By Michelle Railey
Yesterday was Super Bowl Sunday, an unofficial holiday in the U.S.
My Twitter feed was alive with drunken driving reports.
If you tend to follow a lot of government and police accounts, your feed was similarly full.
Yesterday morning, very early, a Colts linebacker and his Uber driver were killed by a drunk driver. The most recent account has the driver and the linebacker on the shoulder of the road. They were struck down by a truck driven by an intoxicated driver.
It’s a heartbreaking story on every level: Edwin Jackson was 26 years old. He had a life. His driver, Jeffrey Monroe, was 54. He had a life, too.
They both had lives in the future, waiting for them. But they never made it because, at 4 am on Sunday morning, they were struck by a vehicle driven by a driver who was under the influence of alcohol.
I’m going to say here, loudly and firmly, the driver in the accident has not gone to trial. The driver has been convicted of precisely nothing. There are two lives lost in a tragic accident on a cold February pre-dawn. That, and only that, is the proved fact.
(I’m going to pause for a second so I can think about Jackson and Monroe, to send some feeble semblance of inadequate compassion towards the memory of them and to all who knew and loved them.
It doesn’t matter, I guess; it won’t matter if you do it, too, but somehow I think we all should. Life is precious, time is short, and endings can be brutally abrupt.)
This morning, the first thing I did was to check Twitter. I do that. It’s probably a shocking waste of sunlight but I can’t seem to help myself.
The Indy Star tweet this morning caught my eye:
It was followed by this, an hour later:
By my count, the number of times the Star tweeted about immigration in relation to the accident today, and only today, stands at eight. In the past 16 hours, the Indy Star has tweeted about the tragic accident 16 times. A full fifty percent of those tweets have mentioned or outright focused on the suspect’s immigration status.
I saw, within minutes of my first observed tweet on the story, a link by something called The Wire or The Vibe or The Clutch (or similar, I’m not even going to bother to hunt it for a link. You can do that if you like; check around noon, Indiana time), a headline about the “undocumented Mexican” who was responsible for the accident.
I saw, just this evening, while inserting and counting tweets, responses from fellow humans saying:
(Just pretend here are several that say things like “Build the Wall” and reference Indianapolis becoming a “sanctuary city.”)
There are tweets against “illegals” and the “undocumented.” There are partisan cries from Dems and Reps, explicitly stating party.
There are people pointing out that drunken driving happens regardless of nationality. There are people saying that if the accused had never been in the country, this never would have happened.
So, it’s a blood fight along partisan lines, at least in the Twittersphere. (And kudos to Todd Rokita and Mike Pence for not bringing up nationality in their tweets today.)
And it didn’t have to be that way.
This is NOT an immigration story.
The suspect’s immigration past, his country of origin, his blood alcohol content (BAC), his photograph, his deportation record…all of these things have been published by the Indianapolis Star before he has been in front of a judge or a jury.
So there is that.
Yes, there was the tragic accident and a breathylizer and there is a preponderance of evidence to suggest that because of this man’s choices two people are dead.
And that has nothing at all to do with his immigration status.
That he is Guatemalan? That didn’t cause him to drink and drive (and again, there has been as yet no due process to ascertain the facts of the night).
That he provided an alias, allegedly, at the time of arrest? Quite frankly, that should come up in a trial, not in a newspaper (how was this confirmed?). Is it possible the suspect has two legal names? Maybe not. But maybe so. But I’ll tell you two secrets: (1) we don’t know and (2) the suspect hasn’t been in front of a peer-filled jury yet to explain.
Drunken driving killed 10,265 Americans in 2015, according to the CDC. That accounts for nearly 29 percent of the traffic deaths that year.
Do you, looking at that number, really care where the drivers were from? If you were to adjudicate Impaired Driving in America, would your first question be about blood alcohol content or the decreasing life span of Americans or the accountability of establishments for over-serving? Would your questions even remotely touch what the limit of BAC and intoxication is, by state? Would you consider that alcohol remains in the system for up to 8 hours; that buzzed driving is drunk driving; that the fact is you, or someone you know, has driven after “one with friends,” or just “a skosh” or after proclaiming in steady tones “I’m fine, really?”
Would you consider for even a second that distracted driving, that sleep-driving, that the very nature of driving, relying as it does on rote and second-gear thinking, accounts for very many accidents?
One-third of the vehicular deaths in 2015 were because of alcohol.
Two-thirds were because of something else.
And out of inattention, actual chance or accidents, sleep, poor planning, or what have you, I will argue that none of those were due to the nationality, citizenship, or documentation of one of the drivers involved.
See, it’s funny, but no one wants to be in an automobile accident.
So, one, I’ve got a problem with a universe that kills two people just for living. (The universe doesn’t care that I have a problem. But I’m adamant. And bad things keep happening to good people.)
But two? I’ve got a problem with the Indy Star. Okay, yeah, I’ve got a problem with the fact that they’re just going to publish a mug shot, all the details coming from the initial response, and they’re going to magnify all of it via social media before a single goddamned trial has been held: See, in my mind, this looks a lot like using influence to create a preponderance of opinion that favors guilt before any has been proven.
And I’m really not keen on that, constitutionally and humanely speaking.
But two, part the worst? That the driver was or wasn’t drunk? Relevant. That the driver was or wasn’t on the road at the scene of the accident? Relevant.
That he was Guatemalan, that he had previously been deported twice (and again, here, sources of confirmation?), that he may or may not have provided a second name at the scene of the accident?
These have nothing to do, until a jury trial determines otherwise, with the fact that two of our fellow human travelers have passed away in a horrible accident on a cold and unforgiving February night.
The victims’ citizenship? Did you worry about that? Did, Indy Star, you publish that?
No. You didn’t.
I think newspapers, local and in mid-markets like Indianapolis, are in a precarious position: how to survive, how not to be labeled as partisan, how to get clicks without becoming click-bait? These are not easy situations to solve. How do you keep a news outlet functioning when everyone wants, expects, and demands free content?
Yeah, every bit of this horrible accident was reportable. Because it involved the tragic early loss of a promising young public figure in the sports world, of course it was going to figure in social media and headlines a bit more than the “average” loss of “average” life in an “average” accident on an “average” night.
And the nationality of any of the humans involved matters not one whit.
Two human beings lost their lives. Another human, behind a mechanical wheel, is most likely (but not yet definitively and legally) to blame.
It is a tragedy.
A human, not a national, not an immigrational, tragedy.
And the Indy Star’s willingness to label it as such – in headlines, on social media, in blurbs? Well, that’s a way to burnish the brand, to sell papers, to create a name and generate clicks.
In the face of human loss, that’s disgusting. It’s our world, but it’s revolting and I, for one, am ashamed.
In the face of survival (newspaper’s point of view), I could almost (almost) understand.
But, had I been the one typing the lede, hitting send on the Tweet or the Facebook post, I would have known that everything about it (the twice deported, the Guatemalan, the illegal, the immigrant) would be a dog whistle encouraging clicks by the many, but worse, the “build the walls” and the fighting in the comments and the partisan bullshit that passes for a reasonable conversation in 2018.
I wouldn’t have written that lede. I wouldn’t have published a mug shot: no crime is committed until it has been proven as such and until it has been proven as such, it is NOT news. But mostly, the point of a good newspaper is to include the facts, as many of them as one can fit, in the body of the article.
But sensationalizing a title to foment public reaction? That’s not news. That’s yellow journalism.
It’s Maury Povich and Sally Jesse and Oprah in the 1990s and Geraldo and the National Enquirer.
It’s our least rational selves.
It’s not the news.
Edwin Jackson died before his time on a cold winter night. His Uber driver that night, a man from Avon, Indiana named Jeffrey Monroe also died, too young, and for preventable reasons, that same night.
They were humans.
They were not, then, now, ever, nationalities and papers and laws. They were humans.
The driver who struck them, he is human, too. His story has yet to be written and substantiated by the courts. My guess is that there will be no comfort for anyone.
My further guess? He drank. He drank enough that driving wasn’t a thing he could do. There was an accident.
He was human.
A tragedy happened. Truly.
And his nationality, his papers, his status, his name? None of that would have changed the outcome. None of that is the headline.
None of that is the story. It’s the opposite of the story. It’s the seeds of a storm.
And instigating a storm isn’t the story. It isn’t news. It isn’t good journalism. It isn’t anything other than instigation. It’s poking the cheap seats; it’s capitalizing on the cheap seats.
It’s trivializing and demeaning to any human reading the article, to any human involved, to any human life lost or mourning that loss.
Humanity is the story here. Not country, not status, not buzzword, not dog whistle, not click bait.
Humanity is why there is a story. Humanity.
Humanity is the story. Edwin Jackson is the story. Jeffrey Monroe is the story.
Our human frailty, our failings, our biological responses to alcohol are the story.
Put the details in the story.
But immigration? It’s not the lede.
This is not an immigration story.