Thursday, August 17, 2006

Murder by Media: The JonBenet Case II

“I want to have only very limited comment on today’s arrest because I feel it is extremely important to not only let the justice system operate to its conclusion in an orderly manner, but also to avoid feeding the type of media speculation that my wife and I were subjected to for so many years."
-- John Ramsay, in a formal statement issued August 16, 2006
(reported by the Atlanta Constitution)
John Ramsay's sensible statement, above, is a welcome counter-point to the revolting coverage of the arrest in Bangkok, Thailand, of John Mark Karr . Both, in their own ways, remind us that the presumption of innocence -- a cherished fundamental of Western justice for centuries -- was murdered by the media some time ago.

The motive? Greed, of course. Cable TV News wants your eyeballs. The more you watch, the more ads they can sell for automobiles and (ironically) prescription drugs for attention-deficit disorder.

Unfortunately, sensationalism is not confined to the electronic media. Publications like Rupert Murdock's print imitation of Fox TV news, The New York Post, goes after your pocket, too, by vibrating with pretend outrage like this:

As Mustang Bobby says over at Bark Bark, Woof Woof, "It's summer, so it's about time for another Missing White Girl story... . Hezbollah and Iraq are so last week's news."

Ten years ago, as Antonia Zerbesias writes in the Toronto Star:
It was the Ramseys' great misfortune that both Fox and MSNBC had been born in the wake of the last "true crime" media feeding frenzy, the mother of all cable coverage marathons, the O.J. Simpson case, and they were determined to cash in on JonBenet's murder.
Then, the media rushed to convict someone -- anyone -- in the Jon Benet Ramsay slaying. Now they're doing it again with Karr:
  • Suspect in JonBenet Ramsey Murder Case Admits to Killing, Says 'Sorry' ( Fox News)
  • Suspect Admits Killing JonBenet (ABC News)
  • Suspect: JonBenet Death An 'Accident'( CBS)
Same crime, same media, different person to convict in the press.

Sitting here in Florida, we have no idea who killed Jon Benet. All we know for sure is that no one else knows who did it, either, because there hasn't been a trial yet.

If the news media and the viewers who continue lapping up this sensational bilge can't abide by the presumption of innocence, at least they might try to muster a little self-respect and adopt the "presumption of skepticism." When it comes to news from far-away police states like Thailand, there's plenty of reason to doubt the authenticity and accuracy of nearly every story.

For one thing, our own U.S. State Department reports that authorities in Thailand routinely engage in human rights abuses, including:

* arbitrary and unlawful killings by both security force personnel and insurgents as well as deaths in police custody
* torture and excessive use of force by police
* poor conditions in some prisons and immigrant detention facilities
* arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without charge
* impunity for human rights abusers
* intimidation of the press leading to self-censorship
* widespread corruption
* mistreatment of foreign migrant workers

That's why, as Dana Priest reported in the Washington Post last year, U.S. intelligence agencies have created a secret "black site" there, with the undoubted cooperation of Thai authorities, for interrogating and quite probably torturing detainees.

Another reason to be skeptical, as a Seattle newspaper is reporting, is that the suspect's ex-wife, Lara Karr, claims her ex-husband was nowhere near Colorado when JonBenet Ramsay was slain. She told a local television station, "In December 1996 when JonBenet was killed in Colorado, the couple was living in Alabama, and Lara Karr said she was with John Karr throughout the Christmas season."

A lot of headlines are screaming that Karr has "confessed" to the crime. As most media outlets are not reporting, but British-based Reuters was saying earlier today, in actual fact the suspect "said nothing when asked if he had killed the girl, but appeared to shake his head and made no further comment in a brief appearance before the media."

Still, even the normally sedate National Public Radio news reader Renee Montagne claimed today that Karr has "confessed" to the crime. That's highly misleading and unworthy of NPR. Reports of a supposed confession at this point are at best second-hand. Most appear to be based only on suggestive, but ambigous, remarks Karr has made in response to multiple questions being shouted at him by a room full of reporters.

The principle source for the "confession claim" is the Bangkok chief of police, as quoted by one of several Associated Press stringers in Bangok. But in Thailand, as Ms. Magazine reported years ago, the police are deeply complicit in the local pornography and child sex industry. It generates more foreign currency for Thailand than ordinary tourism:
Male tourists and business travelers from around the globe come to Thailand to indulge themselves at bargain prices in a freewheeling atmosphere, unconfined by taboos against sex with minors or the threat of arrest. The money they spend on sex, hotels, meals, gifts, transportation, and tourist extras is a major source of Thailand's foreign currency exchange.
Thai police tolerance of sex crimes and child pornography has become something of a political football in Thailand's politics, too, and there is a campaign for governor going on right now. Coincidental or not, just a week ago two Bangkok elementary school teachers were accused of raping students about the same age as JonBenet Ramsay was when she was killed. The Thai defendants replied that "the police have framed them on charges of having forced sex with minors."

From this distance, it's hard to put much trust in any side of anyone's story. Many reports contain ample basis for speculating that Karr is a goof-ball or possibly crazy. He has said on videotape that JonBenet was "accidentally" killed, although it's far from clear whether Karr meant this as fact or theory.

After all, his brother Nate says Karr has been researching a book since 2001 on men who kill children. "He was trying to get in as in-depth as he could, to not only this case but to other cases as well. It wasn't . . . something that he was like obsessed with the JonBenet Ramsey case. He was researching multiple incidences," Karr said.

Boulder, Colorado, police have said consistently from the start that they discovered DNA evidence, a palm print, handwriting, and other scientific evidence at the scene. So it shouldn't be long before we know if there truly is enough evidence to prosecute Karr with a crime, much less to convict him.

In the meantime, don't change that channel! Someone wants to sell you more drugs and a lot of credit cards with which to buy them.

Additional Links

The Rocky Mountain News: Bloggers Wary of Confession, Condemn Media by Burt Hubbard


Linda L. said...

Right on the mark.

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