The Geraldofication of the press: why the Ramsey story actually does matter

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.

>>UPDATE: It now looks like Tracey is the one responsible for catching Karr, according to CourtTV. [THX: amenquohi]

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…

:xpost:

Advertisements

92 thoughts on “The Geraldofication of the press: why the Ramsey story actually does matter”

  1. Well said, Dr. Pit. For reasons not worth going into here, all I know about this case is due to media osmosis, but even someone like me who deliberately didn’t pay attention was left with the impression (through the media) that the parents were somehow guilty. I seem to recall them lawyering up when they met with investigators and what a big fuss everybody made of that: Why would they lawyer up if they were innocent? Easy: As a defense mechanism against incompetency. Thinking of that today, I was reminded of the idea that few things are what they seem to be. But the first thing I thought of was the destruction of the family’s reputation. Our contemporary media industrial complex has much to atone for in terms of what it has covered (and how) and what it has not covered (and why).

  2. Well said, Dr. Pit. For reasons not worth going into here, all I know about this case is due to media osmosis, but even someone like me who deliberately didn’t pay attention was left with the impression (through the media) that the parents were somehow guilty. I seem to recall them lawyering up when they met with investigators and what a big fuss everybody made of that: Why would they lawyer up if they were innocent? Easy: As a defense mechanism against incompetency. Thinking of that today, I was reminded of the idea that few things are what they seem to be. But the first thing I thought of was the destruction of the family’s reputation. Our contemporary media industrial complex has much to atone for in terms of what it has covered (and how) and what it has not covered (and why).

  3. Yup. They were put in a position by incompetent officials and press where they HAD to do certain things, and then those things were spun as the actions of obviously guilty people.
    Somebody close to you being killed: bad.
    Press takes an interest: badder.

  4. Yup. They were put in a position by incompetent officials and press where they HAD to do certain things, and then those things were spun as the actions of obviously guilty people.
    Somebody close to you being killed: bad.
    Press takes an interest: badder.

  5. We ran it on the front page, right-hand column today. Right next to the newest Seneca Casino story and the new athletic proposals for the local highschool. It was the wire story that every one else will be running today.
    Ultimate-seeker

  6. We ran it on the front page, right-hand column today. Right next to the newest Seneca Casino story and the new athletic proposals for the local highschool. It was the wire story that every one else will be running today.
    Ultimate-seeker

  7. If I have any dealings with the police, I want to talk to my lawyer first, no matter how insignificant the contact might be. You never know what their agenda is.
    Aloha,
    Jeff

  8. If I have any dealings with the police, I want to talk to my lawyer first, no matter how insignificant the contact might be. You never know what their agenda is.
    Aloha,
    Jeff

  9. Like you, Mike was on my dissertation committee. I saw his series and talked about in the first rendition of my politics and economics of the media course.
    I never did it again, because without exception they all assumed — after seeing the series — that Mike was wrong and the Ramseys were guilty.
    Shall we commence the office poll to see who (or if) in the press utters the first “mea culpa”? We haven’t really seen “mea culpa” for the early prelude-to-Iraq coverage, and I doubt we’ll see it here.

  10. Like you, Mike was on my dissertation committee. I saw his series and talked about in the first rendition of my politics and economics of the media course.
    I never did it again, because without exception they all assumed — after seeing the series — that Mike was wrong and the Ramseys were guilty.
    Shall we commence the office poll to see who (or if) in the press utters the first “mea culpa”? We haven’t really seen “mea culpa” for the early prelude-to-Iraq coverage, and I doubt we’ll see it here.

  11. What you’ll see is this:
    “Sure, no one likes to be wrong on a story like this. But we were working with the best information we had at the time.”
    The first sentence does not say: “Our reporting was flawed and lazy and pack-oriented.” It does not say: “We were driven by ratings and circulation pressure.”
    The second sentence does not say: “We should have checked on that ‘best information’ more often.”
    Arrogance is a difficult skin to shed.

  12. What you’ll see is this:
    “Sure, no one likes to be wrong on a story like this. But we were working with the best information we had at the time.”
    The first sentence does not say: “Our reporting was flawed and lazy and pack-oriented.” It does not say: “We were driven by ratings and circulation pressure.”
    The second sentence does not say: “We should have checked on that ‘best information’ more often.”
    Arrogance is a difficult skin to shed.

  13. Interesting you went here…
    It seems longer in my mind when you my intro prof during the spring of 2005, but this topic is crystal clear in my mind. It was this story and Columbine that I remember you being very avid about(and of course U2, your dog and hockey). I think you are right about why this is such an important story and I think Dr. Denny touched on a subject that is more true than anything, that ratings and dollar signs unfortunately drive a lot of what the public will see. I think I was paying attention in a class somewhere when a prof said that the role of media is to play the role of checks and balance to the “system”. It seems to me that there needs to be some checks and balancing on side of media before anything gets better.
    Now that my brain is running a mile a minute, let me ask the wise who check this blog site, What needs to be done (now) to have the best out come for media (later)?
    -Jonathan

  14. Interesting you went here…
    It seems longer in my mind when you my intro prof during the spring of 2005, but this topic is crystal clear in my mind. It was this story and Columbine that I remember you being very avid about(and of course U2, your dog and hockey). I think you are right about why this is such an important story and I think Dr. Denny touched on a subject that is more true than anything, that ratings and dollar signs unfortunately drive a lot of what the public will see. I think I was paying attention in a class somewhere when a prof said that the role of media is to play the role of checks and balance to the “system”. It seems to me that there needs to be some checks and balancing on side of media before anything gets better.
    Now that my brain is running a mile a minute, let me ask the wise who check this blog site, What needs to be done (now) to have the best out come for media (later)?
    -Jonathan

  15. Re: Interesting you went here…
    Hi, Jonathan – so somebody was actually paying attention?
    I guess the structural answer is that the press is self-correcting. This is what we believe about market forces, right? Agency A goes apeshit, which causes consumers to switch to Agency B because they’re more responsible?
    And of course, we have a public that’s informed and deeply concerned about truth and substance in media coverage, right? Which is why we don’t tolerate any ludicrous media obsession with triviality when there are serious items that need attention.
    Right?

  16. Re: Interesting you went here…
    Hi, Jonathan – so somebody was actually paying attention?
    I guess the structural answer is that the press is self-correcting. This is what we believe about market forces, right? Agency A goes apeshit, which causes consumers to switch to Agency B because they’re more responsible?
    And of course, we have a public that’s informed and deeply concerned about truth and substance in media coverage, right? Which is why we don’t tolerate any ludicrous media obsession with triviality when there are serious items that need attention.
    Right?

  17. The media and the TV movie about this case both led people to believe that the Ramseys (or their son) did in fact kill Jon Benet…..I only knew what was told and I assumed maybe it was an accidental death, however people don’t spend thousands and I am talking probably 200K-300K or more for their daughter to compete in pagents, just to kill her one day…..It doesn’t make sense…..Now, it does….Patsy Ramsey is dead and her husband and son’s lives I am sure are not that rosy, even to this day…..They’ve lost a wife, mom, daughter and sister…
    I hope this guy rots in hell……

  18. The media and the TV movie about this case both led people to believe that the Ramseys (or their son) did in fact kill Jon Benet…..I only knew what was told and I assumed maybe it was an accidental death, however people don’t spend thousands and I am talking probably 200K-300K or more for their daughter to compete in pagents, just to kill her one day…..It doesn’t make sense…..Now, it does….Patsy Ramsey is dead and her husband and son’s lives I am sure are not that rosy, even to this day…..They’ve lost a wife, mom, daughter and sister…
    I hope this guy rots in hell……

  19. Re: Interesting you went here…
    If you really want to know where I think the solution is (magic wand, though it may be), stop by and ask Dr. Denny to loan you some of his Dewey proseminar readings.
    In fact, ask it just that way. See if his head explodes. See if he can figure who sent you.

  20. Re: Interesting you went here…
    If you really want to know where I think the solution is (magic wand, though it may be), stop by and ask Dr. Denny to loan you some of his Dewey proseminar readings.
    In fact, ask it just that way. See if his head explodes. See if he can figure who sent you.

  21. Some day, Google will get together with Tivo and start to track what reporters say. Then they will develop a rating system based on accuracy in reporting with 1, 2, 5 and 10 year benchmarks. And everytime a talking head shows up on screen, this BS meter will be next to his/her name.
    heh. 🙂

  22. Some day, Google will get together with Tivo and start to track what reporters say. Then they will develop a rating system based on accuracy in reporting with 1, 2, 5 and 10 year benchmarks. And everytime a talking head shows up on screen, this BS meter will be next to his/her name.
    heh. 🙂

  23. That won’t happen because there’s only going to be two or three companies that own ALL media and they would never allow their own reporters to be dogged that.
    Not that I wouldn’t pay extra for the service….

  24. That won’t happen because there’s only going to be two or three companies that own ALL media and they would never allow their own reporters to be dogged that.
    Not that I wouldn’t pay extra for the service….

  25. it’s funny. i remember a brief time when weather guys used to keep track of accuracy until they realized they were all pretty much wrong 50% of the time. 🙂

  26. it’s funny. i remember a brief time when weather guys used to keep track of accuracy until they realized they were all pretty much wrong 50% of the time. 🙂

  27. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    Whether this is good depends on your perspective, I guess. His pursuit of this case has made him even less popular in some corners of the SJMC than he was already.

  28. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    Whether this is good depends on your perspective, I guess. His pursuit of this case has made him even less popular in some corners of the SJMC than he was already.

  29. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    hmmmm. you seem to have a lot of friends that rock the boat more often than not. i think we need to form a committee to investigate this. maybe geraldo could chair it.

  30. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    hmmmm. you seem to have a lot of friends that rock the boat more often than not. i think we need to form a committee to investigate this. maybe geraldo could chair it.

  31. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    The fact that they rock the boat is WHY they’re my friends.
    And I got something right here that you and Geraldo can “co-chair,” bitch.

  32. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    The fact that they rock the boat is WHY they’re my friends.
    And I got something right here that you and Geraldo can “co-chair,” bitch.

  33. Damn. So the parents didn’t do it???
    I can see this case study creeping onto my Intro syllabus this fall as yet another example of how the media got it wrong.

  34. Damn. So the parents didn’t do it???
    I can see this case study creeping onto my Intro syllabus this fall as yet another example of how the media got it wrong.

  35. Yup. And I have ABSOLUTELY not ruled that out. The only thing I’d swear by right now is that the guy is of legit interest in the case. That may or may not mean he’s the culprit.

  36. Yup. And I have ABSOLUTELY not ruled that out. The only thing I’d swear by right now is that the guy is of legit interest in the case. That may or may not mean he’s the culprit.

  37. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    [I’m not attempting to post anonymously, I just haven’t become a LiveJournal user officially.)
    I’m late to your blog on this topic, Sam, but let me throw in the frontline perspective from Boulder and the J-School (and acknowledge with you and Dr. Denny that I am also a former PhD student advisee of Professor Tracey). Tracey’s conduct in this case has actually earned him some grudging respect from his colleagues, some of them, anyway. J-School Dean Paul Voakes remarked (I took it humorously) in an e-mail to faculty that the School’s switchboard was going crazy last Thursday due to the media’s attempts to reach our “very (nationally) popular colleague.” Loved the caveat within the parentheses. And as for Tracey bringing some good press to CU, time will tell. Or the evidence will tell. If the latter adds up and the DA has her man, Tracey’s book in process will no doubt keep him flush for life.
    As for where his detractors are, I indulged in some amusement last night and tracked the now-resuscitated Ramsey forum sites (WebbSleuths, pro-Ramsey, and Forums for Justice, hostile to Ramseys). On the anti-Ramsey rolls, the cynical view is basically that Tracey fed Karr secret details about the crime in their e-mail exchanges, and that he’s being paid off by John Ramsey to do so, to obtain a false conviction, exonerate Ramsey, and make himself a rich man.
    It’s a weird sort of deja-vu, still being here in Boulder, nearly 10 years later, and the feeding frenzy is fiercer than ever. There are rows of media trucks with satellite dishes on top jammed together in the Justice Center parking lot, waiting like vultures for any bit of info to drop. There must have been 30 or 40 microphones jabbing at Tracey himself last Thursday following the press conference, media hawks encircled around him. I heard from a mutual friend several days ago that Tracey’s girlfriend had received more than 40 business cards from reporters seeking interviews, as the professor himself was making himself scarce.
    What’s ironic to me about this whole media-shark spectacle is that it would seem the press is choosing to ignore pointers to Karr this time, insisting he’s just a looney-tunes wacko who could not possibly have committed the crime, while previously they insisted the Ramseys did it, with no probably cause — and in both cases, these “reporters” are making their proclamations without access to law enforcement information that might actually provide some facts in the case. What a pathetic sham for “journalism.”
    Live from Ramseyland,
    Wendy Redal

  38. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    [I’m not attempting to post anonymously, I just haven’t become a LiveJournal user officially.)
    I’m late to your blog on this topic, Sam, but let me throw in the frontline perspective from Boulder and the J-School (and acknowledge with you and Dr. Denny that I am also a former PhD student advisee of Professor Tracey). Tracey’s conduct in this case has actually earned him some grudging respect from his colleagues, some of them, anyway. J-School Dean Paul Voakes remarked (I took it humorously) in an e-mail to faculty that the School’s switchboard was going crazy last Thursday due to the media’s attempts to reach our “very (nationally) popular colleague.” Loved the caveat within the parentheses. And as for Tracey bringing some good press to CU, time will tell. Or the evidence will tell. If the latter adds up and the DA has her man, Tracey’s book in process will no doubt keep him flush for life.
    As for where his detractors are, I indulged in some amusement last night and tracked the now-resuscitated Ramsey forum sites (WebbSleuths, pro-Ramsey, and Forums for Justice, hostile to Ramseys). On the anti-Ramsey rolls, the cynical view is basically that Tracey fed Karr secret details about the crime in their e-mail exchanges, and that he’s being paid off by John Ramsey to do so, to obtain a false conviction, exonerate Ramsey, and make himself a rich man.
    It’s a weird sort of deja-vu, still being here in Boulder, nearly 10 years later, and the feeding frenzy is fiercer than ever. There are rows of media trucks with satellite dishes on top jammed together in the Justice Center parking lot, waiting like vultures for any bit of info to drop. There must have been 30 or 40 microphones jabbing at Tracey himself last Thursday following the press conference, media hawks encircled around him. I heard from a mutual friend several days ago that Tracey’s girlfriend had received more than 40 business cards from reporters seeking interviews, as the professor himself was making himself scarce.
    What’s ironic to me about this whole media-shark spectacle is that it would seem the press is choosing to ignore pointers to Karr this time, insisting he’s just a looney-tunes wacko who could not possibly have committed the crime, while previously they insisted the Ramseys did it, with no probably cause — and in both cases, these “reporters” are making their proclamations without access to law enforcement information that might actually provide some facts in the case. What a pathetic sham for “journalism.”
    Live from Ramseyland,
    Wendy Redal

  39. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    Thanks for the update, Wendy. Some of this is pretty amusing stuff, actually. I’m trying to imagine how the John-Ramsey-makes-Tracey-rich scenario would work, exactly. JR had some money once upon a time, but my understanding is that the last decade hasn’t been terribly kind to him financially. Oh, well.
    In my wildest dreams, I like to imagine that this all causes reporters far and wide to reflect on past excesses and become better reporters. Then I’m reminded of all the “never again” promises after 9/11 and I get all giggly…
    Now, go sign up for an LJ account.

  40. Re: Tracey press conference comments
    Thanks for the update, Wendy. Some of this is pretty amusing stuff, actually. I’m trying to imagine how the John-Ramsey-makes-Tracey-rich scenario would work, exactly. JR had some money once upon a time, but my understanding is that the last decade hasn’t been terribly kind to him financially. Oh, well.
    In my wildest dreams, I like to imagine that this all causes reporters far and wide to reflect on past excesses and become better reporters. Then I’m reminded of all the “never again” promises after 9/11 and I get all giggly…
    Now, go sign up for an LJ account.

  41. I’m reading this in the ‘afterglow’ of your Lippmann post and it drives home how impossible it really is to keep track of what the hell’s going on in any given arena. Maybe the AI’s will have to take over. Shit…
    ~M~

  42. I’m reading this in the ‘afterglow’ of your Lippmann post and it drives home how impossible it really is to keep track of what the hell’s going on in any given arena. Maybe the AI’s will have to take over. Shit…
    ~M~

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s