Empathy and how journalism was numb to reality.

Watching a movie from Court TV from 2002 -- a very good movie with Mercedes Ruehl called Guilt by Association, a movie about a nurse who dates a guy who deals drugs. She is clueless, but she breaks off with him, only to be sentenced for 20 years because of her association with him. It was the fallout of mandatory minimum sentences.

By pure coincidence, I had an article published in Elle Canada on the topic a month before, though it took months of research, but the movie was incredibly accurate in how that law destroyed the lives of many innocent people -- from the women convicted to their children who had no protectors as their mothers were stuck for a couple of decades.

I interviewed a lot of women for my article, and most did not make the final cut, but Guilt by Association nailed the mechanics of how many women found themselves in trouble. They dated a seemingly nice guy who were involved in criminal activity. The women found out, broke off the relationship, and the man gets arrested, and by nature of the law, he can get a reduced sentence if he "gives up" other people, and he gives up his ex.

How romantic.

He gets a lesser sentence being guilty than the woman who is either completely innocent, or marginally involved.

It was a problem that shook me to the core because thousands of women who should have never been arrested ended up in jail for a very long time.

I spoke to these women at length, and verified what they told me. It was shocking how a law could be so myopic. Children ended up in foster care. Women who had good factory jobs ended up working for the same companies in jail for pennies an hour. Lives were disrupted and forever so.

I heard those prisoners screaming for their children over the phone when I interviewed those who were willing to speak to me. I am certain many of those women voted for those lawmakers whose cruelty ended their peace.

I spoke to more than just those women, but those who understood the law and the system that brought that disruption. 

When Guilt by Association came out in 2002, some of the professional reviews were so out of touch with reality that it was maddening. There was no empathy because the journalistic narrative that the Establishment knows what it is doing blinded them to the sheer egregiousness of that law.

People magazine was the most vile offender:

The problem with the film is its relentlessly black-and-white approach. The prosecutor isn’t merely overzealous; he seems to take satisfaction in destroying Susan’s “cozy little middle-class life.”

Bottom Line: Okay, we get the message

Oh no, you don't.

You don't get it at all.

Sometimes there is no "two sides" to a story. Sometimes the Establishment is out of their minds without a single moral to nudge them in the sane direction. I shudder to think what this reviewer would have said when it was discovered that there were such things as concentration camps in parts of Europe.

Yes, sometimes things are just that bad. Sometimes they are even worse than that. (As an aside, the movie sugarcoated two points: first, the ex-boyfriend got a prison sentence and expressed the fact that his former flame wasn't involved, which was not the way it usually happened: he got no prison time as he never stood up for his wronged girlfriend. Second, there was someone who agreed to raise the convicted woman's children, when more often, the children had no one and ended up in social services. Many of these children became estranged from their mothers and were angry that she couldn't prevent the tragedy).

But when you shut off your senses because you refuse to move outside that narrative, you never believe reality. You have no sense for the injustices going on.

I don't care if it is a soft news rag. I don't care if it is a mere review of a television movie. If you think things cannot be that bad then it is up to you to confirm or refute that position.

Journalism never quite got the grasp of it. Not the soft news. And not the hard news.

For the women I interviewed, most had their sentences commuted by then President Bill Clinton. One had managed to get out of jail from another angle, but like the others, she had no business being in jail for that long.

None of them did.

But if you are going to bristle, make sure you have the facts to justify it. It says something when a fictional movie has more sense of reality than the nonfiction print publication.

But it is a terrifying notion that a law-abiding person who made an error in judgement could be sentenced longer than a murderer with no way to get out.

We do not live in a civilized society. No civilized society has innocent people in jail. I learned that as a journalist, and I got the memo loud and clear.

True empathy is a difficult skill. It takes more than sensitivity and bravery: you have to make yourself vulnerable and be willing to look at the things that scare you the most. You have to face the ugly side of human nature. You have to walk into a nightmare and not cling to a single defence that everything will work out all by itself.

Life is profoundly unfair, and to willingly open your eyes to it and still be willing to try to make things better is often a painful exercise. You fail, and then you do it again and again.

But it won't get better any other way. It is why journalism collapsed: it refused to do that. It just made on-the-spot decrees without looking at the world as it was.

And their audiences saw it, and decided they were going to play that same game. It became numb to reality.

But not everyone is numb to it: they see a slumbering world and decided they could take full advantage of it, knowing their victims would serve as their own accomplices, justifying and denying as the exploitation got worse.

That game cost journalism everything, but it doesn't mean a replacement has to play that same game, too...