In the best podcasts I have listened to (“Buried,” the disappearance of Carey Mae Parker), you have to listen and let the story unspool for a long time before you can get a real inkling how to tell the white hats from the black. In only three installments so far, “The Death of Botham Jean: Amber Guyger on Trial,” written and produced by Morning News staffers, is already a tale in black and white.
I don’t write this because I’m interested in a new career as a podcast critic. Knowing all too well the pain, anger and frustration that this terrible story evinces in the hearts of readers, I would skip the sideshow of the podcast and not give it any publicity at all were it not for one thing.
“An unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer. It’s a story that is familiar.” — Jennifer Emily
We need to guard our hearts during the weeks ahead while this awful trial unfolds. We need to keep our heads on straight. And in order to do that, we will have to accomplish what seems impossible at times in this story: We will have to keep our minds open.
In the first of the three podcast episodes that have appeared so far online, Morning News reporter Jennifer Emily offers listeners an intriguing behind-the-scenes peek at why she and presumably her paper think the Botham Jean killing is a big deal. It’s what we in the business call story judgment, and it’s something readers and consumers of news usually just have to guess about: Why is the paper making so much out of this story?
Emily says: “There are a couple of reasons why this case has captured the public’s attention. The first one is obvious. An unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer. It’s a story that is familiar.
“And I think there is a second reason. An innocent man was shot and killed in his own home. I think that taps into a fear that all of us have. Home is supposed to be where we are safe, where we are content, where we can let our guard down.”
I would say that’s maybe half of it. Yes, the Botham Jean story falls neatly into the abstract template of recent police shooting stories in which the cop was white and the victim was black. Guyger, 31, is white. Botham Jean, 26, was black.
And, yes, Jean, an accountant, was a law-abiding citizen in the sanctuary of his own home when somehow suddenly a person appeared in his doorway and shot him to death. Emily gets that part right. Jean’s killing was a shocking violation of the assumed sanctity of the home, a scene more from nightmare than waking life.
But the important elements of the story do not stop there. The story judgment that Emily offers, with her newspaper’s apparent agreement, is only half of what makes this story so riveting and so painful. And again, I wouldn’t be arguing with any of what she and the podcast have to say about it if this were just some esoteric criticism of the podcast itself.
It’s not. It’s much more. There are additional issues, other reasons we are interested that are central to the way we as a community will morally process the trial that now lies on our doorstep, about to enter our lives.
First and foremost, what if this was exactly what Guyger has insisted from the very beginning, exactly what she said over and over again between distraught gasps on the 911 call when it happened? What if this was a terrible accident? Then what?
What verdict will be appropriate if this was an accident? What outcome for Guyger? How would you feel, how would I feel, if we shot and killed a person entirely by mistake, without a shred of cause or justification other than the mistake itself?
Guyger told police she entered Jean’s apartment by mistake, thinking it was her own. She saw him inside and thought he was an intruder in her own apartment. She has said she gave Jean “verbal commands.” We don’t know what that means, but he didn’t comply or didn’t comply fast enough. She shot him with her service weapon. He died soon after.
The claim of accident is an absolute stopping point for many people. They dismiss the whole problem of accident out of hand by insisting there could be no such mistake, that it isn’t conceivable. They might be right. But what if the mistake is at least a little bit conceivable?
In the days immediately after Jean’s death, other occupants of the building where he and Guyger both lived posted on social media saying they had made the same mistake, parked on the wrong floor in the garage, got lost in the warren of corridors and went to the wrong door thinking it was their own. It could have happened.
I am told there will be evidence in the trial about frequent malfunctions in the building’s electrical lock system. Locks that are supposed to be locked have been found to be unlocked. That could have happened, too.
Social media posts have claimed a prior grudge of some kind between Guyger and Jean over loud music. Guyger lived immediately under Jean. But those stories are whispers that come and go more like rumors than evidence. That could all be entirely false.
That would even make sense, I think, were it not for the other side of the equation, the repeated telling of this story as if it were only and entirely about a white cop murdering a black man in the sanctity of his home. The only suspense that way is in seeing how high Guyger will hang.
I’m not the Lone Ranger. I am convinced that many people out there are asking themselves, “What if it was a mistake, just as she says it was? What then?”
There are important reasons why even in advance of the trial we should not and cannot close our minds to that question. For one, it’s too easy.
In the first episode of the Morning News podcast, the dead man’s mother, Allison Jean, is recorded addressing an audience in Dallas: “I look forward to the next step,” she says, “which is a conviction of murder of Amber Guyger and more so of a penalty, the proper penalty that will cause her to reflect on what she has done and the pain that she has caused, not only my son but my family, my church, my country.”
No one can judge this woman in her pain or loss. But a journalist should be able to hear in this speech the call for blood, the demand for vengeance, and that call should not be left on the table without some balance, as if it were absolute and irrefutable.
If this story were simply about a bad racist cop shooting a black man because he was black, the story would not have commanded the sustained widespread interest this one has. Sad to say, the bad cop story, the racist white cop shooting a black man, has become a bit like the mass shooting story — too common, too frequent, too prone to melting into a stream of indistinguishable installments that can’t be kept apart.
This story is unique precisely because of the argument of accident. That doesn’t mean it was an accident. It may not have been. We may learn the accident is one big lie, that this killing was entirely intentional and premeditated. But what if it was an accident?
If it was an accident, then will that truth not force us to open our hearts to Guyger in the same way they are open to Jean’s mother? What a terrible turn in the life of a young woman committed to the service and protection of others.
And speaking of story judgment, if this one turns out to be about an accident, then maybe this story should teach us an important caution about stories in general. Broad pattern stories may deceive. Stories that begin to sound merely repetitive may not be repetitive at all. We may simply have stopped listening.
If this story is about an accident, then it may warn us that patterns can lie and that we have no idea what happened in this instance. In fact, while we’re at it, isn’t that exactly the kind of categorical thinking we don’t want the cops doing? We don’t want them going around saying, “You’re black, he’s white, so I believe him.”
We journalists tend to be the worst. The great failing of the journalistic mindset is that we become categorical thinkers simply due to the volume of grist we must grind through our mill every day. We sort the mail. We drop things into slots. This is one of those. Plunk. That is one of these. Plunk.
This is one of those stories about an unarmed black man killed by a white police officer. Plunk. That is a story about an innocent person murdered in his home. Plunk.
But what if this one is about none of those? What if it’s about a terrible accident? Where do we plunk it?
Nowhere for now. Not yet.