Fame and fortune at the end of a gun

Stephen Stark

January 07, 1993|By Stephen Stark

EVERY time you think television has sunk to new lows in its rush to create a kind of tabloid hell, you have to think again. The latest example is the appearance last month of Mark David Chapman, who, after 12 years, managed to parlay his assassination of John Lennon into prime-time appearances with Barbara Walters and Larry King.

For those who have forgotten, Chapman, who is serving 20 years to life at Attica, murdered the ex-Beatle on Dec. 8, 1980. After flying from his native Hawaii to stalk Lennon, Chapman spent the day of the murder with a crowd of well-wishers who had gathered outside Lennon's Manhattan apartment. At one point, Lennon even signed a record album for Chapman, who told one fan not to leave. "You never know if you'll see him again," he said.

That night, when the crowd had thinned, Lennon returned from a recording session. As he was walking to the apartment lobby, a voice cried out from the shadows, "Mr. Lennon." Lennon turned, and Chapman, 5 feet away, fired four times. Lennon stumbled into the doorman's office and collapsed. While Lennon bled to death, Chapman stood off to one side reading "The Catcher in the Rye."

"Do you know what you just did?" the doorman said. "I just shot John Lennon," replied Chapman.

Now, thanks to the magic of television, Chapman can visit your home for an evening, too.

The ostensible reason for Ms. Walters' interview on "20/20," as she explained it, was to "lead to an understanding of why this hideous crime was committed." Yeah, sure.

The real reason the Mark Chapmans are all over television these days is that, in a competitive marketplace, the networks will put out anything that sells and there's always an audience for violence, the bigger and sicker the better.

In a sense, things have always been this way. To be American is to glorify lawbreakers. Many American colonists were the subject of religious or political oppression in their native lands and brought to the New World a distrust of legal authority. "We needed no law until the lawyers came," they used to say on the frontier.

This ambivalence toward authority has helped make crime stories perhaps our greatest cultural obsession. Lawlessness -- whether in Tombstone or South Central L.A. -- is something of our national birthright. From Billy the Kid to Bonnie and Clyde to Jimmy Hoffa, the "outsider" criminal has an odd and special place in our hearts.

But a line is crossed when that affection creeps into nonfictional prime-time television, on shows strongly identified with the news. A Barbara Walters or Larry King appearance carries with it a stamp of mainstream notoriety, which in the world according to Warhol carries a further stamp of implied approval.

It is sometimes said casually that people would kill for 15 minutes of prime-time fame. To paraphrase an old TV ad, Mark Chapman now lives the fantasy.

I am no psychologist, but I have read that nobodies sometimes kill somebodies in the sick hope of acquiring their fame. So, you don't have to be Joe Friday to figure out that giving Chapman this kind of exposure could indeed have the perverse effect of convincing someone else that the neatest path to stardom is to load that revolver and hit the road. Any madman worth his salt would have to know by now that "Court TV" would probably pick up the trial, appeal and parole hearings, with a made-for-TV movie deal to follow. Kill a celebrity win valuable prizes!

In a week in which the three major networks all launched made-for-TV movies about the "Long Island Lolita," Amy Fisher, it's probably too much to ask for a change. But a change is in order. People are now joking that television will someday create a network just for appearances by criminals. But in the world according to television, today's joke is often tomorrow's programming.

The next time you wonder why the streets of America are disintegrating in violence before your eyes, don't write your congressman.

Just ask Larry King or Barbara Walters.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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