So what’s a media autopsy?

Posted: February 20, 2012 in The book
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Today’s media-saturated culture is so all-enveloping that it can be difficult to tease out what we know about a crime from what we have been told. Did that guy really kills his wife? What really happened to that young girl who was abducted?

Why cover such heinous crimes at all? Does doing so help to bring justice to the accused and to the victims and their families and friends and the community? Does reporting on crime help policymakers find ways to prevent such tragedies?

Speaking of Murder performs media autopsies on famous crime cases, in the hope that doing so helps us understand the impact that the media has on us, as well as whether contemporary crime coverage offer us more than sensationalism.

Volume One in this continuing series looks at three illuminating cases whose media coverage shapes what we see today. The first (The Fatty Arbuckle Case) looks at a murder that occurred among friends and acquaintances at a party. The second (The Kitty Genovese Case) involves an attack by a stranger on the street. And the third (the murder of the Clutter family recounted in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”) occurred during a home invasion, the stuff of nightmares.

Silent star Fatty Arbuckle found himself facing the first glimmerings of a modern media machine. There was no 24-hour-a-day cable news coverage, but newspapers competed to outdo each other with stories of moral outrage about how films and film stars were ruining the culture. Unfortunately for Fatty, it is likely that he was innocent, as the three trials resulting finally in a “not guilty” verdict suggest.

The Kitty Genovese story goes beyond traditional crime coverage in raising a larger question about how people can stand by and ignore brutality unfolding before them. Abe Rosenthal of The New York Times wrote articles and a book about the 38 people who ignored Kitty’s pleas during the half-hour that Winston Moseley spent stabbing and sexually assaulting her as she tried to make her way to safety. Rosenthal’s reporting on the crime forced the country to peer into its collective soul to see whether “progress” came at the cost of community.

Truman Capote arguably turned journalism into art, but the toll that immersing himself in the tragedy and its aftermath took on him may have been a high price indeed. Capote is credited with inventing the non-fiction novel, as well as lifting the true-crime genre from its roots in lurid “detective” magazines. Though he was part of the tribe who invented the New Journalism, he does not appear as a character in his book, though his role in the execution of Perry Smith in particular raises ethical questions including whether so-called journalistic objectivity protects the subject or the reporter or both.

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