The crime beat in Memphis must be a difficult gig. Clearly it’s the number one issue for the city. It is ever present, oppressive and depressing. It’s no surprise that those that have to deal with it develop a dark, gallows humor. Policeman, first responders and journalists all fall ill to it. It’s a coping mechanism and totally understandable.
The weekend crime reporter for the Commercial Appeal is Ryan Poe. This past week, he put together a story about a woman being drug from a car on Southern avenue by her hair. Luckily, she’s going to recover and the assailant (her boyfriend) is in custody. It’s a terriable but typical crime story in a city chock full of them.
What caught me was Poe’s lede. I’m afraid that the lede was yanked, so I can’t quote it directly. But in essence it said that the victim was “shaken to her roots” by the incident. I was pretty surprised that someone would try to crack a lame joke at the expense of the victim in an assault case. So I sent off a message via Twitter to both Poe and the Commercial Appeal.
“@memphisnews @ryanpoe the “shaken to her roots line” was ugly and inappropriate.”
I didn’t think much about it until the next day when Poe replied:
“@edlarnold I’m sorry to hear the line apparently shook you to your roots also. Thanks for the feedback though.”
Obviously, it was a pretty backhanded comment. So presented with opportunity to pick his brain about why he would write it, I asked:
“@ryanpoe how about “she’ll try to turn the other cheek after her boyfriend punched her in the face”? so what’s the difference?”
Sadly, Poe wasn’t mature enough to have this conversation and decided that he would once again try lame humor:
“@edlarnold Hey, that’s over the line, and I’m deeply offended that you would joke about such things. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
and I responded:
“@ryanpoe both are glib comments about the victims of violent crimes. Only you did it to an actual person. Congrats. Hope it was worth it.”
So in light of that, Poe decided to dig in:
“”Shaken to her roots” was definitely worth it. Learn to laugh a little Ed.”
I’m afraid the defense of “hey, lighten up” doesn’t really cut it. So I made my point clear as I could:
“@ryanpoe laughing at the victims of violent crime is the worst kind of “humor.” We can see how much you don’t want to be wrong on this. You made a mistake, it happens. But your obnoxious defense is really showing your true colors.”
During the exchange, the official Commercial Appeal twitter feed informed me that:
“@edlarnold Thanks for getting in touch about the article yesterday. The line was shown to editorial and removed.”
Poe wouldn’t engage further in the subject though he did decide to tack some more snark on a few hours later, tweeting this after writing up a story about a headache powder robbery:
“I would say that they gave the company a migraine, but that might offend @edlarnold, so…”
I tried to put myself in his situation. I am completely sympathetic to the original lede. It was a toss-off line. One that he himself thought might be “too cheesy” (as his twitter feed showed). It could happen to anyone trying to find a good lede for such a story. I could completely see myself making this same mistake.
The problem comes in his reaction.
The newspaper by nature is a public service. Sometimes people find elements of the newspaper to be offensive or out of bounds. When these sort of conflicts arise, its the job of the reporters to engage with the readers and defend their point of view. The paper can get it wrong, the public can get it wrong, but it is the dialog that bonds the community to the reporters and the papers. If Poe had an intellectual underpinning to his argument, I’d have been glad to hear it and debate it. He didn’t have one that I could see. In essence, Poe wants me to lighten up, take the joke with its intended lack of malice and go away.
The victim of the crime might not ever have her name in the public eye again. She was attacked and brutalized, the last thing she and her family need to see is a flip joke leading the story about it. That’s why, in general, hacky jokes are frowned upon in the crime section. The only jokes that are appropriate are one’s that lampoon the criminal rather than the victim.
The sad part is, I think Poe’s decided that I’m some overly serious nitpicker who is just trolling for things to be mad about and that the paper’s decision to kill the lede within a day of its original posting was just pandering. So I’m fairly certain that he feels there are no lesson’s to be gleaned from this.
Mistakes happen all the time, we all make them. It’s how you deal with and react to mistakes that show your character.