Falling From Grace

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Through what filter do we judge the accused?

On Thursday, January 7, I made this observation on my Facebook profile:

I feel sorry for Daniel Ryder. I don't need to know any more about his case than I already do.

Several friends chimed in, agreeing with me and adding their own perspectives. Pretty much all of them expressed some sort of sympathy for Ryders situation.

Now, you shouldnt read too much into my statement. I know this is a big story, people are curious about it and the media have no choice but to cover it. (And Ryder certainly did come tantalizingly close to breaking out big, as reported in this Telegram story by Robin Short.) However, I had fears at the time that media were going to pile on and turn this into a feeding frenzy.

After all, Ryder was not exactly a hardened criminal, was already in the Waterford for observation and was hopefully going to receive the help he needed. A disproportionate amount of media scrutiny would not do much for his condition, whatever that may be.

Shortly after posting that update, a journalist friend sent me a private message, offering another perspective. That person opened a new line of discussion, comparing the way people respond to celebrity cases, versus the average street tough who commits a similar offence.

I liked the reporters points, and asked if theyd mind if I reproduced a slightly edited version of the exchange here. The reporter agreed, on condition of anonymity. Here is our discussion, beginning with the reporters comments in bold italic:

Hey Geoff,

You know I just read your status and the comments others made about it. I have been listening to all these sympathetic oohs and aahs all day and it made me think of a possible item for your blog.

It's strange how when we report on your average guy who may or may not have squandered his potential holding up a shop, the whole world seems to want to hang him in our comments section. But a hockey player who may or may not have squandered his potential gets the sympathy of the whole sane world? I'm not saying he doesn't need help. I'm just saying that he's not the only one. OK, that's my rant.

No, you've got a point. I have been thinking much the same thing... and I considered the converse of my argument before posting it. The fact is, I'd be happy if Daniel received as much media attention as any other armed robber... which is the typical perp walk, conviction and sentencing, but not much else. My problem here is that Daniel never made it to the big league... he flamed out early, which happens quite often, and never reached the lofty heights. However, he is now falling from a great height, in terms of media coverage, even though he didn't ascend that high. Do you know what I mean? Also, the attention wouldn't be as intense if his brother wasn't Michael Ryder... and that's not really fair to both of them.

Actually, I agree with the point about falling from a great height ... mostly.

And about his brother.

And, I don't expect people to think about their comments long and hard before making them. Gut reactions are important.

I just get mad that I'm supposedly this big bleeding heart because I believe that decent prison conditions and drug treatment programs might help some of these young men.

And if this were any other kid, I know from personal experience, people would be trashing him from here to Sunday.

Perhaps we shouldn't idolize the young like this. Look at poor Britny Spears. Every time I hear she's gone off her meds I give myself a reality check and remind myself that she and I are the same age and if the positions were switched I couldn't say I wouldn't be making the same mistakes she does.

Deep huh?

No, you are quite right. I agree totally on prison conditions, and drug treatment programs. And I'm pissed that the province is putting its addiction treatment centre in GF-W, where people from SJ are much less likely to use it... and where there are fewer related support services.

The conversation trailed off there. But the next day, the reporter drew my attention to a story in the January 8 Telegram, about an ex-convict who was allegedly singled out for some special treatment at the penitentiary because of complaints he made against a prison guard.

In the comments section, there is an example of the sort of attitude the reporter was talking about; a substantial number of remarks saying, in essence, that prison is not supposed to be easy and a bit of tough justice is a good thing. In other words, not much sympathy for the convict.

There are two separate discussions here, which are not necessarily related.

One is the amount of media attention given the Daniel Ryder story. Do you think it was excessive? (For the record, I dont think so. It started out as a deluge, but has since tapered off and probably wont restart until his next court appearance, which is quite reasonable.) Do you think we are more sympathetic when the accused is person of some renown?

The other has to do with our perception of criminals convicted of armed robbery, break and enter and other serious offences. Do we toss them in prison and treat them like dirt, as a minority of commenters seem to think? Or do we at least try to reintegrate them back into society, with access to addiction treatment programs and other forms of rehabilitation?

By all means, leave a comment

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  • Brian
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    The debate over media coverage of celebrities is never ending. But in the end it comes down to this: without public interest and support there would be no celebrity in the first place. Thus we cannot deny public interest in the celebrity when things go bad.
    So whether we like it or not the media will continue to cover...excessively perhaps...the lives of celebrities.
    Had he not had his troubles Daniel Ryder would have profited greatly from his celebrity..not just on the ice, but off it too, endorsements etc. But life took a tough turn for him, a turn he has to accept and one we should know about.