The Times poses a puzzle on its front page today - in the world that brought us Trayvon Martin, what is news, and what is not news? In the course of asking they continue their non-coverage of Summer Moody (now deceased) and Matthew Owens, two stories with Trayvon Martin resonance that don't fit any comfortable Times templates.
News, if we include front page placement on the Times, includes stories like this:
Black Man’s Killing in Georgia Eludes Spotlight
By KIM SEVERSON
LYONS, Ga. — Norman Neesmith was sleeping in his home on a rural farm road here in onion country when a noise woke him up.
He grabbed the .22-caliber pistol he kept next to his bed and went to investigate. He found two young brothers who had been secretly invited to party with an 18-year-old relative he had raised like a daughter and her younger friend. The young people were paired up in separate bedrooms. There was marijuana and sex.
Over the course of the next confusing minutes on a January morning in 2011, there would be a struggle. The young men would make a terrified run for the door. Mr. Neesmith, who is 62 and white, fired four shots. One of them hit Justin Patterson, who was 22 and black.
The bullet pierced his side, and he died in Mr. Neesmith’s yard. His younger brother, Sha’von, then 18, ran through the onion fields in the dark, frantically trying to call his mother.
Yet somehow this did not get national attention and Sharptonian ministrations as Trayvon Martin did. The Times does identify a possible clue here:
On that day, Jan. 29, 2011, Mr. Neesmith was arrested. The district attorney brought seven charges against him, among them murder,false imprisonment and aggravated assault. On Thursday, Mr. Neesmith is expected to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct, which might bring a year in a special detention program that requires no time behind bars.
I'll just throw out a guess that the prompt arrest, charge and plea minimized outrage. And since you ask, let's hear about the confusing struggle:
When Mr. Neesmith pulled the young men out of the bedrooms, he threatened to call the younger girl’s grandfather, according to court documents and interviews. He asked the two, who both have young daughters, why they were not home with their children. He ranted and waved the gun around.
So the brothers made a run for it. By all accounts, while the younger one struggled to unlock a side door, the older one shoved Mr. Neesmith.
Police testimony in early court documents shows that Justin Patterson pushed him against a table and chairs. In a recent interview and in other documents, Mr. Neesmith said he took a “whipping” that caused bleeding and cuts. He showed a reporter repairs to two holes in the wall that he said came from the struggle.
Mr. Neesmith’s first shots were fired while he was on the floor, according to investigators. One bullet hit the ceiling and the other hit Justin Patterson. Then, as the two ran, Mr. Neesmith went to the porch and fired two more shots. He called a friend, a bail bondsman, who told him to call the police.
Mr. Neesmith said he fired the extra shots as a warning. “Those boys could have come back and killed me in my own bed,” he said.
By the time he fired the fatal shot the boys were running, so a strict self-defense plea should have been out of bounds. However, the DA eventually decided he had other problems:
As the case unfolded, however, circumstances became clearer. The other girl in the trailer was 14, though she had told the men she was 18. Mr. Neesmith’s lawyers pointed out that a statutory rape charge could be bought. So could drug charges.
The shots off the porch were something someone in the country might do to make sure the intruders did not come back, [District Attorney] Mr. Altman said. Mr. Neesmith, who has a chronic nerve condition in his right arm and hand as well as other health problems, had been woken up in the middle of the night. He was not thinking clearly, Mr. Altman said; he had no record, and by all accounts was a good man.
Moreover, Mr. Altman said in a recent interview in his office, “I couldn’t see that I could find a jury that would convict.” Most people in a rural area with a high percentage of gun ownership would most likely accept that the fatal shot was in self-defense, he said.
“It might not feel fair for the family, and I am sorry for their loss,” he said. “But this is not at all like the case in Florida, other than they are both tragedies.”
So there is a story the Times thinks might have been news, and might yet become news, if their front page placement has the power it once did.
Meanwhile, you can look high and low in the Times for coverage of Summer Moody, a blond teenage girl shot and in a coma (and now reportedly dead) during a teen-age hijinks break-in of an empty fishing cabin. The three teens doing the burgling in have been charged; the shooters, one of whom fired a fatal "warning shot", have not.
Let me help with the puzzle of what makes news. J-school grads don't dream of covering the local weather; every journalism school graduate longs to participate in any or all of three of the great stories of our nation's past. These earnest scriveners all hope to:
(a) be Woodward and/or Bernstein, breaking the web of deceit and unraveling the cover-up protecting the powerful. (In the current environment they don't want to end up working for Murdoch, so only Republicans get the full treatment; contrast Edwards and McCain in 2008).
(b) report from the bridge at Selma, standing with Martin Luther King against Bull Connor. Oh, to be young and a Freedom Rider, inveighing against White Oppression and Black Injustice!
or, (c) aid Daniel Ellsberg and publish the Truth that ends the Unjust War.
It really is that simple - any story that has the potential to be mashed into one of those templates will have the actual facts trimmed to size. The Duke Lacrosse debacle was such a great parable of White Oppression and Black Helplessness that actual facts didn't intrude on Times reporting for months.
And after a brief attitudinal speed-bump following 9/11 the Times was declaring a quagmire in Afghanistan in November 2011 and (Judith Miller notwithstanding) fully embraced its Vietnam flashbacks in Iraq.
And as a caveat, obviously certain political triggers can boost a story's importance - if the Times can find a gun control angle, boost the gay agenda, or promote abortion rights then a story is "news".
Matthew Owens fits no template the Times finds comfortable. Summer Moody fits their very long term gun control agenda, but rifles were employed and only the most ardent gun controller thinks we will be making "progress" there any time soon.
And obviously, their latest 'why isn't this news' story has them Freedom Riding again in the South. What kind of world are we living in when young black men can't smoke dope in an old white guys house, have sex with a fourteen year old, and beat the old guy up when he squawks? Mysterious. To the Times.