A Q&A With Jason Fagone on Marvin Harrison
Last Thursday, GQ magazine published a powerful and absorbing story by Jason Fagone ’01 about a pair of shootings in Philadelphia—one in April 2008 that wounded a man, and a second one last July that killed that same man. The story makes the case that the person behind both shootings may well be eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison of the Indianapolis Colts.
When he was an undergrad at Penn State, Jason worked on the staff of the Daily Collegian and did an internship here at The Penn Stater. He stayed on with us as a staff writer before heading off into his career with newsstand magazines. We’re very happy that he still freelances for us on occasion.
How did you first hear about the whole Marvin Harrison situation? And how did the GQ story come about?
It was the idea of my editor at GQ, Brendan Vaughan. He’s a football guy—we had worked together on a piece about Tim Tebow, the University of Florida quarterback. Brendan has really good instincts, and he had read some of the clips about the Harrison case and sensed that there might be a bigger story there. And he knew I lived in Philly and asked me if I was interested in doing some digging. That’s how it got started.
Why do you suppose the shootings and Harrison’s possible role managed to fly under the radar, in terms of media attention, for so long?
Couple answers. The obvious one is that Harrison was this famously quiet, humble, hardworking family guy. He didn’t seem like the kind of person who would walk around with loaded a .32-caliber handgun strapped to his leg. So there was this dissonance about his persona.
Also, there was dissent in the law-enforcement community. The Philly district attorney at the time, Lynne Abraham, gave a press conference in January 2009 that killed the Harrison story for months. It was amazing. She tarred the witnesses as liars and downplayed the strong physical evidence that had been gathered by the detectives.
Abraham made it hard for any journalist to advance the story, because to do that you’d have to show that the DA of Philadelphia was wrong. And to do that you’d need to spend a lot of time being a pain and gathering sources and documents and other stuff to help you sort out the thing that the DA said you could never sort out. So I was lucky that GQ took a risk here and basically said, “Here, spend a month on this and see what you find.” That’s a luxury.
Seems like Robert Nixon, a major eyewitness to the first shooting, was a big catch in terms of your reporting. How did you get him to talk to you?
I called his lawyer and asked.
Nixon is suing Harrison in civil court, for an amount in excess of $50,000. Attention will help his case, and he wants to win and get paid, so he had incentive to talk to me. Of course, as a witness to a shooting in a city where witnesses sometimes end up dead, he also had a disincentive.
My sense is that the FBI had already reached out to the police before my story posted online. But as far as Seth Williams goes, yes, I talked to his people, and they confirmed that his renewed interest in the case is a direct result of the firestorm sparked by the GQ story. He was planning to dig into it anyway, but he’s a busy guy, and our revelations helped to move the Harrison case to the top of the pile.
What kinds of e-mails have you been getting from people as a result of the article? Seems like Colts fans in particular aren’t too happy with you.
Yeah, there are some Internet commenters who hate the story and the way I wrote it. Some people think that Robert Nixon is a liar, and so they discount the whole piece, which is baffling to me, because part of the point I tried to make is that you don’t have to believe Nixon at all—you just have to believe the physical evidence, and Harrison’s own words in his statement to police. But I am not going to convince those people.
Judging by the Twitter account of Terrell Owens, he’s not a huge fan either—there was a passing mention of Owens in the story, as an example of a black athlete with a reputation for histrionics (as opposed to Harrison), and some sportswriters thought this was unfair, because Owens has no criminal record and this was primarily a story about crime. I think that’s a fair criticism.
And the gun people are not happy. I got a couple of e-mails from guys who seem to know a lot about guns, and said I was wrong to characterize Harrison’s handgun as an unusually nasty sort of weapon. I disagree.
Overall, though, the feedback has been positive in a really gratifying way. Sometimes when you write a long piece in a magazine and it gets blogged about, the first thing people say is something like, “This is REALLY LONG.” But here, I think people got something out of the length. The saga of the two shootings was just so bizarre, and it had been out there in so many tiny fragments, that the larger truth of the thing had been kind of lost. So when it was all stitched together in one story, it had an impact.
So that tells me that there is still a role for long-form journalism. There’s something it can do that is useful.
(You can read even more about the story behind Jason’s GQ story here.)
Tina Hay, editor
Entry filed under: Alumni, The Penn Stater magazine. Tags: Brendan Vaughan, Daily Collegian, Dwight Dixon, GQ, Indianapolis Colts, Jason Fagone, Lynne Abraham, Marvin Harrison, Seth Williams, Terrell Owens, Tim Tebow.