Read More]

» Thin blue race. from Long story; short pier
Portland bloggers Ethan Lindsey and Christopher Frankonis (the One True b!X) are both typing up blow-by-blow coverage of the public inquest into the shooting of James Jahar Perez by Portland police officer Jason Sery. It’s the first such inquest... [Read More]

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