Critics say media rushed to judgment in Karr case

Some articles got ahead of the known evidence

August 30, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

In the annals of media circuses, the arrest of John Mark Karr was a showstopper.

When Karr confessed two weeks ago in Thailand to the 1996 killing of JonBenet Ramsey, the media went into overdrive, breathlessly reporting every possible angle of the case as though Western civilization hinged on it.

The high point -- if it can be called that -- was Karr's business-class flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles, during which he was wined and dined in the company of Boulder, Colo., detectives while a pack of cameramen and photographers recorded his every bite. They even covered his walk to the restroom.

Some in the media took it as a given that the 41-year-old teacher was, in fact, guilty of the crime, despite almost immediate questions as to the man's veracity and whether he had been anywhere near Boulder on that Christmas night almost a decade ago, if ever.

The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, whose Web site was almost overwhelmed with hits from eager JonBenet case watchers, led its main Karr arrest story with the statement that the "decade-long search for JonBenet Ramsey's killer came to a startling end in Thailand on Wednesday."

The New York Daily News, known for its blunt headlines, splashed the word "SOLVED" on its front page. The Aug. 18 front page of the New York Post blared "HOW I KILLED HER," with Karr's face beside an inset photo of JonBenet.

Now that the case has fallen apart -- Karr's DNA does not match that found at the crime scene, say prosecutors -- media watchers are condemning the press for rushing to judgment, for all but declaring Karr a murderer.

"The media should have shown some skepticism," Blake Fleetwood, a former New York Times reporter who comments online about the media and other issues, said yesterday from New York.

"And they should have asked, `Does this really belong on Page 1?' Every time there's a case like this, these self-confessed serial killers come out of the woodwork. We should show a little restraint until we have more proof."

Fleetwood conceded that the JonBenet case and others like it -- the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba, the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City -- "appeal to the lowest, most basic prurient desires of the public," but said the so-called mainstream media "give them credibility by playing them up" in their coverage.

"You have to be blond, blue-eyed and beautiful and you're forever on the front page," Fleetwood said. "The media has a feeding frenzy with that stuff."

Bob Geiger, a writer and critic who contributes to Huffingtonpost.com and AlterNet.org, wrote yesterday in an e-mail that he did not think "there will be much organizational shame in newsrooms throughout the country" over the hyperventilated Karr coverage.

"The corporate media needs to get ratings and sell ads, and that seems to have replaced an era when getting the news correct and properly ordered was more important than the profit of the broadcast outlet or newspaper," Geiger wrote.

In the Karr case, he went on, "it was impossible to miss the ongoing coverage of every agonizing detail of every aspect of this, from the time Karr `confessed' until he got to Colorado. Way too many Americans knew that he had champagne on the plane and needed an escort to go to the bathroom. Why? The entire story was not the top story in the news, much less this nonsensical minutiae."

And yet some media outlets did express skepticism from the beginning. The Calgary (Alberta) Sun's doubts were expressed in the headline "Kook or Killer?"

The New York Times suggested in its first front-page story about Karr's arrest that questions lingered about how solid the case against him was. The Times story said it was "unclear whether Mr. Karr's confession was genuine or the product of a troubled, attention-seeking man who had already exhibited a fervent fascination in the sexual abuse of children in general, and in the death of JonBenet Ramsey in particular."

On Aug. 18, Newsweek ran an article under the headline "Solved or Suckered?" It said that while it was clear that Karr was a troubled loner -- who had had a hard time holding teaching jobs, had twice married teenage girls, was arrested in 2001 for possession of child pornography, and had a deep interest in the Ramsey case -- "none of that necessarily makes him a killer."

On the Chicago Tribune's Web site yesterday, media columnist Phil Rosenthal wrote: "It wasn't the media that made Karr the prime suspect for 12 days in a 10-year-old murder case. You can thank authorities in Thailand and Colorado for that."

In a telephone interview, Rosenthal said the media "couldn't have picked this guy out of a crowd, especially in Bangkok -- `Hey, let's pin this 10-year-old murder on him!'

"There's tremendous interest in this case," Rosenthal said. "People got hooked. Maybe because it happened on a Christmas holiday, or because of the creepy video, or because it's every parent's nightmare of a crime. As much as you hear it's overdone, the media are commercial endeavors, and sometimes the interest outstrips the actual information.

"There are things that the media does wrong, but I'm not sure this is one of them," he went on. "There always has to be a blend of news that's in the public interest and news that's interesting to the public. One pays for the other."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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