(By Ray D.)
Over the years we have come to recognize a modus operandi at SPIEGEL ONLINE when it comes to reporting on the United States. This trademark "m.o." involves taking extreme and anecdotal stories and presenting them as general, comprehensive journalism.
One recent example is a large, four-part series on unemployment in Kannapolis, North Carolina. An even more recent example is a SPIEGEL ONLINE article on an extreme case in the Florida court system in which a man named Timothy Kane, who was passively involved in a brutal double-murder when he was 14 years-old according to the New York Times, was sentenced to life in prison. SPIEGEL introduces the case this way:
"US Juvenile Justice System: 30 Minutes Curiosity, Life Behind Bars
By Friederike Freiburg
More than 2000 youth are sitting behind bars in the USA - for life. Human rights organizations consider this practice inhumane. Conservative hardliners, on the other hand, are vehemently calling for the re-establishment of the death penalty for juveniles."
The article then goes on to focus on specific details surrounding the case of Timothy Kane. It is a near verbatim translation of Kane's story as reported in this New York Times article with a few extra details and commentary sprinkled in at the beginning and end. In all frankness, the circumstances of Mr. Kane's case as the Times relate them certainly appear to be extreme and unfair. But is this case really representative of the "US Juvenile Justice System" as SPIEGEL ONLINE implies?
Well, here are a number of statistics cited by the New York Times (and omitted by SPIEGEL ONLINE):
"Juvenile lifers are much more likely to be in for murder than are their adult counterparts, suggesting that prosecutors and juries embrace the punishment only for the most serious crime.
While 40 percent of adults sent away for life between 1988 and 2001 committed crimes other than murder, like drug offenses, rape and armed robbery, the Times analysis found, only 16 percent of juvenile lifers were sentenced for anything other than murder.
In those same years, the number of juveniles sentenced to life peaked in 1994, at about 790, or 15 percent of all adults and youths admitted as lifers that year. The number dropped to about 390, or 9 percent, in 2001, the most recent year for which national data is available.
Similarly, the number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole peaked in 1996, at 152. It has dropped sharply since then, to 54 last year. That may reflect a growing discomfort with the punishment and the drop in the crime rate."
Nowhere in the SPIEGEL ONLINE piece does author Friederike Freiburg mention that an extremely high percentage (84%) of juvenile lifers are sent away for murder nor does she mention the precipitously declining numbers of life sentences for juveniles in recent years. She only briefly discusses the Times observation that there is "growing discomfort" with such sentences in the US.
Instead Ms. Freiburg compares the number of juveniles sentenced to life behind bars to other countries and focuses on the following:
"In Germany the maximum penalty for youth is ten years imprisonment. Here emphasis is not placed on punishment and revenge, but instead on rehabilitation and resocialization. Different in the USA. (...)
A conservative columnist, himself a prosecutor, wrote in the "Washington Times" that he was certain that "juries are sometimes presented with 16 or 17 year old defendants who are entirely aware of the evil nature of their murderous deeds and who deserve - after the conclusion of an entire palette of legal proceedings - to be grilled, gassed, hanged, shot, poisoned or to be sent to hell some other way.""
This is the picture SPIEGEL ONLINE wants its readers to absorb: America as a land of extreme hardliners, religious-zealots and hyperpatriots with a radical justice system. This is the image of America the magazine knows to supply and the image its readers have grown to demand. It is simply a question of ideology and economics. And reality gets left on the wayside...
Overall, the modus operandi remains unchanged: Individual slices of misery are made to appear representative of America on a national level. And make no mistake: This selective presentation of the extreme is what shapes many Germans' perceptions of the United States day in and day out, year for year. Millions of people are reading this stuff everyday and very few of them think twice about bias in the stories they're presented. Sad but true...
German Justice: The Opposite Extreme
In closing, let us be clear: No justice system is perfect and we at Medienkritik do not at all want to deny that there can be excesses and miscarriages of justice in any system. Like the case of one Mehmet A. in Germany last Spring. Mehmet A., a repeat criminal, brutally tortured and beat his 3 year-old daughter to death in the most horrific way imaginable and only received a ten year prison sentence from the German justice system. I guess they want to try to "rehabilitate" and "resocialize" him and not emulate the overly harsh American system. How enlightened! When will you Americans ever learn to be more like Germany...?
Update: SPIEGEL ONLINE has caved-in to our demands and pubished an English-version of the Kannapolis piece. More on that in the near future...stay tuned...