Sunday's front-page story was an account of a 27-year-old Capital Hill aide who had been arrested on a drug charge. I found the story disturbing . Not disturbing as in annoying, but disturbing as in unsettling, as in breaking up the serenity of, as in thought-provoking.
What disturbed me -- and apparently a fair number of other readers -- was the sympathetic treatment of the young man.
He was described, not as a junkie charged with making a heroin buy from a undercover cop, but as a "golden youth" whose life has been permanently tarnished. The son of a survivor of the Holocaust, he had graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, where he also earned his law degree. He had nearly completed work on his doctorate (London School of Economics) and was earning some $40,000 a year as a member of the staff of Pat Moynihan's Senate Select Committee of Intelligence.
The burden of the story, replete with glowing praise from well-placed friends, was grief over a brilliant career turned suddenly, perhaps irrevocably, sour.
And all I could think of was how fortunate he was to receive such sympathetic treatment in the hard-nosed press. I thought of the hundreds of stories of drug arrests we have had over the years, and how little sympathy for those stories reflected for the arrestees. Why was this one handled differently?
The ostensible reason is the lost promise of this brilliant young man, who might have contributed so much to society. And yet, I wonder what sort of social good we expected from this neo-conservative young scholar on a Senate Intelligence Committe. Moreover, he wasn't alone at the time of his arrest, but in the company of "another lawyer," who was not further described in the story. Didn't the arrest of that lawyer (who subsequently took an overdose of Valium) also represent lost promise?
What happened, I suspect, is that reporter Ronald Kessler, like a lot of Post readers who saw his piece, can identify with 27-year-old Eric Breindel. If he had chosen journalism rather than the law and economics, he might well have worked in The Post newsroom. Breindel's was one of those but-for-the-grace-of-God. stories that can evoke the sympathy of the similarly situated. My guess is that few low-income blacks read that story and came away saddened over lost potential. In fact, I've talked to a fair number of middle-class blacks who wonder what all the hoopla was about.
On the other hand, some of these same middle-class blacks were saddened when the clean-cut, middle-class John Lucsas let drugs destroy a professional basketball career. If there was no such black middle-class sympathy for Marvin "Bad News" Barnes, another pro basketballer, it was because the middle-class blacks could see Lucas, but not Barnes, as a case of but-for-the grace-of-God.
In other words, it's not about race but about the ability of reporters to Identify. Nor is my point that Kessler's piece was unduly sympathetic. He didn't try to paint Breindel (whose resignation Moynihan demand after the arrest) as an innocent, but only as a human being -- something reporters have trouble doing for people who are very different from themselves.
What Kessler's story makes clear for me is the value of making newsroom staffs as broadly representative as possible: racially, economically and otherwise. A lot of the people we write about, not just the brilliant ones who find themselves in predicaments, could be written about with a little more human understanding and sympathy -- not to help them escape the penalities of their mistakes but to help our readers understand something of the pressures and frailties that lead some of us to do stupid things.