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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Good Shit’s In the P-I, Too

posted by on March 27 at 9:00 AM

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer comes in for a lot of criticism on this blog (Google “Shit’s in the P-I” if you were unaware). A brief bit of Thursday morning praise:

This story, by the P-I’s Carol Smith, is an absolutely fantastic piece of crime reporting. It deserves notice and—hope you’re listening, P-I bosses—reward.

It’s a gritty, detailed, compelling article that’s not really about the crime in question (in this case, the seemingly random and horrifically brutal murder of Shannon Harps on Jan. 1). Instead, it’s about the social problem that produced James A. Williams, the man now accused of killing Harps.

Read every word. This is what crime reporting should be (and rarely is). Seemingly random violence like the Harps murder is hardly ever, in fact, random. Smith knows—and attempts to show—this.

To explain James A. Williams, she begins where one must: The invention of Thorazine; the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963; a suspicious death in Camden, Arkansas. If you thought Harps’s murder was just some arbitrary occurrence with no rational response except increased fear and vigilance, you will come away from this story instead fearing the unintended consequences of sweeping government actions and the limitations of our legal and medical systems.

This is the proper direction in which to focus one’s fear; channeled this way fear can be transformed into productive action. As Smith shows, there are actually changes that could be made for the better that might prevent another person from beginning the new year the way James A. Williams began his. And these changes might well begin with voters coming to understand (through a story like Smith’s) that change needs to be made in the first place.

I tried to do a story somewhat like this a few years ago. It involved a crime that took place in Seattle in 2004 but the story began in the 1740s and connected to communism in the former Soviet Union, Greg Louganis, and a religious radio station in Sacramento. It also involved a lot of words and I don’t think achieved what Smith’s piece achieves. Which is impact, economy, clarity, and an implicit call to action.

The P-I, with its new, more tabloid-y presentation, has been getting a rep lately as the more salacious and less thoughtful daily. As a result, I’ve been reading it less. Smith provides a reason to read it more.

RSS icon Comments


Eli, I'm really glad you pointed this out; it is, in fact, fantastic. However, I'd also like to mention that you really shouldn't bother to read the comments. It continually amazes me how everything can be wrongly boiled down to a liberal/conservative fight in ten comments or less.

Posted by Paul Constant | March 27, 2008 9:52 AM

Oh, Paul.

Posted by Mr. Poe | March 27, 2008 9:59 AM

"This is the proper direction in which to focus one’s fear; channeled this way fear can be transformed into productive action."

I could not agree more. I think that is the media's purpose, and really the difference between exploitation and reporting.

Paul, nice counterpoint - we're supposed to complain about the state of reporting but ignore the underlying causes? This isn't going on in a vacuum. There is a political agenda at work in fear mongering. It's obviously cheaper to do on the sight / no background reporting, but the corporations that own the news are really tightening the purse strings in order to control and water down the news. This country has really turned into a pineapple democracy.

Posted by left coast | March 27, 2008 10:08 AM

i didn't even thing of reading the comments section until paul pointed it out...

that said, if you are thinking about reading them too, consider this: i found them to be more boring then combative.

to not read them isn't taking the high road; to not read them is to waste your time.

Posted by infrequent | March 27, 2008 10:12 AM

I feel like the P-I's bad rep is somewhat unfair. Their investigations on Mic Dinsmore and shady Port dealings were big news to me, and it took other local media outlets a long time to even attempt catching up. They also do a lot of good reporting on environmental issues.

Posted by Explorer | March 27, 2008 10:17 AM

a fantastic article, sure. but i will say that when i saw the cover on the break room table yesterday, i was immediately riled. "DANGEROUS AND MENTALLY ILL." christ. seeing as most people skim headlines and fail to actually read content, such a combative catch phrase is actually the dangerous component as it does nothing to help fight the stigma so prevalent in our culture when it comes to mental illness. i'm more convinced now than ever that the PI has indeed become the salacious and less thoughtful daily i've feared it was.

Posted by amanda | March 27, 2008 10:20 AM

Impressive reporting by the PI; too bad we will all forget about it by Saturday afternoon.

Posted by Andrew | March 27, 2008 10:22 AM

Thanks Eli! I don't usually read the PI unless so ordered, so I appreciate it. Oh, and I promise I won't tell Paul you used the word "gritty" to describe a piece of writing. He'll totally have a hissy!

Posted by fluteprof | March 27, 2008 10:23 AM


Oh brother.

Posted by keshmeshi | March 27, 2008 10:31 AM

So, great, we've firmly established there's a problem. Can somebody provide a solution to the problem of 'crazy people who can/will kill other people are on the streets'?

I think, at some point, it's going to take some sort of moral, fiscal and constitutional compromise to solve the problem, if we don't want the mentally ill continuing to do their part to control the size of the human population.

Posted by Gomez | March 27, 2008 10:34 AM

I agree with amanda #6. We need better sentencing of violent criminals and better treatment for the mentally ill, but these two things usually aren't related. Mentally ill people are still no more likely to be violent than people who aren't mentally ill. Unlike, say, white men or pit bull owners who are more likely to be violent.

Posted by poppy | March 27, 2008 10:35 AM

Why isn't this article in the RSS feed? I've noticed this happen before, too.

Posted by w7ngman | March 27, 2008 10:51 AM

More tabloid-y, less thoughtful?

Don't worry, douchebag, The Stranger's cornered the market on less thoughtful.

Posted by Li'l Chico | March 27, 2008 11:42 AM

Eli you choose which media to read based on its reputation?

Posted by Trevor | March 27, 2008 11:45 AM

@10 Umm...How about enough funding for community mental health organizations? Is that a good start?

Posted by lauren | March 27, 2008 3:37 PM


Sure, good luck getting the James Williamses of the world to take their medication.

Posted by keshmeshi | March 27, 2008 3:53 PM

15. That belies the fact that medication itself often creates a whole slew of other problems with their side effects, let alone the costs and the fact you practically have to get addicted to them to prevent a psychological relapse. For example, read up on Thorazine, the subject drug in the linked piece above, and about what it does to you when you take it. I'm not sure whether being on it is a worse experience than not being on it. I really can't blame Williams for refusing the drug.

Also, one common fallacy is to consider ongoing medication of a problem a solution, rather than what it is: a treatment of symptoms.

Posted by Gomez | March 27, 2008 4:53 PM


Well, we unfortunately don't have a way to cure mental illness. So, we either medicate the dangerously mentally ill or institutionalize them. I'd prefer the latter, but we apparently have neither the funding nor the authority to do so.

Posted by keshmeshi | March 27, 2008 8:05 PM

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