A Cautionary Tale
Jury selection began yesterday in the murder trial of Harlan Drake, the man who has confessed to killing pro-life activist James Pouillon, but the Associated Press reports that Shiawassee County, Michigan, prosecutors "have warned a judge that it will be 'almost impossible' to seat jurors who haven't seen Pouillon's demonstrations or formed an opinion about him." Pouillon, the AP reports, "was everywhere—the farmers market, City Hall, the county courthouse, football games—with verbal taunts that were as shocking as his signs." While the national media is finally covering this side of the story, Chronicles gave its readers the full story four months ago.
When pro-life activist James Pouillon was murdered in Owosso, Michigan, on September 11, I read a few dozen accounts from both national and Michigan news sources and quickly decided I had a handle on the story. Harlan Drake, the man who has admitted to murdering Pouillon, seems deeply disturbed, and he had murdered another man and pursued a third. While neither of Drake’s other targets was publicly involved in pro-life activities, the Shiawassee County Sheriff’s Department and the prosecutor’s office both confirmed that Drake had told authorities that he had targeted Pouillon for his “pro-life stance.”
In a short piece for the About.com Catholicism GuideSite, I talked less about Pouillon, Drake, or the murder, and more about the disparity in reactions between pro-life and pro-abortion groups to the murders of Pouillon and late-term abortionist George Tiller. While pro-life groups had been quick to condemn Tiller’s murder, with few or no equivocations, pro-abortion groups were much slower to issue statements about Pouillon’s murder, and when NARAL did, the statement had a “you got one of ours; we got one of yours; let’s call it even” feel.
After publishing the piece, I noticed that a number of articles about Pouillon’s murder had quotes from residents of Owosso referring to him as “the sign guy.” I did some digging and found that, for about a decade, Pouillon had used graphic posters of aborted children in his protests, many of which (as on the day he was murdered) took place across the street from Owosso High School. The use of such posters is controversial even among pro-lifers, and I have written before about why I oppose them. Still, while their use may have contributed to Drake’s rage, it neither justifies murder nor mitigates Drake’s responsibility.
By the end of the day, however, I was contacted by a resident of Owosso who knew Pouillon and his activities, and who explained that the story was much more complex. In their (our?) rush to score political points, pro-life groups had begun referring to Pouillon as a “peaceful” man and a “martyr” to the cause of life. The inevitable comparisons with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., followed.
Yet pro-life activists in Owosso had a different story to tell, and my contact directed me to the website of the Argus-Press, where residents of Owosso were discussing their experiences with Pouillon. Even local admirers admitted that he seemed to thrive on confrontation and had told several of them that he expected—indeed, hoped—to be killed one day while protesting.
All of this had been ignored by outside news agencies. Even the Argus-Press, while it should be commended for providing a forum in which a fuller picture emerged, shied away from discussing the details in its news stories. That is why so many of us thought that we knew everything, when in fact we knew only the barest details.
In a follow-up story published in the September 24 issue of The Wanderer and reprinted on the About.com Catholicism GuideSite, I explored the implications of Pouillon’s activities and his murder in greater depth, and questioned whether such confrontational tactics are either appropriate or useful. What did Pouillon’s death actually accomplish, other than to tear apart the community of Owosso? By the time the piece appeared, however, the damage had been done, and readers responded to the attempt to paint a fuller picture of James Pouillon’s activities and murder by repeating the myth.
Over the past nine years of writing The Rockford Files, and several more years before that covering the Rockford school-desegregation case and eminent-domain land grabs by local government, I have seen many situations where the reporting of outside news agencies simply did not reflect the reality of events here in Rockford. The Rockford desegregation case, for instance, was about the closing of a neighborhood high school before a greedy Chicago lawyer, brought in by the mostly white plaintiffs, turned it into a racial class-action suit. (Many of the original plaintiffs spent years fighting the very lawyer they had hired.) The Chicago Tribune, the Rockford Register-Star, and the weekly Rock River Times all printed glowing profiles of the local Muslim school before two editors from a small monthly magazine actually spent an entire day at the school, interviewed students, teachers, and administrators, and came away with a very different story of a library stocked with radical Islamic books and videotapes, young children singing rap songs glorifying jihad, and a school-board chairman who touted the virtues of sharia and Osama bin Laden.
In other words, I should have known better. Life at the local level is always much more complex than what even a good, unbiased, hard-working reporter can capture in a few hundred words for a wire story or a 90-second segment on the six o’clock news. And a reporter from outside a community will always have trouble placing an event such as Pouillon’s murder in the context of that community’s history. That is why local news is more important than ever, even as the internet threatens to put the last truly local newspapers and radio and TV stations out of business.
And that, too, is why readers need to take everything they read with a grain of salt—even when it comes from someone they trust.
This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.