A grisly lesson for journalists

July 31, 2005|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - An hour after former Miami City Commissioner Arthur E. Teele Jr. shot himself to death in the lobby of The Miami Herald on Wednesday evening, I received an e-mail from a distraught reader laying his death at the doorstep of the news media.

The note made only oblique reference to Mr. Teele's manifold legal problems - among them, an indictment two weeks ago on more than two dozen corruption charges and a conviction for threatening a police officer. But on the issue of media culpability, my correspondent was direct. "I don't know about you," he wrote, "but there has been more than one time in my life that I easily could have been Art Teele. And in all fairness, the media machine played no small part in Mr. Teele's undoing. We are all responsible for our own actions, mistakes and decisions, but every one of us can use a little compassion and understanding as we make our way in this world."

Mind you, this charge was leveled the day before The Miami New Times came out with an exhaustive story detailing Mr. Teele's alleged relationships with drug dealers, male and female prostitutes and crooked contractors. It has been suggested that Mr. Teele found it one humiliation too many.

"It's just a surreal coincidence that he did this on the day my article came out," said Francisco Alvarado, who wrote the New Times piece. "I really feel bad; I would never want anyone to harm themselves over something I wrote, but at the end of the day, I was just doing my job."

There's a faintly defensive tone to the statement, suggesting that if Mr. Teele did mean to send a message, it's been received. My question is, once received, what do we do with it?

It is not the news media's job to spare feelings. Rather, it is media's job to put the corrupt, the inept, the mendacious, the venal, the hypocritical and the plain stupid "on blast," as the kids say, i.e., to publicize their sins and misdeeds broadly. To speak truth to power and truth about power. To call spades spades.

It is an unavoidable byproduct of that process that we make people piM-qatas, objects for others to line up and take a whack. It happened to Bill Clinton, happened to Robert H. Bork, happened to John Rocker, happened to Mr. Teele.

I intend no apology for, denial of, or absolution of those men's sins, real or perceived. My only point is that universal derision has this way of objectifying people, making them not people anymore at all, but caricatures, symbols of this social failing or that human weakness. It makes them seem not quite flesh, not really blood, so that you and I can take our whacks without concern that the thing on the receiving end really feels the blows.

But every once in a while, you are reminded - brutally - otherwise.

Frankly, I don't know what to do with that knowledge. Not doing my job energetically is not an option. Not putting wrongdoing on blast is not an option.

So yeah, I don't really know where to put the knowledge. But I still think it valuable to have.

I just wish the price of having it had not been so grisly and so high. A community in mourning, a family in shock, a once-lionized man lying on a newspaper floor in a pool of his own blood because he just couldn't take it anymore.

A reminder that these objects and symbols are people first. And that sometimes, people break.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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