The JonBenet Fraud

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006; 7:22 AM

Will every anchor, correspondent and producer who shamelessly hyped the John Mark Karr story now apologize for taking the country for a ride?

Don't hold your breath.

This was such a sham, from the opening moments, that it instantly goes down with the greatest media embarrassments in modern history.

A strange, creepy character emerges from the shadows of Thailand and says he killed JonBenet Ramsey a decade ago? A guy with no known connection to the family? A yutz whose own relatives, including an ex-wife who hates him, says he wasn't even in Colorado at the time?

This is what produces 25-hour-a-day cable coverage, causes the network morning shows to go nuts and even tops the nightly news two days straight? Aren't the TV types who pumped up this empty balloon just a little bit ashamed?

Oh, and does the New York Daily News run a retraction for its banner headline "SOLVED"?

Of course, you will now hear that it was all the fault of the Boulder D.A., Mary Lacy, for arresting Karr in the first place. And maybe that was a dumb move. But the last time I checked, she didn't own any television stations. Of course you would report that some wack job had claimed to have killed JonBenet, but the resulting frenzy suggests that many journalists either didn't know or didn't care that strange people sometimes make false confessions in high-profile cases.

And yet things got so crazed that reporters jumped on the flight that brought Karr to the U.S., and the morning shows were interviewing fellow passengers about what he ate and so on.

The original JonBenet media circus in 1996 and 1997 became the template for all the missing-or-murdered cases involving pretty young women that followed: Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway. In the wake of O.J., television discovered that a tragedy affecting an unknown family--what once would have been dismissed as a local story--could be turned into a national soap opera through sheer repetition. And there was that steady media drumbeat of Did the parents do it? that, in retrospect, seems terribly unfair to John and Patsy Ramsey. Facts don't matter in frenzies; what matters is camera-ready speculation, where opposing lawyers and ex-prosecutors can argue on one talk show after another.

Usually, the press is unfair to people like Richard Jewell, who say they didn't commit some crime; here, Karr said he did do the deed, but that hardly lets us off the hook, especially as the contrary evidence continued to mount.

So Karr was a fake, and the media caravan moves on. But I don't think the public forgets. They should teach this one in journalism schools for a long time.

Some leads this morning:

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