Non-journalists are always complaining about editorials masquerading as news. Usually, they’re wrong. But sometimes reporters and their news editors are so obviously, nakedly, unabashedly (although not admittedly) making an editorial point that it’s painful to read. And mainly (to one like myself, who does not worship at the altar of the god Objectivity or even belief humans are capable of it) because it’s so badly done.
It’s particularly painful if you happen to be a real editorialist. News people, generally speaking, simply don’t think about what they’re writing about in the necessary ways to do it well. So they come blundering into an issue that they have defined poorly and explained badly, making a mockery of serious commentary. This is not because they lack intelligence. It’s because their jobs don’t require them to think about things that way. When you have to set out your opinion on various aspects of an issue, day after day, for the world to pick apart and throw stones at, you think a lot harder about what you DO think, and WHY, and what the implications are. And parts of your brain that were shut off when you were in news and strictly forbidden to air opinions suddenly get oxygen and start to function. It’s sort of weird. After I’d been in editorial for a couple of years, I was sort of embarrassed to recall some of the facile assumptions I held about issues before I really started thinking about them.
But when you are telling yourself that you don’t HAVE an opinion about it, that you are utterly objective, and yet have an editorial point you’re pushing with all your might, the result is likely to reflect that lack of understanding about what you’re doing.
And the thing is, you can’t even fully explain to news people this epiphany that hit me after I made the transition. You couldn’t even state it without insulting them. (In fact, I’m sure you are horrified at my arrogance, and you’re nothing but a layperson. But seriously, it’s not that I’m BETTER or SMARTER. It’s that the different functions make different demands of whatever poor faculties I may possess.) So you just held your tongue, and were frequently appalled by news people’s ventures into places where they should not go.
For instance, take a look at the piece that ran on the Metro front of The State over the weekend. But this is not about The State, but about the Charleston Post and Courier, from which the piece was reprinted.
The original headline was “S.C.’s tab $7.4M for predators,” which wasn’t particularly helpful, so we go to the subhead “Treating each sex offender in program costs state about $63,000 per year.”
For 12 years, South Carolina has tried to protect the public by keeping its most-dangerous sex offenders locked up behind concrete walls and razor wire long after their prison sentences have ended.
But that sense of security comes at a steep price.
The state shells out about $7.4 million each year to treat those confined under the Sexually Violent Predator Act, which allows authorities to lock up some sex offenders indefinitely for the purpose of alternative care. That translates to about $63,000 per offender annually for each of the 119 predators in the program…
Oooh, golly — $63,000! Of course, it occurred to me immediately that that was probably less than what other states spend on similar programs, because SC always goes the cheap route. And sure enough, the story admits that inconvenient fact down below, but sandwiches it between TWO admonitions to ignore that fact, because… well, because it’s still just too damned much money we’re spending:
Those costs have put the squeeze on many governments struggling to cut expenditures in a crippling recession that has forced layoffs, furloughs and deep program cuts. Though South Carolina spends a good deal less than many other states on its predator program — New York spends $175,000 per inmate and California, $173,000 — the effort is still a drain on already strained coffers.
I mean, knock me down and hit me with a club, why don’t you?
So really, what we’re left with here is whether we think is whether we should keep sexual predators locked up. I happen to think we do. Lots of other people think we do as well.
But that’s just because we’re dumb as a bag of hammers, apparently. We’re a bunch of Neanderthals taken in by “this get-tough tactic” sold by pandering politicians. We are fooled by a “sense of security” rather than the real thing. And the politicians aren’t about to back down and “be seen as soft on rapists and child molesters.”
That’s what it’s about, you see. The mob’s desire for vengeance. Pitchforks and flaming torches. Irrational, emotional responses to problems that could easily be resolved by putting the money into “increased supervision of sex offenders in the community,” the way Colorado has done.
I find this irritating for several reasons, including the fact that I am NOT a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” yahoo. I actually happen to believe that one of THE greatest policy errors committed year after year in South Carolina is that we lock up WAY too many people who don’t need to be locked up. And we do it because politicians DO play on irrational fears of crime and desires for vengeance on the part of the public. This is foolish, because it simply makes no sense to lock up a guy who wrote back checks. It DOES make sense to lock up a guy who robbed a liquor store and pistol-whipped the clerk into a coma. There’s a difference.
And difference involves a calm, rational assessment of whether someone is a threat to others.
But here’s the thing about sexual predators. Their crimes are not like other crimes. One can rationally understand why an unemployed person — particularly one with a drug addiction — might hold up a liquor store. If he was particularly desperate or high from his latest fix, you can understand his getting violent. You don’t condone it; you punish it; you lock him away for a while to protect society. But someday, when he’s clean and sober, when he’s established a record for calm behavior and maybe when he’s no longer 19 years old or even close, you let him out. It’s a rational decision to lock him up, and a rational decision, under the right circumstances, to let him out again.
But while we’re all prone to greed and many of us have violent impulses, we know about living with those things and dealing with them. But most of us find it unimaginable that anyone would ever, under any circumstances, be attracted to child pornography. And while the thought of anyone having to do with such may make us angry, may make us want to run for the torches and pitchforks, it’s perfectly rational to think, “If someone can EVER have such an impulse, can they ever be sufficiently normal, or sufficiently in control, to be allowed to walk free in the world where our children play?”
Sexual desire is such a complicated, mysterious mechanism even at its healthiest. The sheer galaxy of factors — the light traveling to my eye and through neurons to parts of my brain that process color and contrast and pattern recognition combined with experience-based understanding of such subtleties as facial expression combined with precognitive programming on the cellular level all mixed up with the biological imperative to reproduce — that causes me to react as I do when I look at this picture or this one or, for comic relief, this one is so independent of will and resistant to reasoning, that it’s quite natural to assume that in a person in whom such mechanisms are so twisted as to lead them to unspeakable crimes… well, it’s just not going to go away because of a few years in a quiet place with regular sessions with a therapist.
Of course, we could assume wrongly. And indeed, a quick search on Google establishes that there is no end of arguments out there against the widely-held notion that sexual predators — rapists, and those who prey on children — are incurable.
Fine. Let’s have that discussion. Let’s see the data, and hear the latest findings. But of course, that news story didn’t bother with that. In other words, it didn’t touch upon the one question upon which the issue of whether to treat sexual predators different from other criminal was well-founded or not.
But then, that’s a common flaw in news stories, especially (but not only) those of the ersatz-editorial type: They don’t mention, much less answer, the one question I most want to see addressed. I have spent a huge portion of my life reading, all the way to the bottom, news stories that piqued my interest and made me think, “Maybe there’s an editorial or a column here,” only to find that the one ingredient most needed to help me decide what I thought about it was entirely missing. Which means it got into print with neither the writer nor his editor thinking of it. Which means that the one ingredient most valuable to the reader, as a citizen trying to decide what to think about this issue, is missing.
Nor did it touch upon the second question that should arise, which is whether the circumstances surrounding such crimes are indeed so different as to cause us to set aside such constitutional considerations as equal treatment before the law (due process would seem to be covered by the additional hearings necessary for such commitment). But newspaper stories have finite length, and I would have been happy merely to have had the first question answered, or even acknowledged. But it wasn’t.
And I find that hugely frustrating.