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July 23rd, 2003 The Nose | The Nose
 

Martyr, They Wrote

     
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The Nose came back from vacation hoping to fill a column with an ode to the beach and the restorative powers of margaritas. No such luck.

Instead, he returned to a city still struggling with the May 5 police shooting of a 21-year-old, unarmed African American. So the Nose hunkered down and read the 600-page stack of police investigative reports on the incident, as well as 12 weeks' worth of media coverage.

The Nose should never have left town.

Over the past three months, crack-addicted mother Kendra James has been elevated to martyrdom.

And many want to elevate Scott McCollister, the cop who fired the shot that killed her, by stringing him up from the nearest Doug fir.

Certainly James' death is terrible. But mistakes were made not only by one person but by two.

McCollister erred by climbing into the car to pull James out, then drawing his gun to get her to turn off the engine, setting the stage for him to pull the trigger when she hit the accelerator. Then he failed to give her CPR.

James also erred. After the car she was riding in was pulled over, the coked-up (according to her autopsy) James hopped into the front seat, disobeyed a cop's orders, scuffled with that police officer, and then apparently attempted to drive away with half his body sticking dangerously outside of the car.

The outcome, clearly, was lamentable. But the Nose can't escape the conclusion that reckless coverage by this state's most powerful media outlet, The Oregonian, hyped the errors by the cops while downplaying James' mistakes, thus deepening the public's misunderstanding of the tragedy.

The daily has slaughtered thousands of trees to provide coverage of this shooting, and much of the reporting has been appropriate. But far too often, from the Nose's humble perch anyway, the daily was simply looking to score investigative points.

Consider:

* On May 8, The Oregonian promoted a theory that the officer who killed Kendra James was not in the car but standing at a safe distance--a theory now clearly at odds with the evidence. The source of this allegation was Darnell White, James' boyfriend, who was in the car when it was pulled over and was unskeptically described by reporter Maxine Bernstein as someone who "watched McCollister fire his 9mm handgun and kill his girlfriend."

* On May 9, The Oregonian reported that James was pregnant at the time of her death (the headline was "Woman killed by police was pregnant"), adding to the slow boil in the community about the shooting. James wasn't pregnant, however--an error that was quietly corrected by The Oregonian toward the end of a later story.

* On May 18, The Oregonian ran a front-page story revealing that, unlike Portland's, other cities' policies strictly forbid police from shooting at fleeing vehicles. The problem was that McCollister wasn't shooting at a fleeing vehicle, he was inside it. The O's reporters failed to point out this distinction to the national experts they called, an error that allowed them to publish a story implying that Portland cops had committed a cold-blooded murder. (The O's "public editor" wrote a subsequent column acknowledging the original story's shortcomings but blaming them on the cops.)

* Buried in the police report of the shooting were the revealing statements of Terrol Jackson, the driver of the car. Jackson says that, when the cops pulled the vehicle over, Kendra James urged him to drive away and flee the scene. Jackson refused and told the cops, "She wants me to keep going, she wants me to go into a high-speed chase, she wants me to just kill myself." Jackson said McCollister's fear of getting dragged by the car was legitimate and described Kendra James' behavior as "madness" and "craziness."

For some reason, Jackson's statements have never found their way into the pages of this state's largest newspaper.

The Nose knows that criticizing the daily is a risky business, and that some may think that a columnist from this newspaper blasting a competitor for sensationalism is a bit like J-Lo criticizing Christina Aguilera for her provocative dress. Yeah, well, tough.

Sometime soon, Police Chief Mark Kroeker will announce McCollister's punishment. Here's a prediction: A lot of people in Portland will think it's inadequate. And they will have been influenced by media coverage that told only part of the story.

 
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