Study on serial killers raises question on motivesCNN's

January 02, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

No one can deny one assertion of "Murder by Number: Anatomy of a Serial Killer," a provocative news documentary premiering on CNN this weekend:

"There is something in our nature . . . that draws us to these people."

Law enforcement figures suggest in the show (at 9 p.m. tomorrow on the cable news network) that from 25 to 100 such criminals are currently pursuing their obsession in the United States.

"They do capture the public imagination," suggests reporter Richard Roth early in the program. Yet he also argues that the actual prevalence of such crimes is probably far lower than many imagine.

Clips of films such as "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and, of course, "Silence of the Lambs," help project the case that our popular entertainment and other media feed an uncomfortable public appetite for the macabre.

"The serial killer is packaged and sold," the show contends, from TV movies to a comic book about confessed murderer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.

But it is also worth noting that the recent conviction in Russia of Andrei Chikatilo for murdering 52 children and women helps broaden the scope beyond just American shores and onto the level of a universal human phenomenon.

Mr. Roth asserts early that the program intends to find out who serial killers are, how many may be active and how society should track and treat them.

Worthy and difficult questions, to be sure. But viewers may find the show poses a paradox: How does a program seriously examine serial killing without feeding the same appetite it wants to decry?

For example, a long sequence records the matter-of-fact murders of young boys by Westley Allan Dodd, who is scheduled to hang for his crimes in Washington state on Tuesday. .

The death row interview fascinates, to be sure, but repels at the same time. So do additional stories covered in the report.

Viewers may also be unsettled by one other assertion: that outwardly, at least, "they are more like us than we like to admit."

A second program in this "CNN Special Reports" series, "Tracking the Serial Killer," is scheduled at the same time next Sunday.


ANOTHER ARNOLD OUTING -- Here goes another chance for national notoriety. Tom Arnold and wife Roseanne, alas, are not likely to be writing nasty notes to this column over a review of his latest cable special. For "Tom Arnold: The Naked Truth 3" (at 9:30 p.m. tomorrow on the premium service) ranks as a moderately amusing and occasionally clever half-hour.

Too bad. Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times, Ray Richmond of the Los Angeles Daily News and Matt Roush of USA Today all got their names in the news earlier this month when Ms. Arnold sent them acerbic comments over their poison pans of "The Jackie Thomas Show," Mr. Arnold's new sitcom on ABC.

Mr. Arnold's third comedy special for HBO takes on the media, but with a far softer, satirical touch than in Roseanne's letters. Mr. Arnold even comes off as boyishly self-deprecating.

"It just goes to show you that bad reviews can't kill a career," says Mr. Arnold in the setup for the show, as he ponders a subject for his special while sitting at home with his spouse.

The minimal plot focuses on an impending interview with Leeza Gibbons, co-host of "Entertainment Tonight." Tom sets out to improve the couple's image.

"They say we're poor white trash," he tells Jerry Stiller, who plays a pawn/image broker who recommends Louis XV chairs for a touch of class.

"They say you're not true artists," adds Mr. Stiller, so he writes a Tom Arnold signature on a piece of not-so-fine art.

Somehow, Mr. Arnold persuaded distinguished newsman Edwin Newman to do a mock report on cheese to prove that a camera crew will draw a big crowd.

He also spends a day with one of America's leading celebrity photographers, on the trail of Mick Jagger. Instead, they find only Martin Mull. (It must be a contractual requirement that Mr. Mull appear in every single cable comedy ever made.)

And two apparently real image consultants note genuine faults in the Arnold public persona -- such as licking his lips too much and bobbing back and forth during interviews -- while a mock media consultant (Ben Stiller) treats him with sneering disdain. Big laughs may come along only rarely, but on balance the special offers some chuckles.

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