Again this morning, the NYT's flowery ""This Land" columnist Dan Barry delivers a tone poem about American life, torn from the pages of local newspapers with a dash of his own special spin. This time, it's a story about a homeless enclave living under an abandoned highway overpass in Providence, Rhode Island -- and this one landed on page one.
Trouble is, they're not living under the overpass anymore. They moved on Wednesday, a story covered by the Providence local press -- as was the fact that the group's leader turned out to be a registered sex offender.
A quick Google search -- which Barry was far too busy noting the fact that "a tea kettle sings" to bother with -- reveals that Freitas was convicted of raping a child in the late 1970s and of sexual assault in 1985.
In March of 2008, Freitas turned himself in to Massachusetts authorities, after a failure to register landed him on that state's list of Ten Most Wanted Sex Offenders. Freitas was listed as a "Level 3" sex offender, which -- according to a March 21, 2008 account in the Attleboro, Mass. Sun Chronicle -- means he was "considered by the state to be the most likely to commit new sex crimes."
Barry's story reports only that Freitas "did prison time decades ago" and that he "became homeless for all the familiar, complicated reasons."
Barry, whose prose is as purple as the mountain's majesty he covers, apparently can't be troubled with conventional reporting techniques like Google and Nexis to flesh out his obervations of things like the glow of his subect's cigar. The result is a stale story that -- yet again -- repurposes local news for an unknowing national audience.
There has, in fact, been considerable coverage in Providence of "Camp Runamuck," a tent city set up by John Freitas and his girlfriend last spring. Much of it in the last week has focused on controversy surrounding Freitas's leadership role in the group -- a topic that gets a scant mention in Barry's piece.
According to an account that aired Tuesday on the local ABC news affiliate, Freitas was being accused by other residents of having left the camp and taking food and supplies with him. Another local station reported the news of Freitas's registered sex offender background.
But in some ways the greatest failing of Barry's story is that it doesn't report the most significant new about the camp -- which is that as of Wednesday, Camp Runamuck had moved from the location in Barry's piece to a different area entirely.
Barry's story only mentions in passing that state officials "recently stopped by to say nicely but firmly, that everyone would soon have to leave," but then reports that "for now" remains where he saw them "in late July," still under the overpass in Providence. He then adds this confusing passage that doesn't do anything to inform readers of the group's current circumstances:
Tomorrow, an advance party for the chief will leave to claim another spot across the river that turns out not to be on public property. Many in the camp will decide it’s time to move on anyway, to a spot under a bridge in East Providence. Camp Runamuck will begin its recession from sight and memory.
It's unclear when the "tomorrow" Barry refers to actually happened, but in fact, the group has already moved from the place where Barry's scene is set.
The Providence Journal reported a week ago on the group's intention to move from their spot under a bridge on the Providence River. (It was the Journal that first chronicled the story of the homeless group on a July 8 profile.) Yesterday's Journal reported on the fact that the group had fully relocated to East Providence, under a bridge.
But what difference does a real-time narrative make to Dan Barry? He's too busy with fuzzy atmospheric details like the fact that "the March winds blew" when Freitas set out to find this location in the first place -- a fact we're quite sure the NYT reporter confirmed with the National Weather Service.