What was lost in the coverage of a student journalist and a Philadelphia cop

Update: 7:40 p.m. on April 23, 2009: The involved officer was suspended with intent to dismiss. That news also came from the Inquirer and Daily News.

Update: 10:12 p.m. on May 6, 2009: Ms. McDonald was the feature of a cover story in the Northeast Times.

The attention has probably subsided enough to write this now.

Shannon McDonald, whom I’ve known for nearly two years, got a round of 15 minutes of fame she didn’t quite want.

On March 31, the Philadelphia Daily News ran a story on the growing ire of a group of the city’s black cops.

The controversy surrounded around a single officer, and, it seems, Shannon started it all.

At least a month before, the 21-year-old senior Temple University journalism student had to write a feature story for a class. So, thinking a cop-ride-along would be a simple, strong and fast assignment for a class she’s eager to finish, Shannon contacted the 22nd Philadelphia police district, which covers her assigned Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

Then she wrote, as would surprise no one who knows her, a tidy, professional 900-word profile on Bill Thrasher, the officer with whom she rode. That was in February. It was a school assignment.

I spoke to her after the ride along.

“How was it?” I asked.

“OK,” she said, in a way that makes me certain she neither expected nor wanted any attention for the story.

It took a month for her expectations to be proven shortsighted.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the Internet is its leveling of hierarchies. There was a time, not so long ago, that class assignments were graded, filed and forgotten. Today, they are legacies.

Shannon filed her story, and it took a month for someone to get mad about it — really mad about it.

I read her story when she first finished it. I was moved by her ability to get the officer to feel comfortable enough with her to speak frankly. In the ensuing aftermath, she was criticized for being deceptive, when, in fact, as any good journalist will suggest, if you can’t get someone, a stranger even, to open up to you, then you aren’t worth shit as a journalist.

Officer Thrasher, of course, as the story goes, certainly did open up to Shannon. He was a white, baby-faced 24-year-old rookie cop working in a neighborhood where 24 is old and young, black boys die, often at the hands of other young, black boys.

Thrasher spoke bluntly — calling some of the neighbors “like animals” — but while the generalizations were alarming, they wouldn’t be surprising to anyone who knows young cops who patrol poor, black neighborhoods. What lurched forward the alarm over the story was Thrasher’s use of a certain term with other officers, including a supervising lieutenant. TNS, he explained to Shannon, with pen and pad, means “typical nigger shit.”

And that’s how media firestorms begin.

The first I saw of it came on DomeLights, which for those of you not fortunate enough to know, is an open, anonymous forum for Philly cops — equal parts enlightening and distressing, true candy for the voyeur at heart. When the Daily News story came out, another DomeLights thread followeda third came later still, maybe more, I’ve lost track.

At first, the attacks came on Shannon. Those who couldn’t believe a Philly cop would say such comments implied Shannon, just a student journalist, likely fictionalized or at least embellished her quotes.

For those who don’t know the thorough and scrupulous scribe, who serves as her college newspaper’s managing editor, while also maintaining a full-time course load, freelancing for the Wilmington News-Journal and copy-editing for the Fishtown Spirit community newspaper, and has also written for Philadelphia Style, I can understand the indictment.

In time though, the dominant conversation on even the anonymous and often ugly DomeLights forum became what the hell was Thrasher — and his supervising officers — thinking, sending a young cop with a journalist.

Of course, I think the point is that no one saw Shannon as a journalist. She was a kid. To Thrasher, she was likely a kid who also lived in Northeast Philadelphia – the city’s bastion of middle-class whites, chock full of cops and firefighters.

Thrasher said some messed up stuff — there’s no questioning that — but he didn’t say anything beyond what most fear is part of white culture in a big city police department. If he gets canned, it’ll likely be part of a sham attempt by the force to suggest they’ve cleaned up their act.

It’s something a lot darker and bigger than firing 24-year-old Thrasher could solve. Instead, I truly hope Thrasher learns from the experience and gets to return to doing good things on the streets of Strawberry Mansion.  He may deserve all the negative attention he’s getting now, but unless it’s part of a bigger house-cleaning, I don’t think he needs to get tossed on the street. I doubt Shannon, for what it’s worth, thinks he should either. But it doesn’t matter what she thinks. She’s just supposed to write it all down.

And that’s what got her in so much trouble. The media was looking for something like this, as stories of racism and prejudice in Philly’s police ranks have persisted for decades. Shannon became an unwitting face of a movement of which she didn’t want to be a part.

She appeared on Fox29 and, for fear of being criticized for over-exposure, turned down the others, though she ended up on the Web site of one. The Inquirer’s Kia Gregory wrote a story, and she was the feature of a Michael Smerconish column – that followed getting about an hour of attention between his morning and afternoon nationally-syndicated radio shows. Alternative-weekly CityPaper joined the fray. She was written up on Attytood, twice on Philebrity, on the McJawn magazine Web site and on the CityPaper staff blog. They felt it necessary to address the issue in the college newspaper she manages, and that moved to a Temple student-news blog and a Temple journalism class blog. I couldn’t find a link for the Radio Times piece I was told aired on WHYY. That was all capped off by getting the rundown by Inqy columnist Annette John-Hall, who focused more on Shannon being a budding journalist in an age not so kind to them. I think probably among the more accurate, honest and thorough assessments came from a syndicated columnist.

Whether this is the end of police ride-alongs in Philadelphia, I can’t be sure. I did expect a subtle police publicity blitz and, it has already begun.

NBC10, who is getting battered in the city’s ratings, ran a cakewalk piece on April 10, covering new walking beats promoted by the city’s force. Where did the story take place? The 22nd district of course, the same district that was under fire for Thrasher’s comments two weeks earlier. That NBC10 reporter Kristin Walker didn’t make mention of a firestorm that happened in the same district so recently shows a level of unprofessionalism and lack of journalistic integrity that frightens me.

So the police will likely let us forget about it, which has happened before. Shannon’s 15 minutes is all but done, something I suspect she relishes. Still, I think it’s a shame so little was made of the hateful blow back that came Shannon’s way.

The least of it called her naive for writing the story, quoting an officer saying ugly things about the neighborhood he patrols would put him in danger. Of course, as anyone in the industry knows, that’s not quite how it works.

If he felt the need to say something like that but knew the ramifications, a simple “leave this off the record,” would have done fine. Fourteen hundred people have joined a Facebook group supporting Thrasher, and that’s just fine, but I can’t help but find myself a little confounded when folks leave mean spirited comments like the following:

Karma is a bitch. One day she’ll need the police and hopefully they won’t be there to help her.”

That was left by a Tom Thrasher, though I’m not sure of the relation. She received e-mails that were threatening, lewd and argumentative. I won’t even get near to the ugliest attacks of all. She was accused of injecting race into the conversation, though Shannon maintains never doing anything more than writing a story with real quotes from a real person. Nevertheless, the attacks persist.

Of course, that’s just what’s so disconcerting about all of this — that the response from some in the police community is to criticize, condemn or otherwise attack a student journalist, rather than explore just what kind of culture is festering in our city’s police departments.

If that can’t be seen as unhealthy, we have a much larger problem.

Now, of course, this is a gosh darn wet dream for just about any self-respecting young journalist — hell, for any journalist. Well, not exactly for Shannon.

She’s growing an online community news portal for her native Northeast Philadelphia, held at NEastPhilly.com. Her Q&A post on fellow NEaster Arthur Kade got links from the likes of Philebrity and Gawker. Next month, she’s hosting a panel discussion of city controller candidates.

It would be a troubling time for white, cop-supporting Northeast natives to refuse to patronize what is already the best source of Northeast news online. Particularly for so little. A young, native Northeast Philadelphia reporter doing nothing more than writing down what someone said and reporting it.

So you might understand why she’d be frustrated by a discussion board entitled “Boycott NEastPhilly.com.”

She didn’t sound the bell. She didn’t call for Thrasher’s head. She quietly and responsibly filled her story. We are in a bad place if that becomes something to criticize.