McGuire on Media

When is road rage a compelling story and when is it ho-hum?

Here’s what I think I know from television and newspaper reports. A middle-aged couple, the Beasleys, returned from the FBR open and crossed paths with a 45 year-old man named John Chester Stuart.  A verbal altercation occurred and the final result was the Beasley man was shot and killed at a major intersection in North Phoenix. An online TV report said Beasley was backing away with his hands up. The original azcentral.com report made a similar point.

What follows is going to seem like an attack on The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. I suppose in some ways it is, because I am critical of their performance. I tell this story and make the observations I do, not to criticize for the fun of it, but to explore the case for lessons about newspapers and our culture and, subsequently, the link between the two.

I admit up front I am shaky on some the facts, and I will note that shakiness at the appropriate times. My wife Jean, a former journalist, first brought the story to my attention. She is pretty certain she heard the golf tournament connection.  I cannot find any reference to that in the two azcentral.com stories I see online nor can I find it in the TV stories I see online. It could be very important since the FBR Open is a golf tournament that attracted over a half-million people in the Valley last week, the week of the Super Bowl.  Most of us would probably acknowledge the chamber-of-commerce types are not going to be enthralled with the idea of paying customers getting shot on the highway after the tourney.

The shooting occurred Tuesday night, Jan. 29. On Wednesday afternoon at 5:03 a four paragraph story was filed on azcentral.com.  The four paragraphs are professionally written. I have now looked through the Thursday Jan 31 Arizona Republic three times and I can find no evidence of that story in the newspaper delivered to my home in Scottsdale. I can find no online evidence the story appeared in the East Valley Tribune.

I find that amazing.

I know newspapers have changed in the five years since I ran a newsroom.  I know my newsrooms kicked away a lot of stories, and I take personal responsibility for those mistakes. I even get the fact that a lot of newspapers are chary of “crime stories.” That said, a man was shot and killed on a major road in Phoenix. I pray to heaven our culture has not become so inured to this kind of violence it is no longer news. I pray just as fervently that the newspaper’s focus on the Super Bowl and the FBR Open didn’t cause this story to miss the old news meter. And, I pray that newspapers have not gotten so distracted from their basic obligations that darn interesting stories can’t be covered well.

Okay, it was bad enough the initial story didn’t get played well. Friday morning’s Arizona Republic arrived at the door with an even bigger jolt. In the bottom right hand corner of page B11 was a story headlined “Suspect in fatal road rage freed.”  The second paragraph read like this: “John Chester Stuart, 45, was released from the 4th Avenue Jail on $46,000 bond on Wednesday after being booked on suspicion of second degree murder for allegedly shooting and killing Orville Thomas Beasley, 49, at the intersection of Tatum Boulevard and Pinnacle Peak Road on Tuesday night.”

A man kills another man, apparently after the shooter had insulted the victim’s wife and he’s released on $46,000 bond.  That outraged me. I am a reader. It is okay for readers to be outraged.  The tougher ethical question is should editors and reporters be outraged? Damn right they should be. They don’t express that outrage with opinion, slant or snarky reporting.  They should express outrage with old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, context and prominent play of stories. Page B11 does not constitute prominent play.

The bond struck me as phenomenally low for a second degree murder charge, but what do I know? I know what I read in the paper and the newspaper paper has a fundamental obligation to tell me what I don’t know. That story desperately needed context around the $46,000 bond. Is that bond typical for murders in Phoenix?  Channel 12 KPNX apparently didn’t think so because, according to Jean, Channel 12 sent a reporter to talk to a representative of the county attorney’s office and Beasley’s wife about the low bond.  Some news folk obviously reacted the way Jean and I did.

The story needed insight into the size of bonds in other second degree murder cases. It needed the judge’s name along with his history in such cases. The Seattle Times investigation into the 2000 Rose bowl team left me with some serious concerns about the Washington court system which I wrote about last week.  This story has done the same thing. I am profoundly concerned that dangerous folks are out of jail in 24 hours on $46,000 bond even if this guy has an electronic monitor.

My newspaper owes me context, explanations and a watch dog attitude. It is not necessary to do a major investigation of the court system if newspapers hold the judicial system accountable on a daily basis. Let’s be honest, not all crime is equal.  Crimes with which readers can easily identify, like road rage in North Phoenix, are crimes that deserve a newspaper’s full attention.

The question quickly becomes do we want to live in a community that treats a road rage killing with a collective shrug? I don’t think so, and newspapers who take a pass on this kind of story are, in effect, saying this story does not matter. That’s where the big lesson for every newspaper emerges from this incident.  Every editor needs to ask if they are effectively separating routine crime stories from those stories about crime that shape our community and our culture.  I argue road rage is one of those culture-shaping stories that demand newspapers fulfill their watchdog role.  I could be wrong, but I’d like to hear why.

PLEASE NOTE: I have not been accepting comments on this entry for over two months. This is a journalism blog. The arguments over guilt and innocence were irrelevant to my reguar readers. I have no problem with that discussion, there simply are other, better forums for those comments.

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