We can be heroes


Last updated 9/14/2022 at Noon

The other day I talked with a young friend about something bad he did a few years ago as a teenager. The crime was never prosecuted, but it hurt someone. Sometimes my young friend has been agonized, even suicidal, over what he did.

I thought of him during recent arguments over how Bend’s newspaper, The Bulletin, covered the Safeway shooting.

Unhinged young men going on shooting sprees with AR-15-style weapons in America is no longer unusual. But as of last week, the people of Central Oregon faced a dark truth. Yes, it can happen here.

Yet, we could take solemn joy in reading about Donald Surrett. He was the hero who tried to stop the shooter—and died trying. Then came new information. The Bulletin wrote on September 1 that Surrett was a convicted criminal who had served time in prison nearly 30 ago. Tackily, the paper put quotation marks around “Hero” in the accompanying headline. In online comments and letters to the editor, including one here in The Nugget last week, folks fumed at The Bulletin’s editors. How dare they publish this unsavory information?

Gerry O’Brien of The Bulletin ran an editorial explaining the paper’s decision.

A seasoned writer and editor myself, I didn’t buy his implication that editors don’t choose what to print.

Of course we do.

Editors select which stories to cover, how to cover them, and what information to include.

There’s a lot to consider: the availability of sources, writers, copy editors, fact checkers, and photographers.

Whether or not a story is compelling, both to editorial staff and to readers.

The bald reality of covering costs and paying staff.

Respect for the particular community served by the publication.

And a genuine curiosity, a drive to learn more, combined with a fundamental respect for truth.

This process of choice is an essential part of journalism’s exciting and vital role. As the Internet shows, having unlimited access to vast firehoses of unedited, un-curated information just makes people crazy and exhausted.

He stumbled there, but O’Brien went on to offer a reasonable defense of The Bulletin’s choice: “He is being praised for his bravery as he should be...” O’Brien wrote of Surrett. “He has paid his dues to society. And he deserves hero status. But the public also deserves to have a full and fair picture of this person.”

I agree. By painting a full picture of our local hero, reporters allowed us to see the potential hero in everyone, including ourselves. Including my young friend. While he can never undo the act he committed before, he can move forward. With help and support, he and folks like him can learn healthy ways of living and thinking. Enjoy friendships and families. Give back to their communities.

In other words, they don’t have to become the next Safeway shooter. They can be the next Donald Surrett.

It helps if they can see real people reflected in the media — not just spectacular heroes with shining medals and glimmering backgrounds. Not just over-the-top bad-guy villains. Real people like themselves, like all our selves.

People who have done bad things but refuse to get stuck on the Dark Side. Imperfect people who try hard.

Media reporting goes both ways. A criminal’s neighbors, teachers, or family members are often interviewed in news coverage. Sometimes they’re shocked and bewildered that this nice, polite person in their lives committed some terrible crime. When a newspaper prints these reactions, it helps readers understand the perpetrator and the circumstances. We realize that everyone who shows a pleasant exterior to the world is not necessarily nice and safe.

We begin to understand: Whatever causes horrific crimes, it is not reserved for people who look or act a certain way. Horrific crimes on the level of murder or mass shooting can be committed by someone who seems “normal” and has no criminal history.

It’s not a reassuring thought. But it helps us get a more accurate view of reality. If we are shown only the surface-level goodness or only the blaring badness, we’re getting a cheap, incomplete view of a person — and of our world.

In this case, we have a local hero who committed deeds in the past worthy of being sentenced to 10 years in prison by a military court. Ignoring Surrett’s past would suggest that only certain people are allowed to take heroic action. People with unblemished police records. People with perfect white teeth and smooth complexions, perhaps. Allowing readers to see Surrett’s many layers helps us understand that we can all be heroes. Me, you, my young friend with the troubled past.

Even if we have made mistakes. Even if we might make more tomorrow.

Like Donald Surrett, we can be heroes — just for one day.


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