Thursday, January 10, 2008

I Am NOT "The Media"


My favorite college professor, James Soderholm, wrote a story about a crazy man in a Texas laundromat who starts talking to the narrator out of the blue. He tells him about how he shot someone in half but it wasn’t illegal because the top half landed on his property. At the end of the story, the narrator thinks to himself about the crazy Texan, “He tells stories to strangers.”

And at the moment I’m pretty preoccupied with making a career (and an art) out of doing just that. I’m a story teller, and my primary audience is strangers who pick up the publications I write for.

But in the last few days I’ve mistaken twice for something else: “the media.”

I have to turn in two or three short news briefs about outer east Portland for the O every week. Sometimes, when I don’t have any leads, I comb local media outlets for stories that didn’t quite get told all the way. On Sunday I found two deaths on New Year’s Eve that were mentioned in a lot of outlets but not fully explored.

Actually, by David Ashton covered both stories in detail but left an interesting angle out of each. The first was a party near NE 82nd and Tillamook. A 25-year-old guy got shot a few minutes before midnight, but people kept partying.

As shocking as that detail is, no where could I find anyone who had interviewed the people who were hosting the party. As I walked up, a full week after the murder, there were three people smoking on the porch of the house, which was guarded by a big, white, wolf-like dog.

“Just keep on walking,” a tense, blond woman dressed in white said even before I had slowed down. She just saw me looking up the incline of the yard at her and her roommates.

“I actually came to talk to you. I’m a writer for the Oregonian and I noticed that in all the coverage of the murder, no one had a quote from you."

“We don’t have nothing to say,” she said.

“Oh, OK. I just thought that maybe you’d like to say something.”

“We’ve had enough misery,” said a seated man who was also blond and dressed in white.

“I didn’t come to offer you misery. I came to offer you a voice. There’s been a lot of…”

“Just keep on walking.” She was serious this time. None of the neighbors would talk to me either. They either literally closed the door in my face or simply didn’t answer the door when it was obvious they were home.

This afternoon I stopped by the home of a man who accidentally ran over an 80-year-old woman on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t his fault at all—she walked right out in front of him, from what I gather. But no one had a quote from him either.

All I could find was his physical address, so I showed up at his house and he too was on the porch smoking and wearing white. But he didn’t seem tense or mean. Just a little freaked out when I called him by name.

“I’m a writer for the Oregonian and I read about the accident and I wondered if you’d be willing to share some of your experience…”

“I have no comment.”

“Is it a legal thing, that you can’t talk about it, or do you just not want to go there?”

“No comment.”

“Because what you’ve been through must have been really awful. I just thought it would be an interesting thing for people to read.”

“I don’t want to sensationalize it at all,” he said, remaining very cordial throughout the conversation.

“No, I don’t want to sensationalize it either. I just thought it was an usual thing to happen to a person and I wanted to talk to you about it.”

“Well I have no comment.”

“Let me give you my card in case you change your mind.”

“Don’t. I won’t change my mind.”

Now, maybe I wouldn’t assume that this has to do with me being “the media” if it weren’t for a guy I talked to a couple of weeks ago while working on a story about the Tik Tok. I overheard that he worked at another nearby bar, and I asked him if I could talk to him as he was leaving. He said, “I don’t trust the media. Can I go now?”

“But I’m not the media. I’m just a kid who…”

“That’s the problem. That’s the problem with media.”

“What do you mean?”

“Can I go now?”

Man, I have got to get this figured out. Why don’t people trust me lately? Usually people trust me because a 23-year-old kid in Converse is not what they expect a reporter to look like. I feel like I’ve been mistaken for the Action 7 News Team or something, but I swear I haven't taken any fashion tips from Anchorman.

Maybe once all was lost I should have shouted, “I’m a goddamn writer. I’m not here to ruin your life. I’m here to tell your story. Can’t you see that that’s valuable to you and the other people who will glean wisdom from your experience? I’m not a sensationalist. I don’t get paid a lot for this. I don’t care if people like what I write. And I’ve got all day. Talk to me for as long as you want. Tell me everything you want to tell everyone. Can’t you see this is an opportunity to tell a story to a stranger?”

Photo: From a British website that rents fake paparazzi.

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