For a while, Amanda Knox was everywhere, her face splashed across newspapers and web sites, the details of her case rehashed on television and radio. The impulse for those watching from afar was to believe every salacious detail they’d heard: That Knox was some beautiful sociopath, whose violent, fetishistic urges led to the 2007 murder of her housemate Meredith Kercher while both were studying abroad in Perugia, Italy.
She was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison before winning an appeal in Italy’s highest court in 2015. It took nearly a decade, but she was finally exonerated, at least legally.
Now a Netflix documentary is trying to pardon her in a tougher court, the one of public opinion. Logically speaking, despite news outlets painting her as a villain, that shouldn’t be difficult. She has the facts in her corner. But if it’s true that Amanda Knox is innocent — and the movie certainly makes a compelling case she is — then what does that make the rest of us? At best, gullible.
At worst? Irrational.
“Amanda Knox” is just one recent film exploring the way people latch onto certain beliefs, facts be damned. It’s a timely moment to delve into the subject during an election cycle when neither candidate particularly inspires confidence in their truth-telling.
The movie “Denial” comes out next week and deals with some of the same issues. It’s based on the true story of Deborah Lipstadt, an American author and historian, who was sued for libel in 1996 by David Irving, a British Hitler sympathizer who claimed the Holocaust never happened. Her best defense was to prove that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were just that — efficient killing machines — not, as Irving hypothesized, bomb shelters. At one point during the movie, Irving manages to create an iota of reasonable doubt, by claiming to have photos showing that the holes in the roof of the building, where the gas was funneled in, never existed. He even came up with a catchphrase: No holes, no holocaust. The media frenzy was close behind.
As portrayed in the movie by Rachel Weisz, Lipstadt is terrified of the fallout. Irving’s claims once seemed like lunatic ravings, but now that they were hitting the mainstream media, his opinions were being legitimized. His beliefs suddenly seemed like a reasonable counter-argument to factual history. You might say, what does it matter? People can discern the truth from the fiction. But we’ve learned time and again, they can’t — or at least they won’t. Just look at the way Trump’s birtherism claims took hold. It doesn’t take much for a lie to become a movement.
In another example from recent pop culture, the documentary “The Witness” examined the way the false narrative of Kitty Genovese’s 1967 murder became embedded in the public consciousness. Even after the inaccurate initial story was debunked, people still believed that dozens saw Genovese get stabbed to death on the street yet did nothing.
Knox is at a disadvantage trying to reverse widely-held beliefs, especially ones based more on emotions than facts.
The documentary does an excellent job of explaining how the spectacle of Knox’s court case coincided with the shifting media landscape. The 24-hour news cycle was still a fresh reality, and the stakes were high for scoring big scoops that could be posted and broadcast instantaneously. In addition to interviews with the accused — Knox and her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito — plus Giuliano Mignini, the prosecutor who was convinced of their guilt, we hear from Nick Pisa. He was a reporter for the Daily Mail at the time, racing other journalists to file increasingly outlandish twists in the story.
The focus on speed over accuracy explains why so little of what Pisa reported was fact-checked and why he used one-sided sources: the people who wanted Knox behind bars. Thanks to Pisa’s stories, Knox’s name became inextricably linked with “a drug fueled sex game,” which is how numerous newscasters describe the motive. No one bothered to do more extensive digging, and the public believed everything it was told.
The way the crime roused the interest of international news outlets complicated the investigation. All of that scrutiny forced the police department to close the case as quickly as possible. During interviews, we see that Mignini was guided by his gut rather than the facts when it came to suspecting Knox and Sollecito (despite his strident claims that he doesn’t like to speculate). But it wasn’t just him that wanted the couple to be guilty. Reporters were also more interested in the narrative of Knox as some kind of she-devil. Even when it became clear that there was ample DNA evidence linking a shady character named Rudy Guede to the murder, Pisa admits that he didn’t report on Guede with the same rigor he followed Knox.
“Amanda was more interesting,” he explains.
The interviews with Pisa reveal a man with a stunning lack of self-awareness. He still appears to sees the situation as some exciting race that he’s proud to have won. He takes credit for spreading the nickname “Foxy Knoxy” and titters at the thought of “girl-on-girl crime.” He also comments on the rush he felt by seeing his name on front-page stories.
“It’s a fantastic buzz,” he says. “It’s like sex.”
He was also the one to publish Knox’s prison diary, revealing information about the number of sexual partners she had, as well as her fears that she was HIV positive (which turned out to be a terrible lie the police told her).
Pisa and Mignini are the villains of the film, although the reporter does make an important point. People were clicking on the stories he was writing. We can wring our hands over immoral journalists and our debauched society all we want, but people are interested in filth. As long as it’s about someone else.
Early in the movie, Knox looks at the camera and explains the competing ways people view her case.
“Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I’m you,” she says.