The Comfortable and the Afflicted

Dave Miller, the popular host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud,” was shot to death last night in an apparent road-rage attack.

Now that’s the kind of fake news that is not even remotely plausible.

Guys like Dave Miller are rarely homicide victims, and they know it.

Professional journalists – especially those who occupy the elite bubble of public radio – know perfectly well they don’t fit the profile of a typical homicide victim.

Most homicide victims are poor or working class – whatever their skin color. They live in rundown neighborhoods surrounded by people with criminal histories (but not necessarily criminal records; not all criminals are caught and convicted). Homicide victims are more likely to frequent places where drugs and/or alcohol are heavily consumed. They are more likely to cross paths with people who are violent – including friends and family.

So it’s not surprising when a journalist like Miller interviews a killer and doesn’t bother to mention the victim’s name. Dead people aren’t very quotable, after all, unless they have left some kind of written or recorded work. (Should Miller ever truly be a homicide victim, his colleagues at OPB will have plenty of material to work with. I’m partial to his interview with Summer Whisman, a young woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, who was dying in a protracted agony that would terrify most Death Row inmates.)

But Miller’s recent interview with killer Gerald Strebendt was a revealing low point.

What a lovely story it was. Even fragrant. Just listening to it you could smell the lavender and sage that Strebendt said he rubbed in his hair while he was in the high desert plains of Eastern Oregon, planting sagebrush for habitat restoration.

Strebendt was one of the lucky inmates selected for the Sagebrush in Prisons project. This is a partnership among the Institute for Applied Ecology, Department of Corrections and the Bureau of Land Management to offer inmates meaningful work while also restoring native habitat for the sage-grouse.

It is a great idea, although Strebendt may not have deserved to be selected. He bragged about the other inmates being envious of him being allowed to work outdoors. He also boasted about how bad his crime was, saying the murder he was initially accused of was one of the worst. Then he gloated about how the prosecutor had to reduce the charges to criminally negligent homicide.

While Miller made a passing reference to a generic victim, he never gave Strebendt’s victim a name. There was no mention of David Paul Crofut, 53, who was shot to death on Jan. 29, 2014 in a road-rage incident.

Strebendt had a history of confrontations with other motorists, according to the Eugene Register-Guard. On the night of the killing, a witness reported seeing Strebendt pursue Crofut’s SUV after the latter made an illegal right turn on a Springfield, Ore., road. The witness said Strebendt’s pickup truck pulled in front of Crofut’s SUV and stopped.

Crofut was legally intoxicated, and when he tried to maneuver his SUV around Strebendt’s truck he collided with the pickup, according to prosecutors.

Strebendt, a former Marine sniper, grabbed a semiautomatic rifle and exited his vehicle. Crofut’s body was found more than 60 feet in front of Strebendt’s pickup. Strebendt said he shot him in self-defense. Crofut’s DNA was found on the barrel of the gun, and Strebendt’s attorney said it proved Crofut had reached for the gun.

Or could it be that Crofut reached for the gun to try and stop Strebendt from shooting him?

Either way, Strebendt came out the victor. After less than three years in prison, he’s now free to go on public radio and spin a tale of being a bad-ass facing murder charges and becoming a redeemed man. Crofut doesn’t even merit a name from Strebendt or Miller.

Being outside in nature and planting sage brush are undoubtedly good for body and soul. But Strebendt’s lack of humility suggests his transformation is shallow.

It’s becoming a routine story. The media have signed on to help end mass incarceration without questioning whether it is wise to let criminal offenders cast themselves as the victims. Even words like “criminal offenders” or “suspects” or “prisoners” are discouraged by some news media.

That kind of semantics debate is a luxury when you don’t belong to a demographic that is more likely to end up the victim of a violent crime. There are no guarantees for any of us, though.

A couple of months ago, a young father in Philadelphia was shot and killed after returning home from playing Frisbee with his 2-year-old daughter. The child was still sitting in the car’s back seat when a 16-year-old male and his 21-year-old brother confronted Gerard Grandzol and took his wallet, then demanded the keys to his Audi.

The 38-year-old father refused to turn over the keys because his daughter was still in the car. One of the males shot him twice in the head. (See there – doesn’t “males” sound nicer than “thugs?”)

Grandzol was described in the Philadelphia news as a “proud community advocate” and a graduate of St. Joseph’s University. He was executive director of Special Counsel, a leading provider of contract and direct-hire attorneys and paralegals in the area.

His killing probably wouldn’t have made the news outside Philadelphia except there’s a race for District Attorney that is attracting attention after the last DA – a black, progressive named Seth Williams – ended up in prison on corruption charges.

The race is now between a Republican and a Democrat. Even in a city that is overwhelmingly registered Democratic, that party’s candidate has been criticized for his lack of concern towards public safety.

For all the talk about the evils of mass incarceration, the two males who shot Grandzol didn’t seem concerned about the threat of prison.

Just as police officers are now expected to be social workers, the media have embraced the cause of improving society by (as the old journalism saying goes) comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

The problem is: Who exactly is “the comfortable,” and who exactly is “the afflicted?”

I still have some of the many studies and resources given to me when I was covering crime and courts in San Bernardino, Calif., two decades ago for a newspaper then owned by Gannett, the largest chain in America.

One glossy, 66-page publication by The Freedom Forum – “Covering Crime, Courts & Corrections” – offers advice that has grown increasingly popular: Portray perpetrators as humans and not just villains; analyze the forces that influenced perpetrators; do not call people “burglars,” “murderers” as though those are their names; educate readers on what prisoners face on release, not just during incarceration; pursue in-depth stories on prisoners who do change their lives

Some advice didn’t take hold: Less political correctness for the sake of political correctness; be willing to put blame on people who deserve it; focus on crimes that affect the most number of people (when was the last time you saw a story about a burglary?); cover communities of color as crime victims, not just perpetrators; more coverage of the positives as well as negatives of incarceration; victims in all communities should get the same type of coverage.

Victims in all communities will start receiving similar coverage – or at least the courtesy of a name – when there are more victims in all communities.

That’s not something to wish for, but it’s something that could happen. In Philadelphia, homicides are up almost 8 percent.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


A Huge Rash of Homicides

NPR’s Racial Profiling


  • For all the talk from the Left of “privilege” they can’t seem to recognize it when it’s coming from their own perspective. The Brennan Center dismisses huge increases in murder rates over the last two years with explanations of how the rise is mostly due to a few neighborhoods in a few cities. They can’t seem to recognize that claiming we shouldn’t worry about a serious problem because it’s not a problem for me and mine is the definition of privilege.

  • Good point.

    What’s disturbing is how the media treat the Brennan Center for Justice and a similar organization, The Marshall Project (founded by former New York Times Editor Bill Keller) as unbiased and credible sources.

    Andrew Cohen, for example, is a fellow at the Brennan Center and also a senior editor at The Marshall Project. Plus, he is legal analyst for “60 Minutes.” The fact that he has won some journalism awards simply means he has been acknowledged by the mutual admiration society he belongs to. It doesn’t mean his ideas have merit or that his analyses are accurate.

    After reading your comment, I went over and looked at the Brennan Center’s website. I haven’t visited there in a while. So many of the ideas they are pushing are reruns from the 1960s-70’s. They are promoting an agenda, and the unprivileged will be their guinea pigs.

  • AnonymousJD wrote:

    Mr. Strebendt is an angry, young male. What could possibly go wrong by letting him think he deserves special attention.

    The problem with “Think Out Loud” is the lack of thinking. Miller is intelligent enough, however his program is mostly an overview of issues in the news. How much deep thinking can you give three-four issues in one hour?

    Tweeting is replacing thinking in American journalism.

  • What could go wrong — one reason then-District Attorney Alex Gardner offered Strebendt a chance to plead to a lesser charge was that Gardner didn’t want to risk an acquittal. Then Strebendt would have been allowed to own guns legally. As a convicted felon, Strebendt can no longer legally own a gun.

    But as the recent shooting out of Texas shows, even when an offender isn’t supposed to own a gun, he can still obtain one.

    While it’s worth exploring the mistake that allowed the Texas shooter to get a gun, it’s important to question why he wasn’t locked up for a lot longer than a year after fracturing the skull of an infant and beating the child’s mother.

    How violent does someone have to be before we take him seriously?

  • Those commentators on public affairs that I read often point out that we have the worst ruling class ever.

    The excellent Christopher Lasch observed the following:

    “The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it: a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy. . . .

    The culture wars that have convulsed America since the sixties are best understood as a form of class warfare, in which an enlightened elite (as it thinks of itself seeks not so much to impose its values on the majority (a majority perceived as incorrigibly racist, provincial and xenophobic), much less to persuade the majority by means of rational public debate, as to create parallel or “alternative” institutions in which it will no longer be necessary to confront the unenlightened at all.”

    And, for the fun of it this not especially germane observation:

    “The sexual revolution morphed into the French revolution so slowly, I hardly even noticed.”

    Sorry I cannot make a real contribution to the discussion by the times do not allow it.

  • Theodore A. wrote:

    Who’s got time for thinking when you’re trying to keep up with the latest grope scandal. God we’re living weird times. This summer my family went on a media diet. The hunt to get Trump got to us. We felt beat over the head everytime we heard the news. I didn’t even vote for the man.

    Christorpher Lasch is not a bad recommendation for these times, especially The Culture of Narcissism. A real thinker. He probably wouldn’t be welcome on Fox or MSNBC or NPR. Too old, too white and too independent.

  • After you and Larry mentioned Lasch, I thought I would revisit him. I’ve read parts of the “Culture of Narcissism.” But it’s “The New Radicalism in America,” published more than 50 years ago (!) that seems particularly insightful into how poorly the once new radicalism has aged. Everything has become politicized. Lasch probably couldn’t foresee how weak the media would become, and what the results would be. The media too often amplify partisan politics instead of raising questions.

    I suspect that’s one reason we have the worst ruling-class ever. Nobody wants to claim being a member of the ruling-class and risk condemnation, especially the “Dream Hoarders.” (See “The Dream Hoarders: How America’s Top 20 Percent Perpetuates Inequality” by Richard V. Reeves.)

    The Dream Hoarders are likely generous, reliable donors to NPR and have few fears of being victims of violent crime.

  • Am completing the book Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.

    It is worth mentioning that Bernadine Dohrn’s famous speech in which she noted, “Dig it! First they killed those pigs and then they put a fork in pig Tate’s belly. Wild!”

    Charlie’s recent death and all made recalling this observation of some value.

    Those two, Dohrn and Ayres, drove the Social Justice movement into America’s schools and provided guidance and inspiration to young Obama.

    Of course, “What difference – at this point, what difference does it make?”

  • The last time I encountered Bernardine Dohrn was in Ron Suskind’s “A Hope in the Unseen.” This is a great book that came out of Suskind’s work at the Wall Street Journal, where he followed a bright, young black student named Cedric Jennings, who survives a crime-infested school in Washington D.C. and is admitted to Brown University.

    Although Cedric is intelligent and hard-working, he has trouble adjusting to college where he is surrounded by upper-income white kids who have had advantages he has never experienced. During a Parents Weekend, Cedric’s mom, Barbara Jennings, pulls together enough funds to come visit her son. In his dorm, walking up the stairs, there is this simple scene:

    “Are you Barbara Jennings?” says a high, clear woman’s voice.

    Barbara blinks and stops on her step.

    “Hi, I’m Bernardine Dohrn.”

    Barbara looks at her dispassionately. “Oh, hi,” she says, befuddled… .

    “We admire your son enormously,” Bernardine adds. “He’s a great kid.”

    “Yeah, uh-huh,” Barbara says, perplexed by such cloying, white-hot affection from people she has never met.”

    It turns out that Bernardine Dohrn is the mother of Cedric’s dorm mate, Zayd. She has clearly heard about the gifted black boy.

    Dohrn will cluck over a Cedric Jennings, completely oblivious to how she has hurt him by making excuses for the black thugs who threatened his existence in high school. As you note, she and Bill Ayres drove the Social Justice movement into the schools. It’s the Cedric Jennings who have had to live with the result.

    The encounter on the stairs quickly ends with Cedric’s mother brushing past Dohrn:

    “Well, maybe next time we’ll get to see you, spend some time together,” says a clearly dispirited Bernadine to Barbara’s passing left shoulder. She gets a sidelong nod as response.

    This book is written in a fly-on-the-wall style of reporting. Suskind doesn’t interject himself. He just sees everything.

    I wonder who Cedric Jennings voted for in the last presidential election. It wouldn’t surprise me if he voted for none of the names on the ballot.

  • I’ve just put “A Hope in the Unseen” on hold. Principally to read of the encounter w/Dohrn who is an especial subject of interest to me. However, Suskind’s writing seems marked out as high craftsmanship, too.

    Your introduction of “Covering Crime, Courts & Corrections” points to the Soviet style rewrite of the language that has progressed very far in Britain where the turnkeys are obliged to address inmates as “Sir.” In my lifetime problems became issues yet we still have “problems.”

    The two paragraphs of your essay that precede the final para point in the direction of a solution: candid talk about a dire situation, a dire situation about which we have been been lying to ourselves for the last half century.

    Empiricism and pragmatism – so alien to the American mind.

  • I am reading the Suskind book and enjoying it as much as one can – I mean it’s written with such clear eyes, and like all true stories its arc is inevitably tragic.

    Suskind himself brings to mind Janet Malcolm’s observation:

    “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

    It has to be a a somewhat Arbus-like portrait. I see that rail thin boy holding the toy grenade.

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