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