Public Desire

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with .

There are three-ring circuses, and then there was the arrest of John Mark Karr.

When the 41-year old teacher confessed two weeks ago to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the media went into overdrive, breathlessly reporting every possible angle of the case as though Western civilization hinged on it.

The high point (or low point, depending on how you look at it) was Karr's business-class flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles, during which he was wined and dined while a pack of news photographers recorded his every bite. They even covered his walk to the bathroom.

Some in the media assumed that Karr was, in fact, guilty of the crime, despite almost immediate questions as to his veracity and whether he had been anywhere near Boulder on that Christmas night a decade ago, if ever.

The Rocky Mountain News led its main arrest story with the emphatic statement that the "decade-long search for JonBenet Ramsey's killer came to a startling end in Thailand."

The New York Daily News, notorious for its blunt headlines, splashed the word "SOLVED," in extra-large type, on its front page.

Now that the case has fallen apart, media watchers of all stripes are condemning the press for rushing to judgement, for all but declaring Karr a murderer when, as put it, he was actually a "nutbag with delusions of kiddie-killing grandeur."

This morning I called Blake Fleetwood, a former New York Times reporter who has also written for The Wall Street Journal. "The media should have shown some skepticism," he said. "And they should have asked, 'Does this really belong on page one?' Every time there's a case like this, these self-confessed serial killers come out of the wordwork. We should show a little restraint until we have more proof."

Fleetwood conceded that he had just spent the last two days glued to CNN and MSNBC, watching news about the case's unraveling. Still, he said, the JonBenet case and others like it (the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba, the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City) "appeal to the lowest, most basic prurient desires of the public."

"You have to be blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful and you're forever on the front page," Fleetwood said. "The media has a feeding frenzy with that stuff."

And yet some media outlets did express skepticism from the beginning. At the Calgary Sun, a headline writer came up with, "Kook or Killer?"

In its first front-page story about Karr's arrest, The New York Times said it was "unclear whether Mr. Karr's confession was genuine or the product of a troubled, attention-seeking man who had already exhibited a fervent fascination in the sexual abuse of children in general, and in the death of JonBenet Ramsey in particular."

On August 18, Newsweek ran a story under the headline "Solved or Suckered?" The magazine said that while it was clear that Karr had had a hard time holding teaching jobs, had twice married teenaged girls, was arrested in 2001 for possession of child pornography -- "none of that necessarily makes him a killer."

On the Chicago Tribune's Web site yesterday, media columnist Phil Rosenthal wrote, "It wasn't the media that made Karr the prime suspect for 12 days in a 10-year-old murder case. You can thank authorities in Thailand and Colorado for that."

On the phone earlier today, Rosenthal said the media "couldn't have picked this guy out of a crowd: 'Hey, let's pin this 10-year-old murder on him!'

"There are things that the media does wrong, but I'm not sure this is one of them," Rosenthal said. "There always has to be a blend of news that's in the public interest and news that's interesting to the public. One pays for the other." This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan