Unless you live in a cave, you’ve no doubt read that a suspect is in custody for the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey. You may even know this if you do live in a cave – you can pretty much access bad news coverage from anywhere these days.
One of my friends, via e-mail, made the observation that we could expect the usual treatment here, and offered the cynical suggestion that this was going to push real news stories from the front page – you know, Lebanon, why al Qaeda rejoices in the America-hating of Connecticut Democrats, etc. (Note: “front page” is an archaic term signaling that something is very important news. It’s kind of like “our top story tonight” or “most downloaded.”) (Note 2: the gods help Natalee Holloway’s mom, who probably won’t be able to get back on Nancy Grace for months.)
However, all snark aside, this is an important story, and we can learn much from its coverage. However, the real news won’t be in what the media tells us, but in their abject refusal to tell us the story about themselves and their shameless role in annihilating the lives of an innocent family. From the outset, the American press (and in this I include every agency that touched the story, from Denver local broadcast and print outlets to national networks to Geraldo) partnered with a pack of incompetent morons in the Boulder PD and DA’s offices to falsely accuse, try and convict John, Patsy, and even Burke Ramsey, despite the fact that they were implicated by no evidence.
The only people who got the story right? University of Colorado Mass Communication professor Michael Tracey and British independent television producer David Mills, who produced a three-part series of documentaries (commissioned by Britain’s ITV) on the subject. The first one (“The Case of JonBenet: The Ramseys vs. the Media”) didn’t even address who the real killer might be – instead, it focused on the media coverage of the story and how willful incompetence on the part of reporters led to a wide, pretty much unquestioned public assumption that the Ramseys killed their daughter. The doc walks you meticulously from one lie to the next and illuminates a pattern of malfeasance that’s just about guaranteed to have you yelling at the screen. I have shown this vid to a number of people, and not one walked away believing there was any chance in hell that the Ramseys were guilty. The important part about this, of course, is that if Tracey and Mills could pick apart the coverage and the dynamics behind it that easily, then it means that the reporters on the scene could have gotten it right, too, had they only been willing and capable of, you know, being reporters.
By the end of this film, the thoughtful viewer begins to suspect that, pedophiles be damned, none of us are safe from our own press. (If you can find a copy of that documentary somewhere, get it and watch it. It will change how you watch the news for the rest of your life.)
I’m not engaging in hyperbole here, either – I mean this all very literally. The Ramsey case illustrates, in frightening detail, how the American news industry can get it wrong in a way that turns a regular citizen into a universally vilified demon. I imagined scenarios whereby something might happen to my family, or to the families of my friends, and all of a sudden you’ve not only lost a family member to unspeakable tragedy, your face is all over the TV and Geraldo is conducting a mock trial convicting you and what’s going on in the “legitimate” press is hardly any better.
Every news agency that covered the story then was guilty, and they’re guilty this morning. Instead of taking apart the obvious flaws in the investigation, the press played the dupe for a law enforcement agency that decided instantly that the family was guilty and that needed as much public support as it could get for its actions. John Ramsey, last I heard, still hadn’t been able to land a job because no company wanted to deal with him (I hope this has changed). Patsy Ramsey died without seeing justice done. And while I was never a fan of some elements of how they lived their lives (I was extremely critical of that whole child beauty pageant thing and still am), what the press did to them was without question one of the most appalling things I’ve ever seen.
Every bit of coverage you see on the story from here on out contains at least a small sprinkle of high hypocrisy, and I’ll remind you that the practiced looks of gravitas you see on the faces of every reporter on every camera today are the same self-important looks you saw ten years ago when they were hanging an innocent family.
The only people who had it right from the outset were Tracey and Mills, and I’m going to try in the coming days to get an interview with Michael, who was one of my profs and a member of my dissertation committee at CU. I imagine he’s up to his ass in phone calls right now (I just called him and his vmail box is full – there’s a stunner) but we’ll see. If he has the time, I’ll post it here…