Bobbitt Case: 'We Knew It Would Be a Good Story'

January 23, 1994|By ARTHUR HIRSCH

As the Washington Post's Virginia editor describes the scene in the newsroom, one pictures Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford earnestly scurrying around at the first faint trembles of an earthquake soon to shake the nation and the world.

As in the Watergate burglary, this was also a morning in June -- June 23, 1993. But the newsroom discussion was not about shady doings at the summit of American government.

It was about some ugly business before dawn that day in a one-bedroom apartment outside the city of Manassas, Va., involving an otherwise unremarkable married couple named John and Lorena Bobbitt. A jaded cop might have called it a "domestic."

And it would be big. Very big.

"We knew it would be a good story," says Richard Paxson, the Virginia editor. "I don't think anyone then expected it was going to become worldwide."

Of course, it did. Months after the Post editors gathered that morning to chew over the strange details, this local story whose national implications, if any, were strictly metaphoric, would draw hundreds of reporters and a battery of television and radio satellite trucks to the Prince William County courthouse in Manassas, about 35 miles southwest of Washington.

In all its dignity and restraint, even the New York Times felt compelled to dispatch national legal correspondent David Margolick to the courthouse this month.

He joined a media legion that included best-selling author Gay Talese, on assignment for the New Yorker. This was two months after Vanity Fair magazine featured a story on Lorena Bobbitt, a 24-year-old manicurist catapulted from obscurity by a moment of violence.

Even the Wall Street Journal found a way in on the action with a page-one feature in August on the urologist who helped reattach Mr. Bobbitt's penis after Mrs. Bobbitt severed it with a kitchen knife.

"It's ridiculous, really," said Arlene Banton, a Manassas homemaker who stood outside the courthouse on the morning Mrs. Bobbitt's trial began this month. The irony of the remark was easy enough, seeing as how Ms. Banton had shown up at the courthouse that morning to sell souvenir Bobbitt T-shirts and boxer shorts. But the comment also begs the question: Who's to say how much is too much?

Asked if he considers the television coverage overdone, Steve Friedman, executive producer of NBC's "Today Show" says, "I think it's been about right. Nobody's really gone overboard to rip up their show to cover it."

Asked if he considers this a case of media overkill, Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review, says "I personally do, yeah."

Carl Sessions Stepp, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland College Park, disagrees.

"It's the ultimate 'holy cow' story," says Mr. Stepp. "It is certainly the kind of story that everyone can talk about, that everyone can get interested in."

"I thought it was a fascinating story," says Mr. Stepp. "I was not surprised by the wide play it got."

It's a natural, says Mr. Friedman. It has everything, he says: "conflict, emotion, the law, pictures, people who are willing to talk, every man's nightmare, some women's fantasy."

Mr. Friedman also points out that the trial stories got a boost because they occurred in Virginia, where Court TV was allowed to put a camera in the courtroom and feed video to other stations. No doubt the media exposure was heightened by the fact that the event occurred in a suburb of a media hub and the personalities involved were not exactly camera shy.

Mrs. Bobbitt appeared on ABC's "20/20" in the fall. In December, Mr. Bobbitt was interviewed on the "Today Show" and appeared on Howard Stern's pay-for-view special. The couple have declined to grant extended interviews with print media unless they are paid for their time.

By November, the continued momentum of the story -- fueled by Mrs. Bobbitt's Vanity Fair interview and Mr. Bobbitt's trial for marital sexual assault -- made some editors wonder if maybe this was bigger than they first thought. Bigger than the story of the "burning bed," the case of the abused wife who set her husband ablaze, bigger than Amy Fisher. Everyone seemed to be talking about it.

In the Post's regular afternoon news meeting on June 23, six or seven editors gathered to decide where they would put the story in the next day's paper. As deputy metropolitan editor Jo-Ann Armao recalls it, only Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser argued for page one. He lost the argument, and the story was displayed prominently on the front of the Metro section.

Ms. Armao lately second-guesses herself for arguing that day against page one. She felt at the time that the paper did not yet have enough information about Mrs. Bobbitt's allegations of marital rape and other physical abuse. She also says she thought that putting it on the front page would make the paper appear sophomoric, "snickering about it."

"I wish I'd argued a different way," says Ms. Armao. "I didn't realize [the story] would resonate the way it did."

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