In response to concerns regarding Wednesday's front-page article about panhandler John Stevens, we'd like to explain our thinking behind featuring his story so prominently.
Stevens' panhandling at an Auburn shopping center sparked a flurry of calls to our newsroom. "What is this guy's story?" we were asked. Once, long before this week, a reporter asked Stevens to talk and he refused. Then, this week, he contacted us — and told us, in clear language, that we had been ignoring him — and we tried again.
So, as Stevens held a cardboard placard broadcasting his plight to passing cars and collecting cash, he told his story about being burned from his home, his fight to get disability checks, the challenges of his wife's bi-weekly income and his previous rousting from Topsham, Waterville and Augusta for panhandling. In Auburn, he said, the cops leave him alone.
That is Stevens' story, and it is tragic. He was turned homeless (though he lives in a motel now, to maintain a permanent residence) by a bizarre accident involving a benign appliance: an electric pencil sharpener. He apparently struggles with chronic pain and cannot find work. (He can, however, drive 60 miles daily to stand and ask for money.)
Just these details alone, however, are not the story of John Stevens. Journalism is not the staid retelling of one-sided tales, but the painting of the fullest possible picture so readers — to whom we are accountable — have every fact. There was more to Stevens than he was telling.
He is a registered sex offender and a convicted felon. His landlord in Augusta, whom we called to validate his tale, talked about Stevens' five-month turn as his tenant, and how he — to his landlord's knowledge — never held a job. The details of the fire were all true.
With this knowledge, we presented a portrait — warts and all — of Stevens. What is his story? Yes, his apartment building burned in March. Yes, he doesn't have work. What residents of the Twin Cities are seeing through their car windows is, genuinely, a person down on his luck.
Yet before giving him money, they deserve to know the whole story, from what is available from public records, those who knew him, and by asking tough questions he may not enjoy answering. Stevens sought publicity, as he has elsewhere. He called the newspaper.
A journalist responded.
If we had simply re-told Stevens' story, as he desired, we would have done our readers a disservice. A newspaper is not just a publicist for good causes; while we can amplify attention to worthwhile charities, our duty is asking questions and unearthing information that should be known.
Stevens is still free to ask for money. We have not denied him that right.
What we've done is ensure people know to whom their money is going.