MT's essay
#21
“I want the last photo taken of JonBenet…”
Over the ensuing weeks there followed hours of conversation, with me all the while pretending everything was fine, no judgment would be made. In a curious kind of way for much of the time everything was fine, the pressure didn’t feel too great, my emotions were in check, I had every confidence in Bennett and the investigation, and I had no doubt that what was being done had to be done.

However, as we moved towards the climactic moment when he would say on the phone what he had been saying in the emails, I began to sense that the experience was taking a toll on me, I was starting to be drained emotionally. Tom clearly saw this and on a number of occasions asked me if I wanted to carry on, that they would not think ill of me if I backed out, that maybe someone else could take over writing the emails, something which Daxis would have spotted in an instant.

I decided to carry on, but came to understood that dealing with someone like this requires that you give something of yourself up, and understand that a person such as Daxis wants to get into your head, play a game, show that he is so much smarter than you could ever hope to be. For a while, there was an element of truth to this, particularly in the sense that despite all efforts, and while they narrowed the area down to a few blocks in Bangkok, they couldn’t exactly pinpoint the location. During one conversation Tom passed me a note saying that those doing the trace were asking if I could hear anything in the background, children playing, traffic, anything that might help. I couldn’t.

Then came what turned out to be an intriguing decision by Tom: he hired Mark Spray. Mark is a remarkable figure. He worked undercover for the DEA, was an experienced cop, a commander in the Boulder bomb squad and he collected sauvignon blanc wines. I met him for the first time on July 29, a Saturday, when he came with Tom Bennett as I was to call Daxis one more time.

It was clear by now that the trace was not working and a certain frustration was setting in. Mark had been reading the emails and noticed that in an email received the previous day Daxis had said “I want the last photo taken of JonBenet…” He knew that I had it and had had asked on a number of occasions that I scan it and send him a copy as an email attachment. I never responded to the request. We had used it in the first documentary and it shows Patsy with JonBenet by her side. It is at once beautiful and heartbreaking since it was taken Christmas morning 1996, JonBenet’s last day alive.

After the call we were discussing how to proceed, how to find Daxis, when Mark suddenly said “he wants a copy of the photo, why don’t you offer him the original.” I looked at him and said, with a smile, you’re crazy, to do that he’d have to give us an address. What, though, was there to lose? And so the next day I emailed Daxis and offered the original photo, adding that Patsy had given it to me personally and that therefore it carried her soul, or something equally strange. He replied immediately, was so grateful and, ever wanting to be in control, insisted that I use UPS, adding that he would set up a mail drop. I must admit, at one level, I was amazed at this development since he had gone to enormous lengths to both hide his whereabouts and his identity. I had, however, also begun to sense that whoever Daxis was, there was a part of him which wanted to be found, needed to come in from the bleak cold of anonymous isolation.

On August 3, Bangkok time, he sent me the address and on August 3, Boulder time, Mark went to a UPS office and put the photo in an oversize envelope so that whoever picked it up could not hide it. The other thing we knew was that he had bought a mountain bike. All that was required now was to set up 24 hour surveillance on the drop. August 6th was JonBenet’s birthday and he had been eager to have the photo by then. On Monday August 7th, which just happened to be my birthday, the surveillance team sees a slight, Caucasian male turn up at the drop riding a mountain bike.

Hello Daxis.
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#22
Daxis, pt. 3: snake on a plane

There had earlier been another development that caught the attention of the local US intelligence services based in the embassy. In July Daxis had told me that he had got a job teaching in an international school and that while there for the interview he had “made some lovely new friends ~ little girls age five…” In a mail on July 13 he mentioned one in particular, adding “I lust for a little five year old at school…” He wrote to me of how he had massaged her bare foot and how she said to him, laughing, “…you’re a monster” except that because of her accent it came out as “monsta.”

DNA
The only rational conclusion was to assume the worst and that he had his next target. Some of the people in the US embassy had young daughters in international schools. Daxis now had their very serious attention since they, like everyone else, were working with the possibility that they were dealing with the person who had tortured to death a six year old girl on the other side of the world.

The new school term would begin on August 15th, and assuming that Daxis was telling the truth about the school, Mark Spray, who had flown to Bangkok as soon as news came of the pick-up, and other American and Malaysian officials put Daxis under 24-hour surveillance. They knew where he lived, having followed him from the drop to his apartment, but they still didn’t know who he was. Mark had managed to get an apartment on the same corridor as Daxis, and to find out who this person was he arranged with the Thai authorities to send two Thai police officers to do a passport check on the complex’s inhabitants, something which is not uncommon. They know which room he’s in, ask to see his passport. Daxis is John Mark Karr.

Then there were two outstanding questions: could they get his DNA and which school was he being employed at? The question of the DNA was crucial because of the “foreign” DNA in the drops of blood in JonBenet’s panties. The question of the school was important in case, in the brief period he had been there in July, a child had been harmed.

Mary Lacy would later be much criticized for not having DNA tests done in Bangkok. There would be much ballyhoo and squealing about this, usually from people who were actually massively relieved that Karr’s DNA did not match since they could then get back to their decade-long accusations against the Ramseys. The fact of the matter was that DNA was gathered in Bangkok, it was just never tested.

The DNA was gathered in two ways. Mark cleaned the door handle to Karr’s apartment so that when he returned and opened the door, with presumably sweaty hands, he would inevitably leave trace samples of DNA. Wearing latex gloves, Mark held the handle tight and, pulling his hand away, inverted the gloves to preserve whatever sweat and skin cells had attached to the door knob. Agents did the same to the handle bars of the mountain bike. There was, in short, a massive amount of DNA that could be tested. The question was, what to do with it, test it there or send it back to Boulder?

The decision on this was made not by Lacy but by the Denver Police Lab’s Greg LeBerge. He insisted that the DNA gathered in Bangkok should not be tested, but that Karr should be brought back so that the sample could be taken under proper, controlled circumstances and so that there could be no question as to how it was gathered or, crucially, about the chain of evidence. I have no way of proving it, but I suspect this was what might be called the “OJ effect.” You will recall that in the Simpson trial Barry Scheck, for the defense, demolished the prosecution’s case by raising all kinds of questions as to how DNA had been gathered, how it had been processed and raising serious doubts about the chain of evidence – that is, who had handled it and when. LeBerge did not want to be Schecked if this was going to trial.
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#23
Arrested
The other question had been, which school? From the moment he was identified the decision was made to keep Karr under surveillance until the start of the new term, which would be on August 15th, following a national holiday in the 14th. Karr rose early on the morning of the 15th. Mark, pretending to be a bum, was hanging around in the corridor outside Karr’s door. He could hear the shower. It would stop, and then start again, and again, as Karr was blow drying his hair, rewetting it and blow drying again. In fact, Mark became so frustrated that he started looking for the valve which would cut off the water supply to Karr’s apartment. Finally Karr leaves, mounts his bike and starts to wend his way through the heavy Bangkok traffic, followed by two surveillance cars, in one of which was Mark Spray and other agents and in the other an agent from the Department of Homeland Security, Gary Phillips. There came a point when it seemed they would lose Karr because of the traffic and so Spray and Phillips leapt from the cars and started to run after him. They did so for four miles, but remarkably they kept up and saw him, finally, enter the New Sathorn International School.

It was real, as I knew it would be since, to reiterate, everything about Karr that could be checked out, checked out. It was therefore reasonable to assume that the children that he had mentioned in the emails were real as well.

Karr’s classroom was exactly as he had described it, including a large window overlooking a road. The surveillance team had a clear view of him as he taught his eight students, four of whom were girls. On the evening of his first day he wrote me a long email describing how things had gone, and mentioning that “I have an unusually young girl in my class. She is six but will be seven in September. She’s very affectionate with me. She likes me. I’m not really that attracted to her but I need her badly. I showed her a photo of JonBenet today…” The following day, the 16th in Bangkok, the surveillance team could see him in his classroom with a young girl sitting on his lap. They saw another teacher enter the room and he quickly pushed the girl away.

Spray had seen enough and that night he accompanied Thai police to arrest Karr. They had the manager of the complex knock on his door on the pretext that there was a water leak. As John Mark opened the door, the police entered; one turned and put his hand on Spray’s chest, telling him to wait. When Mark did enter the room he noticed a suitcase by the door, one that turned out to be full of clothes. He asked Karr about this. Karr replied: “I always have a case packed so I can flee at a moment’s notice. That’s how I live.”

The Canker Afflicting Contemporary Journalism
August 16, Boulder. It didn’t take long for news of the arrest to break. The calls began. Not just from US television and radio but from all over the planet. My office phone’s voice mail became full in what seemed like an instant. The CU switchboard, the SJMC’s phone lines, all were under siege. Then my cell, all of this within a matter of hours.

It occurred to me later that I can’t recall giving out my cell phone number but an awful lot of people seemed to have it in an awfully short time. But then, in the bizarre intensity of today’s media, these people can find out the colour of your jockey shorts and how long you’ve been wearing them without breaking a sweat.

There were so many calls in the days following the arrest that my partner, Jen, became an unpaid, but rather good, press secretary, fielding calls on her cell as well as mine. The fact that there were so many requests for interviews came as no great surprise: JonBenet does that. One did surprise me however. It was a request from the BBC’s august ~ at least it used to be ~ Radio Four. Here, if ever, was evidence of the extent of the canker afflicting contemporary journalism.

Journalists and camera crews wandered up and down the corridors of the School. One of the film crews from Japan ( there were several) asked Dona Olivier, who has a desk outside my office, if they could film my door. Understand, it’s not even a special door – no ornamental flourishes, no unique wood, just an ordinary, utilitarian office door which they had come 12,000 miles to film.

Geraldo Rivera’s people sent a crew to film what I refer to as my down town office, The Hungry Toad. The New York Times turned up, as did the Los Angeles Times. Actually, the reporter from the LA Times, who had flown up from Texas and clearly didn’t want to be there, turned out to be someone with whom one could have an interesting conversation, in this case about the condition of newspapers ~ not good, we agreed.

Every local paper, TV channel and radio station called repeatedly. Calls came in from Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany… In fact, we lost track. For all I know Iceland could have called. I received a call from the local newspaper in the town I grew up in, the Oldham Chronicle. It is difficult to think of a major network show that didn’t request an interview. The London Times, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, various British tabloids.

One of the things we discovered was that when they really want to put the pressure on for an interview they get “the star” to call. I remember one moment in the scrum that followed Lacy’s press conference (of which more in a moment) when a young field producer slid over to Jen and handed her a cell and said, “Matt Lauer wants to talk to you…” To which Jen replied that she had zero interest in talking to Mr. Lauer.

My own personal favorite was receiving a call from Larry King, who was, as he called, picking his boys up at school. He really wanted me to go on his show; he was the only major interview show that I agreed to ~ unless you include Wolf Blitzer, who interrupted his war coverage and interviewed me from a sand dune in Iraq.

The truly fascinating figures were the field producers sent out by all the major networks and the cable news stations. Invariably young, they weren’t just hungry, they were ravenous, ruthless and determined. They would call, cajole, beg, offer money (“…we’d like to offer you a network consultancy…” She was from Fox, and so I thought, maybe not.) The CNN field producer, a nice, affable but determined man, was particularly intense in trying to persuade me to be interviewed. He had one curious habit that perplexed me for a while. We would be talking, I’d make a point, and he would say “Roger.” It happened several times and I began to think to myself, “who the hell is Roger?” It turned out he was ex-military so what he was saying in fact was “roger that.”
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#24
“You’ve been accused of writing a book…”
Mary Lacy held a press conference on August 17, outside the Justice Center. She didn’t say very much but there was a great throng of reporters, producers, camera crews. It was the kind of sight that we’ve become used to whenever OJ or Michael Jackson are put on trial (for the record, I wrote this before OJ’s arrest on armed robbery charges), or the “runaway bride” explains herself or Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan gets arrested again, or Madonna turns up with another baby, or Angelina and Brad buy Zimbabwe or the latest Christian evangelical leader turns out to be a part time drag queen.

For my sins I chose to go and watch, which on reflection was probably a mistake, since after Mary had departed, surrounded by Nagel, McGuire and Bennett, I suddenly found myself in the middle of that scrum. It is a curiously interesting experience, having questions being barked from all around you, not wanting to answer them, knowing, and regretting, that I’d become part of the spectacle.

One comment that was thrown at me was by a local attorney, former prosecutor, radio talk show host and long time Ramsey accuser. He said, “…you’ve been accused of writing a book…” It was a quite remarkably stupid comment, and in a way slightly fascist in its hint that books that would arouse hostility should not be written. I suggested that, as a professor with tenure in a research university, who has written a number of books over the years, it is not only what I do but what I’m expected to do. The subtext, the one that so many people loathed, was that they knew that the book I had been working on, essentially based on the documentaries that David Mills and I had made, would be arguing that the media got the story wrong, overdid it and that the evidence was overwhelming that an intruder killed JonBenet. Oh, how they did not want to hear this, how they wanted to continue their corrosive loathing of John and Patsy. I admit to a certain pleasure, immature perhaps, in goading them.

There was, however, a real issue of how to respond to the questions; what, if anything, to say? I’d discussed this with John Ramsey some time before, and we’d agreed on what I suppose might be described as a strategy. John, as much as anyone on the planet, understands what it is like to be accused by the media, willy-nilly, absent any meaningful evidence, year in, year out, of the most odious act, being complicit in killing your own child. He, like few others, also knows what it is like to have trashed that most precious right, allegedly guaranteed under the Constitution, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, trashed because it is less important than the entertainment, and therefore ratings and circulation, value of the accusation.

It was quite clear that there was brewing that sense in the public mind that since he had been arrested, Karr must therefore be guilty and a deeply dangerous psychopath. When the Thai Airways flight landed in Los Angeles reporters were asking passengers whether they had felt in any danger with Karr on their flight. What exactly did they think was going to happen, did they imagine that this slight male would overcome both Mark Spray and Gary Phillips, who were returning Karr to the U.S., take it over and fly it to Cuba? The most appalling illustration, however, of how his rights were being trampled would be the New York Post’s front page photo of Karr on the flight back, with the large print caption, “snake on a plane,” taking its cue from a recent, bad movie.

I decided that the moment was perfect to make a point by not. This may sound a tad Zen, but what I mean is that the one question that I was being repeatedly asked was whether I thought Karr was guilty of the things he had claimed, specifically sexual relations with many young girls and, the most horrendous claim, that he had killed JonBenet. To each and every question I had a simple reply, that I had no comment, that he had a right to be presumed innocent, a right that had never been extended to the Ramseys. John Ramsey would say the same thing.

It was, to those asking, an infuriating response. Why can’t you just say what you think? Come on, he’s guilty, isn’t he? I was quite clear, and determined, that I would use the platform of interviews to make this simple point. I told King’s producers, Wolf Blitzer’s people, in fact anyone who wanted a interview that this was all I would say. It didn’t matter: one, because they thought that I would be pressured into saying more, and two, they just wanted to be seen doing the interview. Substance was less important.

One final thought on this. It is difficult not to like King; he is very much a gentleman, not shrill like so many other interviewers, shrewd but not full of rancor even when he didn’t get what he wanted.

The press coverage was huge and global. Some of it was shrill, some of it balanced. Karr’s every move was followed. Business class on the flight back from Bangkok was packed with journalists. Helicopters hovered over LAX as he was being transferred to the plane used by the Governor of Colorado. News copters were also over the Boulder County jail. It was an amazing, but deeply troubling spectacle.
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#25
Released
Later, after Karr had been released, on August 28th, because his DNA didn’t match that found on JonBenet, there would be the inevitable attacks on me and Lacy, particularly in two ridiculously long pieces: one in Westword, a local free paper that seems to make much of its revenue from small ads for prostitutes and gay male escort services, and the other in a Denver glossy magazine, 5280.

This latter was written by a recent graduate of the School, Cheryl Myers, and when she asked to talk to me she referenced the fact that she was an alumna. Who was I to say no, and in the end I gave her a lot of time. The piece that emerged, and that I admit I did not see coming, was an extremely aggressive attack on me, which to this day I don’t fully understand.

A colleague, who didn’t read it until August 2007 while sitting in his dentist’s waiting room, described it as reading like a piece written by a 13 year old girl who hates her father. It was in the category of what one might call uber~bitch journalism. Indeed, if one could tap in to the bile that flows through that young lady’s veins you could open a bottling plant the size of Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado.

The chair of her masters committee and a faculty member who felt that she had been a mentor to Myers let it be known to her that they were ashamed that she was one of our graduates. I have no doubt she will do very well.
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#26
Meanings, pt. 1: Post-OJ America

So on to the really interesting part: what has it all meant, what do I take away from this curious episode in my life, and from a decade-long involvement not just in the narrative around the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, but the cultural ecology out of which that narrative climbed?

Henry James once wrote that to be an American is a complex fate, a sentiment I’d like to amend by suggesting that to be alive is a complex fate, pulled asunder as we are by the competing forces of deep, unspoken Neolithic urges, the demands of the caring heart and struggles in usingdavid the Rational mind, all elements present in the World of JonBenet.

Three general issues suggest themselves: the first is what was revealed about the condition and nature of contemporary American culture; the second involves what might be called the mood of the public mind; and the third is the personal experience.

The Media vs. Justice
Perhaps the most serious issue which emerged, or was revealed, yet again was the relationship that now exists between two core institutions, the media and the judicial system. In fact, increasingly, and wrongly, these two elemental parts of this society as a democracy seem to be engaged in a danse macabre, where the law has become part of the entertainment industry, and where that industry is consistently fed and led by leaks from law enforcement. As I suggested in the opening sections of this essay, and in the email to David Mills, small but influential sections of law enforcement in Boulder willingly provided “information” from the investigation which had one clear purpose, to persuade the American people of that which the police department was utterly convinced, that John and Patsy Ramsey killed their daughter. That “information” was presented uncritically to a public only too willing to believe what they were being told. In effect, it seemed that what was illustrated here was that the very integrity of the rule of law is increasingly compromised by the role of ratings and circulation driven media.

The role of publicly constructed rumor and suggestion, publicly made falsehoods, through the mass media, the Internet and everyday chatter in people’s lives, raises a profound issue of law. The public verdict was of the Ramsey’s guilt. If one thinks of this in terms of the proper demands of the law, any case of guilt has to be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. Any conviction on less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt is constitutionally infirm under state statutes and the Constitution. At the heart of this lies the notion that guilt beyond a reasonable doubt cannot be premised on pure conjecture. The jury has to consider, as does any appellate court, whether the evidence, considered most favourably to the State, was such as to permit a rational conclusion by the jury that the accused was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Can the jury rationally choose the hypothesis that supports guilt rather than the hypothesis which is consistent with innocence?

The question which needs to be considered in this context is whether the media coverage of this or any other case is prejudicial and therefore harmful to the basic rights of the accused because of the precise way in which it nurtures, even advocates, pure conjecture that inhibits the ability to look at the evidence rationally. What was certainly being undermined was an ancient tenet of Anglo-Saxon law, one which is embedded in the Constitution’s 5th, 6th and 14th Amendments, the presumption of innocence or, as the Supreme Court has asserted, the assumption of innocence.

The burden of proof is on the prosecution to convince the court that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. This right to be presumed innocent is so important to democratic culture that many societies, not just the United States, have included it in legal codes and constitutional documents. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 11, recognizes the presumption of innocence, as does the Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. In many countries journalistic codes of ethics clearly state that journalists should clearly refrain from referring to suspects as if their guilt was clear and certain.

A very basic question then, one to which we will never know the answer, is whether or not the Ramseys, one or both, could have gotten a fair trial, given the clear and overwhelming evidence that the whole narrative around them was one of their being guilty. For the record, Bryan Morgan, John’s attorney, thinks that given the makeup of the population in Boulder (which has been declared by Forbes Magazine to be the smartest city in America because it has, per capita, more people above age 25 or over with at least a Bachelor’s degree – 52.9% – and this resting on the highly questionable premise that possessing a degree is a simile for being smart) and given voir dire, where potential jurors are questioned, they could have gotten a fair trial. I have to say, Bryan has more sunshine in his soul than I have.

In this context, also, there was an intriguing presentation in the winter of 1999 by the pollster Dave Sackett in a speech on “Key Trends in National and Colorado Public Opinion.” He suggested that: 1. truth is what people believe; 2. villains must be identified; 3. rhetoric is more important than fact; 4. the intensity of the focus is on detailing the problem, not the solution.

One of the arguments used by media lawyers to demand that information be released from the investigation, such as the ransom note and the autopsy report, was that there was a public “right to know.” It was, lawyers such as Denver based Tom Kelley who would claim, in the public interest.

The obvious question that emerges from that is, why? And what if one could reasonably argue that maintaining the integrity of the investigation served another equally compelling public interest, apprehending a vicious killer and therefore protecting public safety?

What seems perfectly clear is that the issue isn’t one of the public’s right to know but, all too often, the public’s right to ogle, at the expense of those who may or may not have been charged with a crime, or who simply may have a desire for their privacy to be protected. The premise seems to be that if the public’s interest in a story is understandable then it is by definition legitimate and therefore a valid media story. This begs, again, the question of: why? Obviously there are some stories that are both of interest to the public and which speak to obvious issues of the public good and interest. Corrupt politicians on the take would be such an example. Corrupt cops would be another. What public interest or good is served, however, when every detail of a serious issue such as child murder is made available in the public square in a manner almost guaranteed, and in the Ramsey case intended, to harm other rights that the individual properly has in a society in which the rule of law is deemed to prevail? In such moments, what drives the story and its consumption by a slack-jawed public is not their need for the knowledge to sustain democratic culture, but the desire for tittle~tattle and to sate a ravenous prurience.

Perhaps my own sense of the problems they would have had in obtaining a fair trial is based in considerable part on the feeling I increasingly had that this society was extremely concerned in establishing guilt, in punishing, in condemning, but yet it was not necessarily concerned with the possibility that the innocent could get caught up in the rush to justice. Indeed there is a not inconsiderable section of the population which is willing to accept that the death penalty should be maintained, even if the innocent are occasionally wrongfully executed – though one suspects that their views might be a tad different if they were the innocent being strapped to the gurney.

I also came to see that there was a small but influential group of what one might call professional accusers – I have in mind people such as Dominick Dunne, Mark Klass and John Walsh – three men made bitter and angry by the terrible experience of having a child murdered – and such programs as Cops, 911, True Stories of the Highway Patrol, Forensic Files, as well as the numerous other people and programs that give visible force and meaning to the society’s desire, need, to put bad people away. There is nothing in and of itself wrong with this even if, as I will suggest in a moment, it reflects impulses fed by deeper social and cultural pathologies.
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#27
Accusing, Damning, Condemning
As I first began to make some notes about what might become a book, in the summer of 2003, I noticed a new member of this band of those who would seek and render justice to those they deem – no, know – to be guilty and all beneath the glare of klieg lights. She was called Nancy Grace, and became a frequent pontificator on the Larry King Show. Eventually she would have her own shows on CNN and Court TV. She is, inevitably, a former prosecutor.

At that time she was particularly eager to tell us that a California woman, Lacy Peterson, was killed by her husband, Scott. There had been no trial, the evidence had not been laid out , but that didn’t matter one jot. The bastard’s guilty because Nancy says so.

A few months before, in 2002 she was equally sure that Richard Ricci, a handyman who had done work for a family in Utah, the Smarts, had kidnapped and probably murdered young Elizabeth Smart. The poor wretch, whose wife was adamant that he was asleep in her bed on the night of the disappearance, turned out to have an arrest warrant for him on an unrelated matter. He was arrested and imprisoned. While in prison he had a brain aneurysm and passed away. On March 12, 2003, Elizabeth Smart was found walking down a street in a Salt Lake City suburb in the company of a psychopathic drifter and self-proclaimed prophet, Brian David Mitchell, and his wife Brenda Barzee, with whom the whole while Elizabeth had been camping out in the hills near her home.

Nancy never said sorry, because she clearly had no more capacity to admit error than she has to offer forgiveness or the benefit of the doubt. Given these serious character flaws it should come as no surprise that she is in great demand for talk shows, has her own show on CNN and has a following of viewers, overwhelmingly women, who call in and before offering their question and comment say “I think you’re great Nancy,” at which point a faux smile crosses her face like a sunbeam on a granite cliff.

Honesty makes me confess to the fact that when I first saw her I had an immediate and visceral dislike. Her face is flinty, hard, drained of warmth. Her eyes are dead and cruel. She drips anger at God knows what, like a divorced soccer mom who lost custody, no kid or ball, but all of the attitude. She is the very embodiment, the Goddess Athene, of the resentment that seems to afflict so many lives, a disposition that demands: punish them and make ME feel safe; punish them and make ME feel better. I nevertheless had a sense that somehow she was a victim of something, that she was in pain, that some dynamite trail led to what Mailer once called a “stricken place.”

And there was. Her fiancé was murdered.

Dunne in particular interests me. He has never seen an accused who wasn’t guilty. There is the dandy dress, the ostentatious spectacles, the name dropping, the apparently perpetual lunch at the perpetually fancy hotel, the obsession with celebrity crime, about which he writes for Vanity Fair. In his 2001 book, Justice – Crimes, Trials and Punishments, he writes about the various celebrity trials he has covered, such as Claus von Bulow, OJ, the Menendez brothers and Michael Skakel. In a moment of either candor or idiocy, during his account of the Menendez trial, he writes: “In cases of high crime, I’ve never made any attempt to present a balanced picture. This was no exception.”

I had an interesting, and to me revealing, experience with Dunne on the Larry King Show. I can’t recall what it was that happened in the Ramsey case that led to the call to see if I could go on that night. Dunne had been booked for the whole hour, but was now to share the first couple of segments in a discussion about the murder. Early in the first segment King asked Dunne what he thought about the case. In that rather faltering style of his he said, “well you know Larry, I think that the brother might have done it.” Since there are two brothers, Burke, who was nine at the time of the killing, and John Andrew who was in his early twenties and was JonBenet’s half-brother from John Ramsey’s first marriage, King asked Dunne “which one?” “Burke,” Dunne replied, and then proceeded to ramble on about how this small boy had strangled and bludgeoned his sister, concocted a long and literate ransom note, got rid of much of the objects and materials used in the crime (including a stun gun), gone back to bed and fallen asleep.

If there was any truth to this then Burke would surely count as one of the more interesting psychopathic nine year-olds in history. The fact of the matter was that Dunne seemed to be the only person on the planet who did not know that the one person who had been cleared by the Boulder police as a suspect was Burke, on the not unreasonable grounds that given the nature of the crime no small boy could have done it.

As I listened to Dunne I became furious and let him know my contempt for this extraordinary combination of arrogance and ignorance. King, I think, was slightly embarrassed and did his best to defend Dunne. What stayed with me most, however, was the unspoken assumption that one had a perfect right to make such an accusation and the fact that he knew nothing of any value about the case was irrelevant. What was important was being in the spotlight of the Larry King show, and the adrenaline rush of accusing, damning, condemning whoever happened to have wandered into the cross-hairs, and if only he could do this enough then maybe some of the anger and anguish over his own life’s loss would be diminished. That innocence and the innocent would be trampled in the process was, well, just too damn bad.

Post-OJ America
In another sense when one looks at how the media dealt with the case over the years, from that Christmas of her death to the August of Karr’s arrest, one is reminded, not for the first time, that so much of what represents itself as “journalism” is actually a broth of fantasy, the trivial, the sleazy, the sexual. It isn’t that this is so new. Since the beginning of modern media, including the early newspapers that spoke to this new Republic, crime, scandal and sex have been staples. Today, however, there is so much, at the expense of much else, and it thrives not at the margins but in the heartland of the culture. It is this that is so troubling, and of which the Ramsey case has been so potent a symbol.

Lewis Carrol might have recognized the world in which the Ramseys found themselves: “I’ll be Judge, I’ll be Jury, said cunning old fury, I’ll try the whole case and I’ll condemn you to death.” In other words, the story constructed a surreal view of reality, but one that many people were only too willing to accept as if it were real. The Ramseys and those trying to defend them had to deal with a kind of “consensual hallucination,” to use Gibson’s phrase, constituted by what the famed sociologist C. Wright Mills called the cultural apparatus that “not only guides experience (but) often as well expropriates the very chance to have experience that can rightly be called ‘our own’…” galvanizing the extraordinary force of the irrational.

The context within which the case would be reported would be the America of post~O.J Simpson. It was a new media world in which the void left by his acquittal would be quickly filled by the Ramsey case. The Clinton sex scandal had further fueled a 24/7 voracious media monster. JonBenet’s murder happened just as this new media environment was being birthed. Adding to this was the deepening legitimization of the tabloid press in American journalism as they had shifted their attention away from the bizarre ~ Elvis seen paddling down the Colorado river ~ to real-life scandal, sleaze and human frailty, in which it seemed the nation was now drowning and for which the public had an impossible to slake thirst.

The Internet had also happened, with God knows how many Web sites dealing with the case and a culture of obsessive online interest in her death sprouting up with extraordinary speed. And driving it all was the fact that the images of JonBenet in the pageant videos, the sense of “that’s awful,” “tacky,” “exploitative,” the beauty, the youth, the violence, the sex, the wealth, the lifestyle and the fact that it happened on Christmas night made many giddy. One book editor, pointing out these characteristics of the case, told Sherry Keene Osborne, “I can’t tell you how excited we are.”

There was also a surfacing of a moral mood in the country that fed off a public hardened to cries of innocence, especially from parents. They felt duped by Susan Smith, who had for a time convinced everyone that her two sons had been abducted by a black man, only to eventually confess that she had taken them to a lake, fastened them in their seat belts in the back seat of her car, pushed it into the dark, cold waters and watched them slowly drown and all because she wanted to keep a boyfriend who didn’t want kids.

Millions of Americans also believed that Simpson had bought his “innocence” with his wealth and that in fact he was a killer. And the mood seemed also to feed off a delight in seeing the “better off’ brought down, as class resentment reared its head, as anger, fear and loathing became the defining emotional motifs of countless lives. It was a set of circumstances, a perfect storm, that would lead people to look at John and Patsy Ramsey and “see” killers.

The story that would be told over the coming months began, however, almost as a whisper. But even within that there was beginning to lurk the essential suggestion: here lie dark secrets, perversity of an almost unimaginable kind. Major stories work by taking on a life of their own, but, as with any life form, the essential elements are there from the moment of conception. What is remarkable is just how much and how quickly “information,” was being leaked from “sources close to the investigation.” It was, to be blunt, from the standpoint of contemporary media values, a great story.
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#28
After all, it’s just comedy…
In thinking about the nature of the media coverage I am reminded of the prescient comments of the English writer Richard Hoggart (who was also my boss for eight years) in his famously brilliant book, The Uses of Literacy, published in 1959, that moment when television had all but finished its conquest of public culture. He wrote of this

“newer mass art…This regular, increasing, and almost entirely unvaried diet of sensation without commitments is surely likely to help render its consumers less capable of responding openly and responsibly to life, is likely to induce an underlying sense of purposelessness in existence outside the limited range of a few immediate appetites. Souls which have had little opportunity to open will be kept hard-gripped, turned in upon themselves, looking out ‘with odd dark eyes like windows’ upon a world which is largely a phantasmagoria of passing shows and vicarious stimulations.”

Later in the book he writes:

“Most mass entertainments are in the end what D.H. Lawrence described as ‘anti-life.’ They are full of a corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions. To recall instances: they tend towards a view of the world in which progress is conceived as seeking of material possessions, equality as a moral leveling, and freedom as the ground for endless irresponsible pleasure. These productions belong to a vicarious spectators’ world; they offer nothing which can really grip the brain or heart. They assist a gradual drying-up of the more positive, the fuller, the more cooperative kinds of enjoyment, in which one gains much by giving much .They have intolerable pretensions; and pander to the wish to have things both ways, to do as we want and accept no consequences.”

The experience also yelled, once more, that the case, and the public’s sense of it was much ado about sex, and particularly sex with children. This often invokes a dark brew of condemnation and fascination. Andrew O’Hagan has written:

“We could go a stage further, and suggest that our tabloid media have a paedophile element to their subconscious, a child-abusing energy at the heart of their own anger. The British tabloid newspapers demonstrate this every day, with their talk of ‘our tots’ and their enthusiastic ‘revelations’ about suspected child abusers and child murderers. You can’t read the British papers without feeling polluted, not only by the stories but by the degree to which the writers and editors of those stories appear to want them to be true, even before the evidence has proved it. Beyond this, a carnival of sensationalism vies with a deadly prurience, matched by a creepy populist appeal to the ‘common decency’ of the mob. You feel that the hacks are getting off on the horrors they ascribe, getting high on the pseudo-democratic vengeance their stories might excite.” [He quotes Margo Jefferson, who wrote an essay about Michael Jackson:] “‘Here’s an ugly fact,’ Jefferson writes. ‘The sexual abuse of children largely goes underreported. And even when it’s reported, it often goes unpunished. But here’s a sorry fact. We’re mesmerized by such crimes: they have become a form of mass culture entertainment, and a cover story for all kinds of fears.’”

O’Hagan is correct that conclusions about guilt made ahead of the available evidence are now a commonplace in popular culture and in fact have become the stuff of comedy. In the Los Angeles Times, Jay Leno’s former scriptwriter, Brad Dickson, points to the comedian’s habit of accusing people of being guilty. He writes, “…my job consisted largely of waiting for public figures to be accused of something vile, preferably illegal. Murder was No. 1 on our hit parade. Once a public figure was accused, we writers pounced like mountain lions on a lame goat. The jokes did not necessarily have to be good…but almost always assumed guilt… Much like a hangman, a ‘Tonight Show’ writer must recognize that as a well paid jury-pool-tainter, your charge is to not question guilt.”

He writes of how uncomfortable he was, for example, with the accusations Leno consistently made against Richard Jewell, who was for a while a suspect in the Atlanta Olympic bombing – Leno called him ‘Doofus Dick’ Jewell. Jewell was later exonerated by the FBI and indeed declared a hero for his actions that night. Dickson also writes: “The most potentially injurious jokes I wrote were about the parents of murdered JonBenet Ramsey. If not guilty they still had to endure a national late-night drubbing insinuating that they killed their own child. Although Leno has a reputation for presuming guilt the fastest and being the most relentless with mean jokes, almost all late-night hosts assume the accused are guilty. But does it matter? After all, it’s just comedy.”

Clearly it does matter, since it is now clear that more and more people, particularly the young, look to such shows for “information.” Why else would would be governors or presidential candidates declare their intention to run on the “Tonight Show.”

The Joy of Killing
One other possible, even likely, explanation for the popularity of the story of her death and others like it, the energy which feeds the news value, is that they ‘speak’ to a vital aspect of the human condition, an innate, morbid curiosity in death and mayhem, a compulsion of sorts that incites excitement and fear in exploring macabre topics such as death and horrible violence.

Mark Twain wrote in “Following the Equator,’ which was published in 1897: “The joy of killing! The joy of seeing killing done – these are the traits of the human race at large.” It is a disposition that has been described as “necrophiliac voyeurism.” There is nothing new here. In a review of Perry Curtis’ Jack the Ripper and the London Press, published in 2002, Richard Davenport-Hines writes: “When Tennyson and Jowett sat up late together, it was to talk of murders. The Victorians took a ghoulish pleasure in every phase of their more ghastly homicides; from the moment a corpse was found the hunt for morbid thrills was intense. After seven members of the Marshall family were hacked to death at Denham in 1870, ‘pleasure vans’ brought hordes of day-trippers from London to see the gore, and to purloin souvenirs. The Victorians were not dainty in their interest, and journalists were seldom squeamish in their reporting… executions generally fed a public appetite. Twenty thousand people went to watch William Palmer hang outside Stafford Gaol. Coventry Patmore’s rousing poem ‘A London Fête,’ describing ‘the wicked treat’ of a public hanging at Newgate, conveys the public’s ‘horrid thirst’ for gore.” One of the conclusions drawn by Curtis is that “Jack the Ripper” (whose name was almost certainly made up by a journalist at the Central News Agency) may not have been very good for the health of prostitutes but he was massively good for the health of newspaper circulation.

The obvious question I’m trying to engage is why do stories such as the death of JonBenet take hold of the collective imagination, and why stories that what one might properly define as more substantive, are so often marginalized? The answer is both simple and complex. Simple because there is an obvious public appetite, complex because of the mystery of why there are such appetites in the first place, ones that originate on the dark side of the human condition. In The Empire Strikes Back, young Luke Skywalker asks his Jedi master, Yoda, whether the dark side of the force is stronger than the good. Yoda replies with his Jedi wisdom and irony, “no, easier, quicker, more seductive.” Indeed.
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#29
Meanings, pt. 2: a crisis of prevailing values

It isn’t just that there is an appetite for scandal, sex, sleaze, death narratives, it is also that feeding such appetites can be very profitable. The fact is that an essential problem with today’s media, one that has been gestating for many years, even decades, lies with the families and trust-funders that own media chains, and with the media moguls that, like great beasts, roam the landscape of a new grim cultural ecology, gobbling up this and that tasty morsel, a television station here, a newspaper there, forever seeking to sate their own insatiable appetite.

Somehow the Gold Isn’t All
The point is actually very simple, even obvious and even allowing for an understanding that the logic of Kapital is accumulation, a Vice for the Ages: they are greedy. If there were a large public appetite for Goethe in the original medieval German, they would feed it. There isn’t, and so they plunder the global treasure and rape the human spirit in ways that make the Vikings and the Visigoths look like UNICEF.

For them, it isn’t that the truth shall set you free, it’s the belief that wealth will make you happy, and as far as I can see, they can’t even get that right. To make this point I could point to a bevy of social theorists and clinicians, the armies of therapists, the mountains of anti-depressants, the addictions, to the sheer turmoil, if I read Dominic Dunne correctly, that seems to afflict the lives of the wealthy. I won’t; I will simply borrow this from Robert Service’s “Spell of the Yukon”:

“I wanted the gold, and I sought it,
I scribbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy – I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it –
Came out with a fortune last Fall –
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.”

The fact is that the lesson learned from the coverage of cases such as JonBenet is that we face not just a crisis of the media in general and journalism in particular, with its fearful flight from purpose, but a larger crisis of prevailing values. The problem isn’t complicated: in a market economy, and in a culture defined to an inordinate extent by economic calculation, other values are inevitably squeezed out, values that recognize a public interest, a public good that needs to be served and that is different from the aggregation of individual wants, indeed that suggests that what people want is not the same as what they need. Witness the way in which around the globe public service broadcasting organizations are being marginalized or, in some instances, systematically dismantled, to make way for a market-driven media culture, something which strikes me as akin to pulling down the Taj Mahal and replacing it with a shanty town.

The issues raised by rampant materialism and consumerism, and the sidelining of other “virtues,” does not only speak to a critique of American culture and media. The problem is global, if only because global media are also dominated by large corporations. If I look at my home country, the UK, there are many critics arguing that, in its once-celebrated culture of broadcasting, it has lost its way, unable to fulfill its public service remit, mired in sleaze and tat, no longer vigorous, vibrant and socially significant. And if it is a shadow of its former self, is that a failure from within or is it one more portent, one more shrill illustration that history has moved on, the market is dominant, feeding public appetites that suggest a larger cultural and spiritual deterioration, a culture full of what Richard Hoggart once called “corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions”?

I accept, however, that people like Hoggart and so many others (and I would include myself here) who regret what has happened are declared to be on the wrong side of history. Maybe so, but what I think we can say is that what’s being lost are some important values that, once gone, will be extremely difficult to retrieve: respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice, fairness, civic virtue, citizenship. In other words, all the values and commitments that define a mature civilization and that provide the possibility of realizing the essential demand of liberal humanism, the achievement of the full and complete individual.
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#30
The Moronic Inferno
The absence of that fullness and completeness, the startling lack of mature judgment and cultivated taste, so prevalent in much popular culture, is very much suggested in the fact that by some bizarre alchemy of the times JonBenet became a celebrity and remains one – which begs yet again the question of why. How did a dead six year-old child become part of what Sean O’Hagan has called the “moronic inferno that is contemporary celebrity…”? As ever, the answer is both simple and complex: simple because it’s clear that people like and need celebrities; complex because of the complex intertwining of psychology, culture and personal biography that feed that need.

As I was writing this, on Sunday morning, December 9, 2007, an event was taking place in South Carolina that is a pitch perfect example of the odious cult of personality. Oprah (her name is in your Microsoft Word spellchecker dictionary, by the way) was on the stump for Barack Obama (and neither “Barack” nor “Obama” are in my spellchecker dictionary). The original intent had been to hold a rally in an indoor arena, seating 18,000 people. When it sold out in minutes, they decided to switch to an outdoor stadium with 80,000 seats. It also sold out.

Does anyone seriously believe that those in attendance are there for any other reason than to “see” Oprah, rather than to “listen” to Obama. (I understand that this has since changed, since Obama himself morphed into a politician-as-rock star.) Put this another way, there were then candidates for the Democratic party nomination with enormous experience, many ideas and thoughts about how to deal with the troubled times within which we live, including Christopher Dodd, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, all of who were hard pressed to fill a high school gym. This is telling us something – as a culture we are about the “moronic” rather than the profound and important. And it is precisely here that the issue becomes worthy of unpackaging, because in a curious, even bizarre sense, Oprah and JonBenet and all those others are cut from the same cloth, and it is we who wield the scissors.

For example, can there be any more pathetic, sad, revealing comment about the state of the culture – and not just in the United States – than the following comment from David Samuels, in an article about the paparazzi who follow Britney Spears around (30 to 45 on any given night) in The Atlantic, April 2008:

“History’s best-publicized celebrity meltdown has helped fuel dozens of television shows, magazines and Internet sites, the combined value of whose Britney-related product easily exceeds $100 million a year, and helped make ‘Britney Spears’ the most popular search term on Yahoo once again in 2007, as it has been for six of the past seven years…”

Read the whole piece and you might, if you have any sense of decency, want to slit your wrists. (In kind of related, nauseous vein, try this: the journalist Tana Ganeva pointed out that in 2006, the British retail chain Tesco – think Target – launched the Peekaboo Pole Dancing Kit, designed to help young girls “unleash the sex kitten inside.” Amidst protests from parents, Tesco moved the product from the toy section, but shelved it elsewhere in their stores.)

Affluenza
As ever, the observation of the fact of celebrity culture is less important than the question, why, from within what psychological and cultural pathologies does the need for celebrity gestate, what sustains it to the point where it metastasizes into compulsive needs, and why is it that those needs seem to be particularly acute, if Samuels is correct (which I suspect he is) among women between the ages of 16 and 34? In two books Oliver James has argued that the problem is that we live in a troubled time of “Affluenza,” where the drives of neo-liberal economics, with its compulsive competitiveness, materialism, and individualism produce not happiness but emotional distress, anguish and insecurity. As Margaret Bunting writes:

“Drawing extensively on the work of American psychologist Tim Kasser, James argues that our recent increased wealth has come at the cost of the emotional well-being of a large proportion of the population; rates of distress among women in the UK almost doubled between 1982 and 2000. This is true of New Zealand and Australia as well as the UK and the US, in striking contrast with more egalitarian and collectivist countries such as Denmark or Germany. He tracks how ‘selfish capitalism’ generates insecurity and inflates comparisons; how a winner-takes-all competitiveness merely creates losers and a pandemic of low self-esteem, with its compensatory pathologies around celebrity and status. Remarkably, Erich Fromm, the Marxist psychoanalyst and Buddhist writer, foresaw much of this half a century ago and James quotes his prescient analysis of the ‘passive, empty, anxious, isolated person for whom life has no meaning’ and who compensates through “compulsive consumption,” mass consumer societies which despite their claims to kneel at the altar of sovereign individualism inevitably and ironically, cripple personal agency.”

Tim Kasser, in The High Price of Materialism, suggests that there is a “scientific explanation of how our contemporary culture of consumerism and materialism affects our everyday happiness and psychological health. Other writers have shown that once we have sufficient food, shelter, and clothing, further material gains do little to improve our well-being. Kasser goes beyond these findings to investigate how people’s materialistic desires relate to their well-being. He shows that people whose values center on the accumulation of wealth or material possessions face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy – regardless of age, income, or culture.

What I am suggesting, then, is that one of the ways in which we deal with the pain of living in a hyper-consuming society, is by focusing in on those more famous than ourselves, whether they be dead or alive. The implication, however, is that in salivating over celebrity, something is being lost, and something is awry.

James is suggesting that “affluenza” and its attendant conditions is actually a mental illness, a darker version of Doris Lessing’s comment in her 2007 Nobel lecture, when she spoke movingly of a desperately poor woman she had seen in Africa who, despite the misery of circumstance, was reading Anna Karenina. She asks, rhetorically, “…do we think we are better than she is – we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?”

The question is, what to do? For Lessing, the answer would lie in “the storyteller, the dream maker, the myth maker, that is our phoenix that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.” It is the conviction that great art, great literature, great culture can make us morally better by, as F. R. Leavis wrote, kindling “our own best self…” echoing Plato, who said that the muses gave us arts not for “mindless pleasure” but “as an aid to bringing our soul curcuit, when it has got out of tune, into harmony with itself.” The English poet, Ted Hughes wrote to one of his students that the “mentally sick” could be cured by being “put in contact with their real nature,” which for Hughes could be achieved through poetry. The point is simple: the obsession with celebrity is not some harmless whim, not to be taken seriously, it is window into a poisoned spirit.

Emblematic of this is the sight of a culture which is to an extraordinary extent driven by emotion, not reasoned thought. The sociologist Jose Ortega Y Gasset wrote, in the early part of the 20th century, that there was “a democracy of the emotions.” If he were writing today he would say that we are a democracy of emotions on steroids, as if Barry Bonds and Barbara Cartland had conjoined and spawned the populace of late modernity. It is not that emotion per se is not a deeply important part of what it is to be human, it is faux emotion, manipulated emotion, hysterical emotion that swamps reason, buries all thought beneath it like an enormous mudslide devouring a Guatemalan village.
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