Scooped!: Media Miss Real Story on Crime While Chasing Sex, Sleaze, and Celebrities

Overview

Krajicek, a former crime reporter, takes an unblinking look at his profession and the country's crime dilemma. He concludes that while journalists have increasingly focused on trivial sleaze, celebrity scandals, and gruesome but unrepresentative crimes, they have neglected a far more important crime story: the collapse of the American criminal justice system as a cost-efficient, equitable deterrent. He argues that crime trends and crime policy often have little to do with one another, so it is no wonder that ...
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Overview

Krajicek, a former crime reporter, takes an unblinking look at his profession and the country's crime dilemma. He concludes that while journalists have increasingly focused on trivial sleaze, celebrity scandals, and gruesome but unrepresentative crimes, they have neglected a far more important crime story: the collapse of the American criminal justice system as a cost-efficient, equitable deterrent. He argues that crime trends and crime policy often have little to do with one another, so it is no wonder that Americans are confused and frightened about crime.

Krajicek shows that tabloid distractions drew journalists away from the substantive reporting that could have given a more accurate account of crime during the past decade. Instead, stories about a 'society under siege' led to panic about lawlessness, and politicians -- playing their customary role -- stepped in with the usual 'solutions': more arrests, more prisons, longer sentences. Scooped! challenges each journalist -- from publisher to reporter -- to take responsibility for his work, and calls on the media to more closely examine crime policy and hold politicians responsible for legislation that doesn't work. President Johnson observed in 1965 that 'jobs, education, and hope' are the only realistic crime-control strategies. David J. Krajicek's provocative book provides the basis for rational discussion and responsible action.

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Editorial Reviews

Ken Auletta
There are no scoops, no sex or sleaze in this passionate book. Instead, the reader encounters an idealist who found that if he stayed longer as a daily crime reporter he would become another statistic, another cynic, another mindless drone. So Dave Krajicek quit pounding the pavement, took a deep breath, stepped back, and decided to tell a story about how his mistress, journalism, has too often betrayed its calling. This book will make you angry and sad, but also hopeful, for truth is still the best antidote.
Entertainment Weekly
In this lively history of crime reporting, Krajicek charges that all the racy headlines have eclipsed a more crucial story.
New York Times Book Review
Scooped! is part confessional and larger part jeremiad against sensationalism, silliness, and the sort of 'back-alley journalism´ that, Krajicek argues, disfigures reality and makes serious debate about the nation´s crime problems virtually impossible. . . . Krajicek lays out a chronology that reveals just how, step by vapid step, we´ve hit the current nadir.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
A crime reporter for the New York Daily News in the 1980s, Krajicek quit in disgust in 1990. . . . His book inventories the damage done by sensationalistic, incident-driven coverage, not just on local TV newscasts and in tabloid newspapers but throughout the media.
Dallas Morning News
Krajicek does a fine job of weaving together his own experiences as a crime reporter, the history of the genre, and lots of examples to produce a convincing indictment of the news media.
Library Journal
Krajicek, a crime reporter for The New York Daily News and now a professor of journalism at Columbia University, gives us this personal, popular account. Convinced that the press could be 'telling the truth less poorly,' he explains the reasons for the 'tabloidization' of print journalism and chronicles its contemporary descent into sleaze and sensationalism along with the TV news 'dumbing down' to 'infotainment.' Because we know so much about Joey Buttafuoco, he believes, we know less about other things. One result is that the public continues to accept simplistic or even useless criminal justice policies such as 'more police, more prisons' and 'drug wars.'

As remedies Krajicek cites examples of newspapers that do more to explain crime and to provide background, analysis, context, and trends. This is interesting reading partly because we all have ideas about Joey, O.J., Rupert Murdoch, and such. -- Janice Dunham, John Jay College Library

Booknews
Krajicek (Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism) explores the development and history of both crime policy and crime reporting, which he claims is held to a lower standard than other news beats. He concludes that while journalists have increasingly focused on sleaze, celebrity scandals, and gruesome crimes, they have neglected the collapse of the American criminal justice system. For general readers and students.
Ken Auletta
If [Krajicek] stayed longer as a daily crime reporter he would become another statistic, another cynic, another mindless drone....This book will make you angry and sad, but also hopeful, for truth is still the best antidote.
Polish American Journal
If you have ever been disgusted or questioned the news reports in the newspapers and TV, you will realize why after reading this book.
Columbia Journalism Review
...Krajicek documents the indifference of news media and politicians to serious crime policy — that is, to policy that might reduce crime rather than merely expand the prison population.
Los Angeles Times
Inventories the damage done by sensationalistic, incident-driven coverage...throughout the media.
Michael Tomasky
Scooped! is part confessional and larger part jeremiad against sensationalism, silliness and the sort of 'back-alley journalism' that, Krajicek argues, disfigures reality and makes serious debate about the nation's crime problems virtually impossible. -- New York Times Book Review
Dallas Morning News
Krajicek does a fine job of weaving together his own experiences as a crime reporter, the history of the genre, and lots of examples to produce a convincing indictment of the news media.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
A crime reporter for the New York Daily News in the 1980s, Krajicek quit in disgust in 1990.... His book inventories the damage done by sensationalistic, incident-driven coverage, not just on local TV newscasts and in tabloid newspapers but throughout the media.
Entertainment Weekly
In this lively history of crime reporting, Krajicek charges that all the racy headlines have eclipsed a more crucial story.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231102926
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 3/4/1998
  • Pages: 240
  • Lexile: 1300L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.23 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

David J. Krajicek, an award-winning journalist, has written about crime for newspapers and magazines for twenty years.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS
Preface.............................................................ix
Introduction.........................................................1
1  Dancing with Trash in America the Violent........................11
2  Rupert, Amy, and OJ..............................................31
3  Seven Little Sins, So Many Stories...............................69
4  Anything Particularly Cruel: The World of Crime Reporting........93
5  The Crime Policy Follies: Caution! Politicians at Work..........135
6  Telling the Truth Less Poorly...................................179
Notes..............................................................201
Index..............................................................219



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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Dancing with Trash in America the Violent

How do Americans form their opinions about crime? It seems to me there are three primary sources of information: personal anecdotes, the mass media, and politicians.

Everyone knows someone who has been a victim of a crime--a burglary, a car break-in, a mugging. These anecdotes have immense influence in the public's perception of crime. Journalists who have talked with readers and viewers about their impressions of crime are familiar with the phenomenon. "I know the politicians and police tell us the city is safer," they will say, "but we have more crime than ever in my neighborhood. Why, just last week. . ." And they will launch into a story about the crime-related misfortune of a friend, relative, or colleague. In particular, people are troubled by crime that is close to home, whether geographically or figuratively. Crimes that occur in homes or in automobiles--our sanctuaries--have a profound effect. Tales about the abduction of a child from her home or a carjacking in broad daylight may well have deeper resonance for most Americans than, say, a bombing at an office building. News coverage of individual crimes tends to reinforce those impressions, and drum thumping by politicians on the crime issue serves to further buttress public sentiment.

Of course, newspapers and magazines have published many stories that would appear to contradict those anecdotes: stories that quantify declines in crime. Even collectively, though, such stories amount to a dinghy bobbing in a roiling sea of information about crime. The subject of crime is everywhere, from talk radio to prime-time TV to rap videos to films.

If that is so, how can it be that Americans are so misinformed about crime? Why is it that we know so much about Joey Buttafuoco and so little about crucial crime issues? One reason is that the media have done an increasingly poor job of developing a balance between what is interesting and what is important. This is the difference between a crime story and crime coverage, between a story about yet another anecdotal crime and one that identifies the anecdote as either representative of a trend or representative of absolutely nothing.

Some journalists blame the public for the occupational tendency to choose the interesting over the important; people like to read sexy stories, they will argue, and the media merely give them what they demand. Ratings don't lie, they will say. Without question, the public bears significant blame, if it protests the salacious diet coming from the mass media kitchen yet consumes it anyway. But it also is true that the public must eat what the media supply, even if the menu amounts to Twinkies, bon-bons, and offal. It is a chicken-and-egg question: Does society define news or does news define society? Do the media condition reality or reflect it? David Brinkley, the broadcast journalist, has dismissed the debate as specious with seven acute syllables: "News is what we say it is."

Journalists, in essence, ask for the public's confidence that they will make responsible decisions in setting the news agenda for the nation. Journalism has no formal process of accountability, as for medicine and law, and most members of the news profession blanch at that notion because accountability to a board or commission evokes outside interference, which equates with censorship. And everyone understands that the American media have a constitutional right to tell us what Joey Buttafuoco was wearing when most recently released from jail and to shout at him, "Hey, Joey, do you still love her?"

Of course, the same journalists who can summon tears as they expound upon the media's critical franchise as caretakers of basic American freedoms will smile and shrug when confronted with such mindless excess. Lighten up, they say. Buttafuoco is a goof, and everyone in the country knows that. We're having a national laugh at his expense.

But there is a cost. Although Buttafuoco-style crime stories have been omnipresent during the 1990s, the stories about criminal justice that attempt to make sense of the national crime morass have been difficult to find. Those that did make it into print or onto TV were overshadowed by the sheer volume of junk-food crime stories and coverage of violence. Newsday, the daily newspaper that covers Buttafuoco's home turf of Long Island, has mentioned Buttafuoco or Amy Fisher, his teenaged paramour, in more than a thousand stories. The tally of stories about the O. J. Simpson murder case, as counted by the Lexis/Nexis electronic clipping service using many large and medium-sized U.S. newspapers and magazines, topped 100,000 in 1996. Keep in mind that each space-wasting story that summarizes the plot of the latest porno flick starring John Bobbitt, the famous victim of a penile assault, bumps a more substantive story. Each hour squandered by the police reporter or courts reporter on a Heidi Fleiss stakeout leaves less time to pursue important crime news.

Newspapers and television news departments have finite news space, reporters, and budgets. The process of journalism--collecting, organizing, and disseminating information--happens in a series of priority-setting decisions about how to use those resources. Editors decide which stories are important, then deploy their reporters accordingly. They set priorities when they choose the stories that fill each page of the newspaper, each segment of a newscast. For regional, national, and international news, editors select from a vast menu that arrives either from staff reports (at the largest newspapers and television networks) or via subscription news services, such as the Associated Press and Reuters. They set priorities when they choose a royal scandal story over one about Russian politics, a triple murder in Maine over a story about the aging of America. The big papers typically expect the staff police reporter assigned to cover today's murder, celebrity arrest, or sexy crime to also pay careful attention to crime trends and to audit the effectiveness of police department strategies and initiatives. The smaller papers seldom make even a pretense of expecting their police reporters to do double duty. Likewise, the staff courts reporter, assigned to sit through today's love-triangle divorce trial, typically also is responsible for monitoring the courts and prisons. Sensationalism, or the dumbing down of crime coverage, to use the phrase favored by media critics, has occurred as editors and news directors modified these priorities to reflect a tabloid-style agenda.

Many journalists, including a number of my friends and colleagues on the crime beat, choose to deny the mutation that the business has undergone. Tabloid is nothing new, they say. They point out, correctly, that journalism has a history of the use of purple prose to describe lurid crimes, and human beings always have harbored a macabre curiosity about death and destruction.

It is true that sensationalized coverage of crime occupies a substantial wing in the museum of journalism history. But there are several important differences today, even discounting the notion of progressive evolution. First, the hot media--TV and radio--did not exist during the earlier high tides of sensationalism, so their effect upon U.S. society has vastly increased. For more than 150 years the tabloid sensibility has prevailed in down-market publications. But after an extended era of relatively sedate, serious journalism by the legitimate media, the tabloid scruffs have climbed down from the supermarket checkout racks and elbowed their way into the newsrooms of the country's most respected news organizations.

Thoughtless, salacious crime coverage now might turn up across the full breadth of the media, from the philistine to the highbrow. This dumbing down might be written off as a harmless diversion, as my friends and colleagues have suggested in the case of Buttafuoco. It might be, except that politicians and law enforcement authorities often set crime policy in response to the week's marquee story, whether it is about the latest drug scourge, a child abduction, a workplace murder, or a sex crime.

Consider the tone of what you read about crime in your newspaper and see on TV. As best suits the situation, the media will employ either a Pollyanna naivete or the carnality of a road-worn biker. Stories are presented as morality plays, which allows the media to occupy the choir loft of moral sanctimony from which it can cheer the good guy and hiss the bad guy.

Journalists feigned shock, for example, that celebrities and wealthy people in Hollywood were paying to have sex with prostitutes employed by Heidi Fleiss, and her case therefore was deemed national news. If the story is sufficiently sexy but the principals fail to qualify as celebrities, the press repackages them. Thus our man Buttafuoco, an addle-brained statutory rapist with the morality of a billy goat, was recast as a dashing rapscallion in the press version of his life. His media nickname, the "Long Island Lothario," connotes a sly seducer, although it is abundantly clear that the impulses driving the man originate in his groin, not his brain. For most of the 1990s Buttafuoco's every belch appeared as news in hundreds of newspapers and on scores of television news programs in the United States, Canada, and abroad. The peer culture that powers the news business conferred upon Buttafuoco the status of media icon; he was covered relentlessly, beyond all reason. A Florida newspaper took to referring to him as "a pseudo-famous person." Yet the paper failed to acknowledge that it had helped make him pseudo-famous, that its stories gave him pseudo-fame. Even as a newspaper's editorial page carries a hand-wringing column about the country's keel-less morality, its news pages might well contain a story celebrating the latest stumble by our world-renowned body-and-paint man.

The mainstream media's "dance with trash," as newsman Bernard Kalb has called this sensibility, commenced in earnest in 1986 when Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media magnate, created A Current Affair, the syndicated broadcast magazine that functioned as a video version of one of Murdoch's racy London tabloids. The show, a tawdry cousin of the familiar network newsmagazine programs, relished sex and sleaze. It trafficked in stories about love triangles, sex fiends, and naughty girls in lacy pink knickers, the bacon and eggs of the British tabloid breakfast.

A Current Affair was a moneymaker, and copycat programs materialized. During the late 1980s and early 1990s these evening tabloid TV programs became agenda setters for both the print and broadcast media through their aggressive pursuit of crime stories with sultry themes. First, the national wire services would validate the tab TV scoops--an exclusive interview with Bible belle Jessica Hahn, let us say--by distributing details of the story to other news organizations. The legitimate media, which might shy from pursuing the gaudy story with their own reporters, would then practice peeping-tom journalism by reporting what A Current Affair had reported, even if the program had violated a basic professional tenet by buying its exclusive story.

Soon, prestigious news organizations found themselves taking a seat aboard a tabloid press bus that crisscrossed the country in search of any crime story that smelled of sleaze, celebrity, or sex: Hahn, William Kennedy Smith, the "Florida Nympho," the Menendez brothers, Joey Buttafuoco--Amy Fisher, Woody and Mia, Tonya Harding, Heidi Fleiss, the Bobbitts, Michael Jackson. The O. J. Simpson murder case was the terminal destination on the tabloid trip.

At the same time, while too few in the media were paying careful attention, the U.S. criminal justice system was undergoing a fundamental transformation. The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 had announced a new era of crime policy in the United States. Crime had been on the national agenda since the law-and-order campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, but Reagan raised its profile, prompted by a growing intolerance among citizens for a problem that was widely regarded, even then, as out of control. Taking his cue from a prison-as-punishment movement that flowered in California in the mid-1970s, Reagan preached that criminals were being pampered by judges who subscribed to namby-pamby sociology theories. He said the country needed more arrests, tougher judges, more prisons, and longer sentences to battle the drug scourge and the crime menace. Politicians of both parties have assiduously followed that simple policy ever since. One leading theory about the country's enduring problem with violence holds that the United States is a victim of its own liberty: in essence, U.S. society is too free for its own good and insufficiently fearful of authority. Since Reagan, the popular legislative tack has been to curb those liberties through rules and hardware: prison walls, chain gangs, curfews, ankle bracelets. In exchange for the promise of increased safety, most Americans have gladly acceded to these initiatives.

The United States now has what Reagan wanted: more prisoners, more prisons, longer sentences. We also have only marginally less crime in most places--and more than ever in others. And we have an intensely heightened fear of crime across the country, and a drug supply that is as widely available--and less expensive--than it was in 1980. The primal solution to crime has filled our prisons several times over, and the increase in the inmate population will continue unimpeded into the twenty-first century. America is on its way to an inmate head count of two million, four times the 1980 prison and jail population. The annual cost of maintaining prisoners increased more than sixfold in sixteen years.

The prison population explosion began when the criminal justice system applied mass-arrest strategies and long mandatory sentences against drug offenders during the 1980s. During the 1990s law enforcement used those same tactics against sex offenders, violent felons, juveniles, and, under the popular three-strikes laws, repeat offenders. As a result, California's prison population, which stood at 125,000 in 1995 (up fivefold from 1980) is expected to reach 211,000 by century's end. Florida's inmate count, 68,000 in 1995, is projected to balloon to 150,000 by 2006. By then the national prison and jail population is likely to exceed three million.

It seems absurd that the United States should have a higher percentage of its residents imprisoned than any other industrialized nation--and it does--and yet be among the world's most violent countries--and it is. Those simple facts call into question the effectiveness of the incarceration vogue of the past two decades. In fact, politicians of both major parties understand that mass imprisonment and mandatory sentences have failed as policy, and they have said so, often on the same day that they voted to approve more of the same. Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, said, "Mandatory minimums are a political response to violent crime. Let's be honest about it. It's awfully difficult for politicians to vote against them." George Mitchell, the former Democratic senator from Maine, conceded that any crime legislation put forth by Congress has "little to do with reducing crime and everything to do with increasing votes." This cynicism implies that the voting public is not savvy enough to understand that "tough on crime," in the campaign shorthand, does not necessarily mean effective against crime.

Of course, the politicians and the media understand that efficacy means nothing; image is everything. After Congress gave final approval to the 1994 crime bill, which included provisions for sixty new death penalties, allocations of $10 billion for prison construction, and nearly $9 billion to hire 100,000 police officers, Mitchell, then the Senate majority leader, called a victory press conference. "This could be one of those turning points in our history in terms of positions of the parties and their public perceptions," he said. "I think the time is over when in fact or in perception the Republicans are seen as the party that's tougher on crime. It's the Democrats." During debate in 1993 over a proposal to impose mandatory sentences against violent felons, Senator Joseph Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "We are going to show everybody how tough we are.... But I want to advertise as the author of the underlying bill, as author of the death penalty amendment, they are not going to have much effect." The bills were approved nonetheless, he said, "because 80 percent of Congress and 85 percent of the public" still believed the "misinformed rhetoric about the effectiveness of mandatory sentences." Biden added, "if someone came to the Senate floor and said we should barbwire the ankles of anyone who jaywalks, I suspect it would pass."

Of course, many individuals, companies, and organizations have a financial investment in crime. And for most of them, more crime is better than less. The list includes police departments; police and prison unions; firms that operate prisons; the National Rifle Association; Gun Control, Inc.; weapons dealers; shooting ranges; criminal justice think tanks; universities with criminal justice programs; and companies that sell anticrime devices, such as the Club and legalized pepper spray. (A classified ad for one such outfit reads, "Crime is on the rise! Order your keychain pepper spray or stun gun and many other safety products.")

In an honest moment most politicians will concede that crime is big business. They might also tick off some basic myth-deflating truths about crime:

* Although the police will accept no blame when crime increases and take all the credit when it declines, many experts believe that police strategies and imprisonment have only a modest effect on the crime rate.

* Contrary to the prevailing dogma, the U.S. rates for most categories of crime (including burglary, robbery, rape, and larceny) generally reflect those of other Western nations. The United States is a world leader in violent crimes involving the use of guns, including murder, and that is ascribed to the wide availability of handguns here.

* The vast majority of crime is intraracial, and minorities have borne the disproportionate brunt of the violence. Minority neighborhoods tend to be the most poorly served by the police, even though they need help the most.

* Whether intentional or accidental, law enforcement strategies have singled out racial minorities for the harshest treatment.

* Those most informed about criminal justice--judges, lawyers, criminologists, and prison wardens--have pleaded with politicians for years to reform a system that has been cankered by sentencing mandates.

Many politicians prefer to ignore one other sequence of statistics. About thirty million felonies will be committed in the United States this year. Nearly half the households in the nation will fall victim to a nonviolent property crime such as car theft, larceny, or burglary. Frustrated by a system that appears unable to prevent or solve lawlessness, half the victims won't bother to file a report with police. Police will solve fewer than two in ten property crimes. They will not catch the perpetrator in more than half of all violent crimes. One-third of the twenty-one thousand homicides will go unsolved. Only three million--10 percent of the thirty million felonies--will be solved by arrest. Based upon those numbers, many prominent criminal justice experts have concluded that law enforcement has no effect whatsoever on 90 percent of all crimes committed.

The public doesn't know these things because it has been inadequately informed by the media. And information has a profound effect upon public opinion. A number of surveys have shown that most Americans favor harsh sentences--until they are informed of the costs and offered alternatives. When given information and options that deflate the myths about crime and punishment, a majority favor alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent felons, such as the tens of thousands of drug offenders imprisoned across the country.

The three primary influences in the national crime consciousness--a horrible anecdote, blood lust in the mass media, and politicians on the stump--combined in 1993 and 1994 to create a tipping point in public opinion. The anecdote was the kidnapping, sexual assault, and strangulation murder of Polly Klaas, the twelve-year-old abducted from her home during a slumber party on October 1, 1993. The perpetrator, Richard Allen Davis, was a repeat offender, a poster boy for the three-strikes legislation that was just then on the national crime policy agenda. A proposal to mandate long prison terms for three-time offenders had languished in legislative committees, but the Klaas case gave the bill new political appeal, not only in California but in many other states, as politicians rushed to vote for the latest get-tough legislation. Three-strikes mandates stand as a memorial, Polly's Law.

But once again politicians had voted for legislation they knew was indefensible on many different levels, from the financial to the ideological. Senator Biden, the Delaware Democrat, called the three-strikes legislation "wacko." Such a law "promises what we know we cannot deliver," said Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, a Sacramento Democrat. "But we so fear the voters that we can't talk honestly and publicly" about rational approaches to crime policy.

Of course, the issue of recidivism among violent felons was not born with Richard Allen Davis or even Willie Horton, the repeat offender from Massachusetts who played the role of crime policy dupe in the 1988 presidential campaign. A fundamental evergreen story in criminal justice journalism explores how society can stop an ex-con from striking again. The simple truth is that it cannot--no matter how many new laws are passed, no matter how many new jail cells are built. Norval Morris, the University of Chicago law professor and commonsense commentator about crime, is perturbed by the myth of junk justice, or the blaming of judges and parole boards who free predatory felons, only to have them strike again. "Mistakes like Willie Horton are not a probability," Morris said. "They are a statistical certainty. Either we must kill them all or never release anyone from jail."

The murder of Polly Klaas was precisely the sort of crime likely to induce panic about safety. Stephen King couldn't create a more a terrifying plot. Davis pulled her from the sanctuary of her home in Petaluma, California, as her slumber-party companions watched in horror and as her mother slept in an adjacent room. Her disappearance was an ongoing national news story during the fall of 1993, and network newscasts frequently featured the case. Network exposure is one primary high-speed route that a crime story can take to transcend limited local interest. Crime already was high on the national agenda following the 1992 presidential campaign, during which both President George Bush and Bill Clinton exercised the issue on the hustings.

The network television coverage of the Klaas disappearance included the requisite protect-your-family sidebar features that purported to show how viewers might stop the same thing from happening in their homes, without adding the important context that the likelihood was minuscule. NBC included the story as part of a series entitled Society Under Siege.

Not surprisingly, the Klaas story had a huge influence on national opinions about crime, according to a number of surveys. Polly Klaas was abducted at the end of a year that featured both the World Trade Center bombing by international terrorists in New York City and the long standoff followed by a catastrophic fire at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas. Those troubling events had been in the mass media for months, but they did not appear to cause overt concern among most Americans because they occurred at venues that most would consider remote and foreign. In June 1993, about four months before the Klaas kidnapping, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found just 5 percent of respondents named crime as America's most important problem.

But that summer the word carjacking had become fixed in the national crime lexicon as strong-arm car thefts spread from Detroit to the rest of the country. In the fall Polly Klaas and the murders of tourists along Florida interstate highways dominated national crime news. Both were stories about invasions of places where people spend most of their time: their homes and their cars. Then, on December 7 a crazed man named Colin Ferguson walked through a car on a commuter train on Long Island, systematically shooting everyone he could. He killed six and wounded nineteen others, and America was treated to another feast of frightening crime coverage.

By January 1994, after the intense focus on Ferguson, Klaas, and murders by highwaymen, 31 percent of respondents named crime as the nation's top problem--a sixfold increase from June 1993. Media Monitor, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks the content of network news broadcasts, would later report that the number of stories about crime on the nightly news programs of ABC, NBC, and CBS doubled during 1993, and coverage of homicides tripled. All this reporting about carnage had an unmentioned catch: national statistics showed that crime had declined during 1993.

The national newsmagazines helped drive the spike of crime anxiety a little deeper. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report, along with their financial cousin, BusinessWeek--occupy a peculiar perch in the national news hierarchy. Typically, they cover the same news as the daily media, but they are forced to try to do so in a manner that makes readers believe they have a new and deeper perspective. In crime coverage, that often prompts the news-mags to attempt to divine trends that give broader scope to the crime anecdote of the week.

All the newsmagazines covered the Klaas story as it was developing. In the meantime they began doing big thinking about what the case meant. BusinessWeek checked in first, in its December 13, 1993, issue, with a cover story entitled THE ECONOMICS OF CRIME. Its subheadline read, RAMPANT CRIME IS COSTING AMERICA $425 MILLION A YEAR. WHAT CAN BE DONE? PLENTY. The cover illustration included a smoking bullet out of which flowed a rivulet of blood. Here is the first paragraph from the main story in BusinessWeek's crime-cost package:

Americans are scared. The fear of crime permeates their lives. They worry about being mugged or raped in a parking lot or while walking home from work. They're afraid of being robbed at a highway rest stop or having their children kidnapped at a suburban mall. They put bars on their windows, alarms in their cars, and cans of tear gas in their pockets. And they should be frightened. All told, some 14 million serious crimes were reported to the police last year, a number that surely understates the actual magnitude of America's No. 1 problem.

Next came Newsweek. The headline on its January 10, 1994, cover: GROWING UP SCARED: NOW OUR KIDS ARE ROBBED OF THEIR CHILDHOOD. Inside, under a headline that read, ROBBING OUR CHILDREN OF THEIR CHILDHOOD, the magazine's coverage began with this paragraph: "Something precious is gone from American culture: the chance of an innocent childhood protected from adult pressures and fears. Increasingly kids must fend for themselves in a world of violence, sexual enticements and economic anxiety." Other headlines in the Newsweek package included FEARS OF THE UNSPEAKABLE INVADE A TIDY PINK BEDROOM and NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS--AND WATCH OUT FOR NICE GUYS, TOO.

U.S. News took its turn a week later. The cover of the January 17, 1994, issue carried the headline THE TRUTH ABOUT VIOLENT CRIME: WHAT YOU REALLY HAVE TO FEAR. The cover was punctured by three bullet holes. Inside, the package began with the two-page headline VIOLENCE IN AMERICA and a subhead that began, A SCARY ORGY OF VIOLENT CRIME IS FUELING ANOTHER PUBLIC CALL TO ACTION.

Finally, Time magazine provided its take in the February 7, 1994, issue with a cover line that read, LOCK 'EM UP AND THROW AWAY THE KEY: OUTRAGE OVER CRIME HAS AMERICA TALKING TOUGH.

The national newsmagazine coverage of a crime wave served to confirm the false impressions presented in network television's coverage of crime. To be sure, each magazine mentioned in varying places of prominence that crime trends were down, not up, as some TV stories had. The basic formula in newsmag writing is to note near the beginning of the story that the crime anecdotes defy the facts, then to rush forward unfettered by those facts, unfurling a ribbon of one contradicting anecdote after another. Moreover, the bullet-riddled cover illustrations, blood-red headlines, and photographs of sneering killers in handcuffs and memorials to dead children simply overwhelmed the whiffs of truth and context.

In March 1994, a month after the last of the national newsmag cover stories about crime, the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press conducted a poll that measured the public's fear of crime. Fifty percent of the respondents said they feared that they would be victims of crime, up from 36 percent in 1988. The survey also found the public embracing a hard line on crime, just as the Time cover story had reported. Seven in ten said they believed longer jail terms would reduce crime significantly. A majority favored more police officers and prison construction. Nearly one-third said crime was the nation's number one problem, and 77 percent said the country was losing ground against crime. Sixty-three percent of respondents said the media give an accurate picture of crime in the country, whereas 29 percent said they exaggerate the problem. Just under half said they trust the federal politicians to make policy decisions that will reduce crime.

In a delicious twist the national news media then began focusing increasing attention upon another crime trend story: having conditioned readers to cower in the corner with the shrill pitch of crime news, they periodically produced stories noting that Americans had a fear of crime that verged upon the irrational. The stories asked, in essence, "Where do people get these funny ideas?"

One player in the proliferation of the national crime anxiety was unmistakable: the local broadcast media. It may be impossible to overestimate the role that local TV news plays in disseminating misinformation about crime. Although the tabloid sensibility has had an influence on all forms of American journalism, the influence has been most acute in local TV.

In the 1970s television overtook newspapers as the medium that supplies the majority of Americans with their news. TV, therefore, must be a primary suspect in the perpetration of crime myths....(To be Continued)

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