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August 18, 2006
Does The Press Owe Us An Apology For Jon Benet?

Jack Shafer argues that the press has no need to apologize for the sensational coverage of the Jon Benet Ramsey murder, which appears closer to resolution after ten years. Shafer, one of the best media critics in the business, says that the scrutiny the media gave the case was warranted by the circumstances:

If you're down on your knees for me, gentlemen, please stand up. We have nothing to apologize for. The riotous coverage of the endless murder investigation won't be recorded as journalism's finest hour, but the story deserved the punishing scrutiny the press gave it.

In the case of the JonBenet murder, Boulder, Colo., police and prosecutors botched the investigation from the get-go. Their incompetence gave the story additional legs.

And as the obituary page proves each morning, the murders of the wealthy and privileged—and their offspring—automatically receive more play than the tragic deaths of the poor and working class. Newspapers everywhere lavish attention on the murders of young innocents, no matter what demographic or racial persuasion they hail from.

Did the press treat the Ramsey family unfairly by airing official suspicions, which is at the heart of the apologies cited above? According to the JonBenet case timeline in the Denver Post, the Ramseys gave that suspicion greater play by announcing through a spokesman, two months after the murder, that they knew they were "at the top of the list of possible suspects." Were journalists supposed to ignore this news? Likewise, when the district attorney said the Ramseys were under an "umbrella of suspicion" three-plus months after the murder, were reporters supposed to suppress his statement? The "umbrella of suspicion" was still wide open as recently as May 2000, according to CNN.

Well, maybe. Shafer correctly says that the leaks and public statements implying or outright stating that the Ramseys themselves were the prime suspects did not originate with the media. From that poisoned fruit came the entire poisoned coverage, Shafer says, as law-enforcement amateurism begat journalistic amateurism.

That might make for a compelling rhetorical argument, but most parents recognize the he made me do it! defense, and usually reject it out of hand. I don't blame the media for reporting on the tips from inside sources and the statements of the authorities. I blame them for not exercising some restraint and skepticism in doing so, a situation that allowed the media to get exploited as a tool of intimidation by these authorities against a family that had realized the hostile stance they had taken towards Jon Benet's survivors.

News agencies used to exercise judgment and restraint, and they used to focus on facts. The competitive pressures of the 24-hour cycle and the need to fill all of that time with compelling entertainment has demeaned journalism and promoted the tabloid mentality. Cable news shows gave us endless (and mostly baseless) speculation about this case, all of which cemented the image of the Ramsey family as sick, twisted murderers without a shred of supporting evidence. Shafer wants to distinguish between the Geraldo-Greta type of shows and straightforward paper and television reporting, but in this case it was indistinguishable, and that was a deliberate decision on the part of media outlets.

One would expect that the revelation that the Ramseys were blameless in the murder of their daughter would inspire some apologies, and not just to the Ramseys but also to the public. They exploited a little girl's murder for years, and allowed themselves to be manipulated in the effort of Colorado authorities to intimidate the Ramseys into submission. That seems worthy of an expression of regret.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 18, 2006 7:06 AM

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