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Monday, November 20, 2006

Shit’s in the PI

posted by on November 20 at 12:06 PM

Every six months or so one of Seattle’s daily papers runs a story about some drug addict who, through drug treatment, managed to turn his or her life around. The stories are usually self-consciously gritty and predictably uplifting. “See?ā€¯ they say. “Drug treatment really works! With a little help anyone can get his life back on track!ā€¯

Meet Warren Taylor Yeakey. Until Thursday night, Yeakey was a perfect candidate for one of those gritty turned-his-life-around profiles in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Until six years ago, Yeakey was in almost constant trouble with the law. He had a history of drug abuse, and busts for meth possession in 1994 and 2000. He served four months in prison after his 2000 arrest. He then completed a drug rehab program, got his GED, and got married. He also managed to get a good-paying job in construction.

Another drug-rehab success story, right? Yeah—until the crane Yeakey was operating collapsed in Bellevue on Thursday night, killing one man and causing millions of dollars worth of damage to three buildings. Yeakey was in the control booth at the top of the crane at the time of the collapse. It’s a miracle he survived the fall.

In the wake of the crane collapse, the PI has abandoned its addiction to the drug-addict-turns-life-around narrative. Instead of being given credit for going straight, instead of being seen as one of the victims of last Thursday’s accident, instead of being given any benefit of any doubt whatsoever, Yeakey is being crucified by the Post-Intelligencer and some of our dimmer local TV news personalities. Here’s the headline from the story in Saturday’s PI:

Operator in crane wreck has history of drug abuse

Well, yeah Yeakey does. I can think of a few PI reporters I’ve known over the years who enjoyed abusing drugs now and then too.

It seems that the PI would like us to be outraged about someone like Yeakey—a former drug abuser!—was allowed to work in construction or operate a crane. We’re not supposed to remember all those laudatory stories we’ve seen in the PI about convicted drug abusers and ex-cons who turned their lives around—some of whom, it seems likely, wound up working in construction. Here’s a few examples of the PI’s previous stories—pieces that ooze compassion—on drug abusers like Yeakey:

From Street Pimp to Dean’s List

By rights, White, 52, should be dead. Two years ago, after an arrest for drug possession, he swallowed the rock cocaine in his pockets, trying to hide it from Seattle police… On Saturday, he will graduate with honors from Seattle Central Community College with a degree in human services.

Tiny school is a lifeline in climb out of drug use

When 16-year-old Nicole entered Summit School this fall, she’d met all the prerequisites—and then some. She had abused pot, pills and booze for two years before moving on to meth’s toxic high. It made her mean and violent enough to beat up her sister and break two windows at home…. Only then was Nicole ready for Summit School, a public school where the resolve to stay clean is the most important prerequisite of all.

Once high on drugs, homeless learn to scale new heights—of achievement

Scott Galloway used to get high on cocaine and meth. In July, he will get high on Mount Baker, as part of an expedition of homeless men who will attempt to scale the 10,700-foot peak.

Here’s another. And another.

No one knows yet if the crane Yeakey was operating collapsed due to operator error or from some other cause—like, oh, the extremely high winds we’ve been experiencing around here for the last three weeks, or the crane’s construction. (It was bolted to I-beams, not to the ground.) Even if operator error played a role, drugs will only be relevant if Yeakey was, you know, high at the time of the accident. It’s possible that Yeakey was stone-cold sober and made some sort of human error—even ex-drug abusers are human, after all—but we don’t even know that yet.

And if Yeakey did have drugs in his system? Even then it’s possible that it’s not his fault—sometimes accidents just, you know, happen. They happen to stoned people, they happen to sober people. And what if Yeakey did have drugs in his system but the crane collapsed because of some fault in its construction or because of the wind? Is the wind his fault then? Because he was high? Or had been high two days ago? And if it turns out that Yeakey was sober and none of this was his fault, will the PI feature him in a blowjob story about how he turned his life around?

Reading the story on Saturday, I couldn’t help but conclude that it was a big hysterical and a whole lot hypocritical for the PI to splash Yeakey’s history of drug abuse all over its front pages.

And let me be clear: The piece isn’t hypocritical because there are people working at the PI who have used drugs, but because the PI has printed numerous stories about drug addicts who turned their lives around and became contributing members of the community. The PI was for drug addicts turning their lives around—the subjects of all the stories I cited above come are heaped with praise—before they were against them.

But, hey, that was then.

What the PI is saying now to and about Yeakey is this: It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been clean, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been sober. If you have a history of drug use—or a history of drug-abuse convictions—we will turn on your ass the moment you’re involved in an accident. We won’t wait to find out if your drug use is relevant, we won’t wait to find out if the accident was even you’re fault. You’re toast.

When I was done reading the piece, I couldn’t help but wonder if the reporters—Andrea James and John Iwasaki—had ever abused drugs themselves. And I wondered just what the editors at the PI were smoking when they signed off on it. And I wondered how long it would before the PI ran another story about a drug addict who turned his life around.

RSS icon Comments


i was thinking the exact same thing when i saw that headline, how irresponsible of them to ruin that guys life with such an irresponsible headline. way to sensationalize a tragedy P-I!

Posted by eugene | November 20, 2006 12:25 PM

Dan, I agree with you. KING5 repeated the same thing every news broadcast this weekend too. It just seems a little on the slanderous side.

Posted by Chris | November 20, 2006 12:28 PM

But wait. If the PI can run stories about successful former-addicts, why can't they also run stories about failed former-addicts?

Oh, but wait again. There's no proof that the guy was on drugs, right? So, he might've actually succeeded in turning his life around, only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, it's all speculation. Is it relevant, newsworthy, in-the-public-interest speculation? I dunno. Does The Stranger consider speculation to be unworthy of a newspaper?

Posted by mattymatt | November 20, 2006 12:29 PM

With their logic, the story might as well have been: "Crane Designer Binge Drinker in College", "Foreman of Site Has History of Failed Marriages", or "Mother Nature Causes Flooding, High Winds - Katrina Survivors Outraged, Insulted".

What a bunch of fucktards.

Posted by Dougsf | November 20, 2006 12:29 PM

Not surprising, really. Culturally, the U.S. is actively against both criminal and addiction rehabilitation. (Don't even get me started about the war on drugs.)

The hypocrisy is that most people have at least tried drugs and/or gone through some phase in their life when they were engaging in border-line addiction behaviors. However, addiction-based crimes are only crimes when committed by non-wealthy people.

Once a non-wealthy person has been convicted (ne accused) of a crime, it will be dredged up throughout their lifetime and used to deny them housing, jobs, insurance.

Posted by dewsterling | November 20, 2006 12:32 PM

A few years ago a St Louis Cardinals pitcher died in his hotel room, and of course all the local papers published that he had a sack of weed in his room. It didn't have anything to do with anything, but they had to say it. It's as if no matter how irrelevent, if there is any drug angle, they throw it in there, just in case. A holes.

Posted by Mike in MO | November 20, 2006 12:40 PM

What a sensationalist douchebag move by the PI to double back like that.

Do we even know that Yeakey himself was solely responsible for the crash? Could something structurally have failed?

Sounds like the PI's already decided.

Posted by Gomez | November 20, 2006 12:44 PM

I don't think this was an ideological flip-flop, even if it was reprehensible. The PI is desperate to sell papers. This probably helped the PI, even if it ruined a man's chances of getting a good job again.

Posted by wf | November 20, 2006 12:54 PM

Thanks for calling this out, Dan. It's BS. We've been having the wettest November on record (which I read about in the P-I) so of course that may have something to do with it. Perhaps the ground was soggy and thus made the crane unstable. Or maybe the guy was on drugs, but we should know that before we implicitedly blame him for the accident. To do otherwise is irresponsible.

On a related note, papers often do this to put a person in an article down in some weird way. For example, Harry Stonecipher didn't have an affair with an employee, he had an affair with a divorcee (pretend there's an accent on the first "e"). What does it matter that this person was divorced? (Oh, I remember: SHAME! SHAME! You have to stay married for life otherwise you are a harlot.) Or someone who ever stripped in their lives will be a 'former stripper' for the rest of their lives, even if it was 25 years ago and they've had five other jobs since then. Stuff like that is annoying.

Posted by thank you | November 20, 2006 12:56 PM

My wife and I spent an hour Saturday morning talking about how fucking stupid that story was, and the backwards, drug war hysteria thought pattern behind it. The clincher was the giant front page treatment they gave the story, complete with the large-type "BREAKING NEWS" headline font.

Blame someone...blame anyone! There must be somebody to blame!

Posted by Matthew | November 20, 2006 1:04 PM

but was yeakey a gentleman of leisure?

Posted by SeMe | November 20, 2006 1:06 PM

Even if the dude was high, how the hell do you tip over a crane on purpose or through an act of idiocy? Could he get a DUI (DWI???) for this?

The huge two-deck headline for this guy having a past of being an idiot was totally unneccessary.

Posted by tipsy | November 20, 2006 1:31 PM

Thanks for writing what I've been thinking, Dan. This is total bullshit. The P-I's own diagram showed that the crane failed in the metal down by the base, which theoretically cannot happen, if the materials are properly maintained and inspected. There's no way it was operator failure; he doesn't have access to operations that would make that steel fail there. He's a scapegoat for a reckless, murderous company, is the way I see it.

Posted by Fnarf | November 20, 2006 1:39 PM

what it does is deflect the blame from the corporation/contractors which own the crane. Chances are, the crane was 100% safe last time it was inspected. That is, 100% safe as defined by law. But until invesigators determine that the crane was not 100% safe on that very date and time (obviously, since 100% safe cranes do not fall down and hit a person seated on their couch, even when "trained operator" is factored into the safety report), the dailies will just go with easy, factually based adjectives. CYA, since he was a 'drug abuser', and easily recoverable from say 'inept local constuction company operates crane in unsafe weather conditions'.

The human angle, no matter how tenuous, define news disaster stories. FEMA works well 100% of the time... but Mr. Brown is to blame for Katrina response, oil spills out of a tanker into the water... pilot error not the employers fault, bolt falls of an airplane in flight... dumbass mechanics fault, not the employer of the dumbass. Books have been written on exactly how engrained corporate culture is on ever aspect of our lives, that it often goes unnoticed when coporate culture crops up in areas hard to focus on, like the behind the scenes wheeling and dealings as they work into local disaster news reporting.

Posted by phenics | November 20, 2006 1:48 PM

Dan is right.

It is no secret--even among Seattle progressives--that the quality of the writing and reporting at the PI has taken a big slide in recent years. Local news and local political coverage have fallen behind both The Seattle Times and The Stranger. While I frequently disagree with The Seattle Timesā€™ editorial page, I will give them credit for their willingness to engage on difficult issues and to cut against the grain of Seattleā€™s old growth liberals (myself included). It is obvious that the PI needs to boost its circulation, but when they sensationalize stories in an effort to improve sales it comes at the expense of quality journalism. This is both sad and disturbing.

Honest and insightful reporting leads to respect, which leads to more readers, which leads to higher sales. Hyped-up and over-blown articles designed to create the appearance of scandal and conflict, leads to becoming the laughing stock of Seattle print media. The Seattle PI owes a public apology to Mr. Warren Taylor Yeakey.

Posted by A Very Sad Progressive | November 20, 2006 1:53 PM

Phenics, what do you mean by "the last time it was inspected"? Cranes aren't inspected in WA. The only people who ever inspected that crane was the company that owned it. There was a state commission put together after the fatal crane accident in the Kingdome (same company, btw), but it disbanded after doing nothing.

Posted by Fnarf | November 20, 2006 2:16 PM

My newspaperman didn't deliver my Saturday P-I, the bastard. He was for delivery before he was against it. I'm so so tired of that "he was for XYZ before he was against it." How long will that keep being used in blogs? Probably. As. Long. As. This. Crap.

The P-I headline was quite lame and overblown, but it's not "slander" if it's true.

Posted by him | November 20, 2006 2:37 PM

Dan Savage on journalistic ethics?

C'mon, this has got to be a gag.

Dan, isn't your paper's mantra that it's a low-budget "advocacy" rag, meaning it can take sides, select facts and ignore other facts, use fake names, call people "asswipes," hell, just make shit up - and that's the whole point?

Are you seriously making a point about fairness or sensationalism? How about policing your own publication? Or is this yet another publicity stunt?

What a hypocrite.

Posted by Dan on ethics? Give me a break | November 20, 2006 2:53 PM

Anyway, here's another somewhat related P-I article (although it was written by the AP, the P-I chose to run it)

Clinton neighbors in mystery shooting

The Clintons apparently have nothing to do with this, but just coincidentally happen to be neighbors of the people involved. However, the Clintons are the headline. Nice.

Posted by anyway | November 20, 2006 3:43 PM

Did you really not know that your personal drug use can corrode metallic objects around you?

It's true!

Posted by Napoleon XIV | November 20, 2006 4:48 PM

If they were consistant we would see stories like these:

"War continues to kill and maim US troops and untold Iraqies long after premise of war has been refuted. President has long history of drug and alcohol abuse, and admits lying as a matter of convenience."


"Vice President Cheney shoots elderly man in the face, admits drinking while on medication, and has long history of drunk driving and leering sneer."

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