Skip to main content

Calm and Cautious

It appears at this moment that John Mark Karr could possibly be just a strange, troubled 41-year-old schoolteacher, but not the person who killed JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colo., on Dec. 26, 1996. We hope, for the sake of the little girl’s relatives and others who have lived through this nightmare, that the case is near resolution and that the right person has been arrested. But we just don’t know.

MSNBC’s Susan Filan, herself a onetime prosecutor, actually asked former Denver Chief Deputy District Attorney Craig Silverman, a regular quote machine on this case over the past decade, if journalists should apologize. Many in the media targeted the Ramsey family, which had often been hounded as murderers. Silverman dodged the question.

But if Karr is the person, then we hope that the nation’s news media, collectively, does offer amends to John Ramsey and to the American public for an often horrible display of journalism. Sometimes, it’s true, the wild reporting was aided and abetted by law-enforcement officers and by the Ramseys themselves, who at one point stonewalled investigators. Irresponsible journalism may have lots of accomplices, but the result is the same.

The American press finds crimes involving cute white girls far more interesting than those involving any other race. But JonBenet was a strange twist on that. She was a tiny beauty contestant who left behind a TV-perfect portfolio showing her in outfits or striking poses that would seem tartish on a woman and were often utterly inappropriate for a 6-year-old. That, unfortunately, made the murder a crime made for TV and supermarket tabloids.

This time, we hope the press will show that it has learned its lesson and will let investigators sort out the case, rather than invent a tawdry daily soap opera.

There was some evidence that the networks were being more careful about convicting Karr on circumstance (or even his confession). On MSNBC, Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler pleaded, “Let’s not be so quick to convict this time”—a reference, of course, to the previous circus. Fox’s Greta Von Susteren allowed that Karr might just be “a strange person who for whatever reason wants to confess to murder.”

Since John Ramsey has been the victim of rumor for a decade, we find his statement significant but not surprising: “I want to have only very limited comment on today’s arrest because I feel it is extremely important to not only let the justice system operate to its conclusion in an orderly manner, but also to avoid feeding the type of media speculation that my wife and I were subjected to for so many years.” Karr may turn out to be no more than just a bizarre player in a bizarre case, but Ramsey’s statement made sense. This case ought not to become the media’s playground again.