Friday, July 31, 2009

Dan Barry's Flowery Front-Page Profile Of Homeless Group Leaves Out Leader's Conviction As Child Rapist -- Among Other Things.

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.


Anonymous said...

That same tent city is in fact still living under an overpass - just one nearby

Anonymous said...

The new tent city is under a bridge, not an overpass. And it's in East Providence, not Providence.

Too narrow a distinction to bother Barry with while he's busy crafting his bullshit.

Good post.

Anonymous said...

What makes you so certain that Barry didn't do his search and was unaware of Freitas' past? Is he writing a column or reporting? Was it Barry's job as a journalist to make a value judgment about whether Freitas is now paying a karmic debt or would that storyline just give you a different angle of attack for being hackneyed.
You don't seem to get Barry for some reason. This is a story- a slice of life that exists in the here and now. Although Freitas is a character in that story, his past is not the central issue, nor should it be.
Barry is the observer in the present providing a vivid snapshot of life that few people see at close hand. I have, and can say with authority that he has captured, with his descriptions, the mood that permeates these camps. The writing, as always, is superb. Dismissing it as simply "flowery' may strike you as clever but it also exposes you as limited.
I see you've left out your particular obsession with the costs associated with Barry and Franco.
I hope that is because someone has kindly pointed out to you that it translates as transparent whining about your own salary. They spend all this money on Barry and Franco and don't recognize the value of this genius in their midst.
Barry has a following, and with good reason. He creates.
You, on the other hand, for all your claims of "just wanting the paper to be the best it can be", dismantle, and only as an exercise in ego. You embrace all the worst aspects of the "new journalism" without paying proper respect to the old or giving any indication that you even understand it.

Tina Trent said...

Wow, anonymous, are you Dan Barry? Dan Barry has no problem implicating the rest of us for this man's living conditions, so shouldn't we get the facts to defend ourselves?

Given that the offender-porn du jour (at least until this morning -- see the light-drenched profile of "Bank Robber, Mark Mocha") in the newspaper of record is homeless sex offenders living under a bridge, and the Times ran a similarly purple story about the encampment in Miami a week ago, I think Barry's decision to obscure the facts here is even more ethically questionable.

Maybe you should walk down the hall and run this by The Ethicist.

Anonymous said...

"Dan Barry has no problem implicating the rest of us for this man's living conditions, so shouldn't we get the facts to defend ourselves?"

Oh really Tina?
Perhaps you can cite for me, specifically, the paragraph, the sentence or even the word where Barry does this.
If Barry leaves you feeling that you or, by extension, society is being implicated, that is the product of whatever experiences you have brought to the table. He describes the conditions, the people and the reality of the existence and trusts his readers to draw their own conclusions.
The fact that Freitas has a child sex conviction in the past drags the story in a different direction, and while that story may be a perfect launching point for some easy sanctimonious moralizing, it is not a necessary element to what is essentially a vignette.
Maybe one of the women is a prostitute, maybe the young girl is a drug addict, maybe one of the other men was a vicious wife-beater-do you need the writer to tilt his hand so that you can feel satisfied that your conclusions match his? It is as if you were solving a jigsaw puzzle and feel cheated that a critical piece has been withheld when the whole point is that you are meant to complete the picture yourself.

Tina Trent said...

Dear Anonymous #3 (courageous, conviction, that),

Barry's entire article in a condemnation of the rest of us for neglecting to bleed like he does over these erstwhile, picaresque souls, and if you think otherwise, you're only fooling yourself.

Anonymous said...

After watching the contretemps between Tina and Anon, I decided to reread the story and see if I could hear what she hears. No dice. It's a clean story with a description of what's going on in the camp.

If you want to condemn yourself or the others for the way the world may be, you're welcome to do that. But it's not in the article. There's no maudlin kicker or explicit handwringing.

So I've decided that I kind of like the piece. And he does mention a jail sentence or two, but that's not the point of the piece and so I think it's okay to write it the way he did.

Anonymous said...

Tina ,

I'm sorry, but are you saying that your subjective interpretation seeing unstated condemnation here is the only valid one and any other would be foolish? I think it's possible that I may have a different take on many things, including the meanings of the words, erstwhile and picaresque. I see nothing lightheartedly roguish about any of the characters and the use of erstwhile in this context is downright baffling to me, but it apparently it works for you.
As long as I have been dragged back to my keyboard, let me address one more criticism of Barry's article-that he is covering old ground. Does he move the story forward or is he mailing it in? What do we know now that we didn't know before?
I think, by introducing these people to us, Barry has given us a point in time where the second wave of homelessness is identified. These are not the chronically homeless drifter types- these are the next on the social ladder, the ex-cons and the marginally employed.It gives us a measurement of the impact of the economic crisis in human terms instead of dry numbers.
If Barry simply wanted to pen a screed indicting society, as you believe, why not find some homeless children as a prop who would certainly garner more sympathy than these "lowlifes".
Now, if I were a serious young journalist looking to make a career for myself, I might leave the 92nd St. Y, head east to the river and go northward along its banks to see what I could find. I might even prepare myself beforehand by researching some articles-maybe one of Barry's- from earlier recessions. I might get lucky, as luck favors both the prepared and the bold, and find a good story to pitch.
If, however, I were an underachiever possessing a sense of entitlement and nurturing a grudge, I might find comfort in this Island of Broken Toys where I might find fulfillment in snarky ankle-biting, betrayal of confidences and denigration of a colleague's work and character. Who the hell was Alexander Pope anyway?
As a bonus, I can do it anonymously and when I'm ready, Gawker will accept me with open arms.

Anonymous said...

diestsaI googled this story, hoping to come across the Freitas story, after a friend in Providence mentioned it to me. I'm not always crazy about Barry's stuff, but if you guys are going to bring the critique, I think you're going to have to tighten things up a bit. First of all you claim the original was published Friday morning, and that the encampment moved Wednesday. The original was published Thursday, which means it was likely filed well before then. I think Barry could have done better homework on Freitas--maybe he chose to leave that detail out, I don't know. I do think the story itself is an interesting one, and it's important to remember Barry's column is a column, albeit a sometimes weak one. At least he writes under his name, instead of this "written by a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity" nonsense. No one is going to take you seriously unless you come clean about who you are, and what you stand for.


Anonymous said...

The above should read "I googled..." Not sure where that "dietsal" text came from.


Anonymous said...

I'm eating my own poo.