An anonymous reader offered an eloquent comment this morning on our post yesterday about Peter Applebome, defending columnist Dan Barry and charging that we'd been unfair to him in our July 31 post.
In that post we reported what Barry had not, that the leader of the homeless community he'd written about that day was a twice-convicted child rapist. We also noted that days before Barry's column appeared, the homeless group had already moved away from the spot he'd written about -- and that the entire story had already been widely covered in the local press.
Today's commenter told us something we didn't know: Barry had posted a defense of his decision to omit the background of the homeless leader, John Freitas, as a comment on the NYT's website. Frankly, it never occurred to us that Barry would respond in that forum -- it's extremely rare for a NYT reporter to use the comments section to address questions from readers.
Okay, we admit it. We never even looked.
In that comment, Barry told readers he knew about Freitas's child rape conviction. But after mulling the issue and discussing it with his editor, Barry said he decided that "the nature of his criminal past wasn't relevant to the matter at hand."
"I felt that if Mr. Freitas were a Boy Scout leader or someone seeking public office, then perhaps his past would be relevant," Barry told readers. "But he was a homeless man living under an abandoned bridge in Providence, with this disturbing crime 25 years behind him."
Barry noted Freitas's arguments against including the details, which were that it would change the focus of the story, and that there were no children allowed in the homeless camp.
Barry also said Freitas told him that because the crime had happened so long ago, he was no longer required to register as a sex offender. But according to an article in the Attleboro, Ma. Sun-Chronicle from March 21, 2008, Freitas had turned himself in to authorities after failure to register -- itself a felony crime -- had landed him on that state's list of Ten Most Wanted Sex Offenders.
It should also be noted that according to the Sun-Chronicle account, Freitas was convicted of child rape on two different occasions -- once in the late 1970s, and again in 1985.
But never mind that, or the question of whether Barry's reporting was stale, or whether his references to a singing tea kettle and the blowing March winds were silly and overwrought.
The points raised by our anonymous reader today are more interesting. The commenter calls our criticisms of Barry "gratuitous" and then concludes:
Either this "team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity" neglected to do its own research and was unaware of Barry's explanation or they discount his words as those of a self-serving liar and take it as a given that the reader would agree. For my own part, I find it hard to believe that Pulitzers and Polk awards flow to sloppy and incompetent journalists and I bear in mind that Barry's reputation for integrity is so highly regarded that he was asked lend it to the Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal when it had none of its own.
Well, we've reconsidered Barry's original article, his reasons for not including the reference to Freitas's criminal background, and the points raised by our thought-provoking commenter today. And for what it's worth, here's where we stand.
For one thing, we never called Barry's integrity into question. "Integrity" means adherence to a moral or ethical code, and we never said or implied that Barry had violated the ethics of his profession, or done anything immoral.
At the same time, we don't consider awards -- even the Pulitzer -- as a permanent badge of immunity from criticism or investigation. Many readers may remember the scandal involving Janet Cooke, whose Pulitzer Prize led to revelations that she had fabricated much of the story that won her the award. We're obviously not comparing Barry to Cooke, but we believe no reporter has the right to rest on their laurels, or use them as an excuse for sloppy journalism.
Among other things, our post criticized what we believed was his failure to thoroughly report his story. We stand by that criticism. It's a fact that his column was old news by the time it appeared, and that local news outlets in Providence had reported that the group had moved -- changing the whole point of his piece. We also believe that Barry made a mistake by accepting Freitas's own version of his story, with regard to his need to register as a sex offender.
As a side note -- we stand firmly by our position that too often, Barry repurposes already-reported local news, like this story, for a national audience, instead of finding fresh topics to explore. We're also not big fans of his purple prose, but that's a matter of personal taste.
As for the broader question of whether Barry made the right decision, well, that's a judgment call. We agree with Barry in theory that people ought to have a right to rebuild their lives after serving a prison sentence. But at the same time that doesn't entitle them to have their record wiped clean by the NYT.
Maybe other readers will disagree. But to us, child rapists don't inspire the same spirit of forgiveness we feel for young people who rob banks and convenience stores, and who serve their time. Maybe it's okay to forgive, but it's a hard crime to forget.