Juan Cole has an interesting blog post that contrasts the media's obsession with JonBenet Ramsey with its relative silence about the murder of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, the 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was reportedly raped and murdered, along with her family, by U.S. soldiers. Cole writes,
Both victims were pretty little girls. Both were killed by sick predators. But whereas endless speculation about the Ramsey case, to the exclusion of important real news stories, is thought incumbent in cabalnewsland, Abeer al-Janabi's death is not treated obsessively in the same way. ... CNN even calls the little girl a "woman" at first mention, because the US military indictment did so. Only later in the article is it revealed that she was a little girl. The very pedophiliac nature of the crime is more or less covered up in the case of al-Janabi, even as looped video of Ramsay as too grown up is endlessly inflicted on us.
The message US cable news is sending by this privileging of some such stories over others of a similar nature is that some lives are worth more than others, and some people are "us" whereas other people are "Other" and therefore lesser. Indeed, it is precisely this subtle message sent by American media that authorized so much taking of innocent Iraqi life in the first place.
In addition to the double standard that Cole criticizes, there is another aspect worth mentioning about the media's addiction to sensationalized reporting on the murder of young blonde girls. Murder is a heinous crime, but most murders really have no large significance — at least not if you define "significance" in terms of the degree to which a topic affects the community. There are many preventable causes of death in the world, and journalism certainly has a role to play in informing the public about those risks, but media sensationalism turns danger into entertainment, and in so doing it creates unreal fears about dangers that are small or nonexistent.
If you chart the preventable causes of death in America, it turns out that the media actually report on them in inverse proportion to their actual significance for public health and safety. Smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise belong at the top of the list, and homicide is near the bottom, but murders always make the front pages, while the poor souls who die of heart disease or gasp their lives away on ventilators rarely get mentioned other than as statistics. Sexualized murders of young blonde girls are even more rare than murders in general. What makes them "news" is precisely the fact that they are rare. By turning them into national chatter, the news media are actually demonstrating their disregard for the real safety and wellbeing of the communities they purport to serve. They have placed titillation and entertainment — in pursuit of higher ratings, so they can make more money selling advertising — over journalistic responsibility. Moreover, sensationalized reporting actually does a disservice to the families of murder victims, placing them in the public spotlight at a moment of intense grief. As James Kincaid wrote recently in Slate magazine,
This story allows us to fulminate against trivial problems while ignoring huge problems close to home, meanwhile wallowing in self-righteous porn babble: We are able to use the half-clothed bodies of children as centerfolds while professing shock that anyone would so display them. The story is always the same: Somebody else finds the bodies of children irresistible and we want the chance to rail against these monsters, meanwhile relishing the details of the very bodies we claim indifference to. It is a classic example of scapegoating.
This phenomenon is hardly new. A few years ago, I read a book titled Crime of Magnitude: The Murder of Little Annie. It was written by Mark Lemberger and tells the story of Annie Lemberger, a seven-year-old girl who was abducted from her home and murdered in 1911 in Madison, Wisconsin, not far from where I live. (If she had lived, Annie Lemberger would have been the author's aunt.) Her murder became a national cause celebre, the "JonBenet Ramsay story" of its day. During the days that passed between her disappearance and the discovery of her body, Madison newspapers competed with each other to see which could publish the most speculation about what had happened to her. All sorts of contradictory stories circulated.
The police investigation led to a guy named John "Dogskin" Johnson, a neighborhood troublemaker with a history of sex offenses and other criminal activity. After they found physical evidence linking him to the crime, he confessed and was convicted. Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. After his conviction, Dogskin Johnson spent the next 10 years writing letters to newspapers and public officials, claiming that his confession had been forcibly extracted and that he was an innocent man wrongly convicted. Due to all of the contradictory press accounts surrounding the murder, rumors and theories took on new life. Eventually a local attorney took up Johnson's cause, obtained a new trial, and brought in a surprise witness who implicated Annie's father as the "real killer." Johnson was released from prison, and his attorney got himself elected to a judgeship by campaigning as "the man who got justice for Dogskin Johnson." He went on to become known as a local reformer and staunch Prohibitionist, while Johnson went on to drink himself to death.
The reality, which Mark Lemberger manages to document convincingly, is that Johnson was almost certainly guilty all along. The attorney who freed Dogskin Johnson had done so by suborning perjury from his "surprise witness," who ended up blackmailing him afterwards. His eventual undoing came when he got caught taking bribes from bootleggers so he could pay the blackmail. Overall, it's a sad story, in which the media contributed nothing but Sturm und Drang, and the community's interest in the case of a missing little girl ended up being diverted into dark channels of voyeurism and mean gossip. Worst of all, the family was victimized twice — first by the murder itself, and then by being blamed for it.
Something similar seems to have happened in the JonBenet Ramsay case, as media coverage has probably contributed to the difficulties police have encountered in trying to solve the crime. I don't know whether the man who was just arrested for this crime will turn out to be guilty, but I think that as a general rule, there is probably an inverse relationship between the number of TV crews camped outside a grieving family's home and the likelihood that justice ever gets done.