The Twelve Days of Karr

By Andrew Cohen
Special to washingtonpost.com
Saturday, September 2, 2006; 12:00 AM

The first epoch of media coverage of the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation, circa 1996-1999, was bad enough. It was filled with vicious pre-judgments, faulty on- and off-air presumptions, and unfair and unbalanced reportage. And don't forget that was before the Twin Towers fell, before we liberated Afghanistan and invaded Iraq, before $3/per gallon gas prices, and before the flight ban on toothpaste in our carry-on bags. There was no excuse for the breathless, mindless reporting on the Ramsey case at the placid end of the last century. And there is even less justification for it now in a world already gone mad.

Even from my vantage point, however, I cannot determine for sure whether the recent cycle of endless coverage of this relatively un-important (sorry, it just is) story is the "chicken" or the "egg" in this fable. Did the media just go nuts over the brief and bizarre arrest of John Mark Karr because its viewing, reading and listening public clamored for wall-to-brawl coverage of what turned out to be a dead-end lead in a murder investigation? Or did the media just force its viewing, reading and listening public to endure hour-after-hour of speculation and innuendo because the reporters, producers and analysts covering the story think everyone is as fascinated by it as they are? I guess it is a little bit chicken and a little bit egg; both the public's fault and ours.

As someone who started working as a network legal analyst just a few months after JonBenet was murdered, I can raise my right hand and swear to the Ever-loving God of Cable and Network Face Time that during the past two weeks I was asked by both journalists and lay people more insipid, insulting, and unanswerable questions than at any other time covering any other sleazy, icky, skin-crawling, hold-your-nose-while-you-follow high-profile case, trial or investigation. And that list includes, but is not limited to, the Michael Jackson child molestation trial, the Scott Peterson case, the Chandra Levy investigation, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Martha Stewart obstruction trial, and the Kobe Bryant rape case.

I was asked during this fortnight to speculate upon speculation that was based upon rumor. I was asked to evaluate and analyze the import of evidence that did not exist. I was asked to read the minds of prosecutors and defense attorneys and witnesses and, of course, the man, John Karr, whose mind is probably more difficult to read right now than the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. I was asked more than once about the legal significance of Karr's consumption of grilled shrimp on that now famous Thai Airlines flight. "Is it normal," I was asked in a serious tone, "for a man accused of murder and child sexual assault to be eating grilled shrimp and sipping wine on a flight with his would-be captors?"

I was asked by whiny reporters to criticize prosecutors for not sharing their evidence with those very same whiny reporters -- as if prosecutors were committing a sin by fulfilling their legal and ethical obligations. I was asked, over and over again, if I think Karr did it. And people seemed genuinely surprised, frustrated and disappointed when I had to tell them that I had no idea whether Karr had "done" it or not. This is, with notable exceptions, what passed for media discourse during L'Affair Karr. This is, in part, how our nation's journalists tried to convey the news and import of Karr's arrest to a curious nation. This was the Pablum Chow that fed the Media Beast.

Part of the reason for this is just plain impatience and a lack of ability to focus upon "difficult" topics. After waiting nearly 10 years to resolve the Ramsey murder mystery, way too many reporters and news consumers, upon learning of Boulder's interest in Karr, just couldn't bear the thought of waiting a few more days or weeks or months to know for sure whether or not he was the guy. This is a culture, remember, where complex crimes get solved on television in less than 50 minutes; where email is the new snail mail thanks to Instant Messenger; and where we fast-forward through commercials on TiVo. Our want-it-now society today demands or at least expects answers immediately¿even as the justice system is purposely (and brilliantly) designed to make and take things slow.

No wonder, then, that so few people wanted to wait for the evidence about Karr to unfold in its natural course. No surprise that so many refused to sit tight and wait a few days for the DNA tests on Karr to process through. Instead of being patient, instead of telling their audiences that they would have to be patient too, far too many journalists tap danced their way through the 12 Days of Karr with gossip about the guy, with out-of-thin-air analysis from people who couldn't locate Boulder, Colorado on a map, and, worse, with criticism of officials when they did not drink the Kool-Aid and rush to declare resolution of the case before its time. Who looks worse today? The prosecutors who took a chance with Karr and missed? Or the reporters who covered the story as though it were second coming of Watergate.

This is the state of the art in our craft, circa 2006, and it is atrocious. No one, save a few brave organizations and outlets, did the right thing and effectively told their constituents¿"we'll get back to you on the Ramsey case when there is something concrete to report about Karr. In the meantime, let's get back to the war, or to the economy, or to the fight against terrorism." And, sorry, justifying recent Ramsey coverage by pointing to ratings only goes so far. I'm sure the news shows would triple their ratings by having wet t-shirt contests¿but that wouldn't make it any more right.

You combine a no-patience public with a no-perspective media and you get the frenzy we've just seen in the Ramsey case. You combine the public's still vibrant fascination with a dead little beauty queen -- "soft core porn" is how one person I admire deemed the replays of JonBenet's beauty pageant videos last week -- with the media's obsession about stories of sex and lies and videotape and you get hour upon hour of discussion about evidence that may or may not exist relating to guy who still hasn't been convicted of a single crime. Chicken and egg. The public's fault and ours -- and there is enough blame to go around. Only we are the ones who get paid to make judgments about the news value of the stories we are (or are not) covering.

Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy was blasted earlier this week for spending approximately $13,000 to investigate Karr and then bring him back from Thailand to determine whether his DNA matched the DNA found on JonBenet's body. Although reasonable people could and do disagree, I think that was money well spent. How else are prosecutors going to solve this mystery if they don't track down leads and take chances from time to time? This is what happens in murder investigations. The police track down leads. Usually those leads are dead ends. But the cops only have to get lucky once in order to crack the case. What Boulder officials did is at least defensible.

What's not defensible, it seems to me, is how much money all of the networks and other news outlets spent, combined, to cover the Karr episode. Surely it was a few orders of magnitude more than what Lacy and Company spent. Just think about all the other ways in which that money could have been spent these past two weeks. Just think about all the other stories that could have been covered. Just think about how many new ideas and revelations and insight could have been transferred via the media from subject to object and vice versa?

The venerable Howard Kurtz at the Post gave the media a grade of "D-" for its recent work on the Ramsey case. Turns out he is a soft grader. We failed. And not by a little. I sure hope we can figure out how to do better, much better, before the next John Mark Karr oozes his way into the spotlight of this grisly, ghastly, grimy tale.

Andrew Cohen writes "Bench Conference" and this regular law column for washingtonpost.com. He is also CBS News Chief Legal Analyst and he provided analysis and commentary on the Ramsey case for a variety of news organizations. His columns for CBS can be found online here.


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