In 1996, JonBenet Ramsey, age 6, was beaten over the head and garroted in her parents' Boulder, Colo., home on Christmas night. In the months that followed, her parents were beaten over the head and garroted by the media.
The still-unsolved slaying of the elfin beauty queen initiated one of the foulest, yellowest chapters in contemporary U.S. journalism. As smelly as the media assassination of former Atlanta bombing suspect Richard Jewell. As jarring at times as the ear-splitting TV oompahs parading beside the O.J. Simpson murder case. As contorted as the swollen, shrill, gossip-and-leak reporting helping skew and inflate the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal.
Hardly less scandalous has been the unconscionable behavior of some of the press toward JonBenet's parents, John and Patricia Ramsey, who by this time are surely viewed by much of America either as having murdered their daughter--for any number of speculated reasons--or having been somehow complicitous in her death.
The guilty vote was nearly unanimous, for instance, when several hundred communtiy college journalism students were queried about the Ramseys at a regional meeting in Los Angeles on Saturday.
And no wonder, given how the parents have been dragged to a tree and strung up by media--despite never having been arrested or publicly accused by authorities of anything to do with this crime.
The mistreatment ranges from talk-radio ranting to something as subtle as newscasts showing footage or photos of blond JonBenet only in her pageant attire and full makeup, as if her parents had created a seductive mini-harlot and barred her from a normal childhood.
This has nothing to do with the Ramseys' possible guilt or innocence, only with fairness not being extended to them--and to others--who are proved guilty of nothing. You'd think the media would have learned these basic ground rules for decency by now. Instead . . .
"What we had here was a public lynching," Britisher Michael Tracey said from Boulder, where he has taught journalism at the University of Colorado for a decade.
Tracey's use of the past tense may be prematurely generous, for some of the clowns remain in the arena with their kazoos. But the crackerjack documentary that he and British filmmaker David Mills have created--"The Case of JonBenet: The Media vs. the Ramseys"--is acutely on point tonight as a cool, dispassionate, point-by-point counterpunch at much of the damaging rumor and innuendo about this couple that repeated exposure has hardened into common wisdom.
For example, what about those widely reported "no footprints in the snow" outside the Ramsey house being evidence of the killer or killers of JonBenet being already inside? It turns out, according to the documentary, that much of the area around the Ramsey house that wintry night was snowless. And so on and so on, as Tracey appears to shoot down one tidbit of hearsay and scuttlebutt after another.
"The media's told the lie so many times that people start to believe it is the truth," John Ramsey says at one point in the program in reference to his wife and him being guilty in hearts and minds. "Where is our common sense as a society, as a race of people? We can't just be fed information, we've got to process it and make our own decisions as to whether it makes sense or not."
Interviewed extensively by Tracey in Atlanta, where they now live, the Ramseys are the soul of this two-hour program running on the A&E; Network under the aegis of its "Investigative Reports" series. A slimmer version has already aired on a Boulder TV station and on Britain's Channel 4.
"I never thought in a million years they would agree," Tracey said from his university office about the Ramseys' interview, the roots of which are in an op-ed piece he wrote for a Boulder paper last year protesting the JonBenet case's media spin. Because she liked the piece, Patsy Ramsey accepted an invitation to visit one of his classes, Tracey said. Instead, further talks led to plans with his friend, Mills, for a documentary and five days of interviews Tracey conducted with the Ramseys in their Atlanta home last March. The couple set no conditions, Tracey said, but agreed to his--that no questions would be prohibited, that he and Mills would have complete editorial control and that the Ramseys would not be shown a script before the documentary was completed.
The questioning is friendly. Yet why shouldn't it be? Although Boulder police continue to say the Ramseys remain "under an umbrella of suspicion" as the case comes before a grand jury, they are no more or no less than parents of a murdered child at this stage, nowhere having been charged with a crime.
Except in some of the media. Including media quoting other media, as if reporters themselves were primary sources instead of conduits of information.
Here, from the documentary, is a sound bite from a 1997 "Hard Copy" report, titled "Bombshell in Boulder," with Tony Frost, editor of the Globe, citing unnamed sources about bed-wetting allegedly triggering the murder: "The most likely scenario is that JonBenet went up to her parents' bedroom wet and weepy. Her frazzled mom completely lost it and battered her. That's where the attack began." Absurd, Patsy Ramsey tells Tracey.
Here, also, is a "Dateline NBC" segment from 1997 quoting a Vanity Fair magazine article that quotes unnamed "Boulder police" as "saying arrest affidavits have been prepared since May" for JonBenet's parents. "They list evidence against the two parties in quite specific detail," the author, Ann Bardach, tells the NBC News program. "And this information supports the charge of what?" she's asked. "Murder," she replies.
Here, also, is an excerpt of a shameful mock civil trial of the Ramseys staged by Geraldo Rivera on his former nationally syndicated talk show. The jury's verdicts: Each parent is "liable for the wrongful death" of JonBenet.
And here is a slice of an equally odious 1997 Fox News "in-depth" interview with a woman, identified as Kim Ballard, claiming to be John Ramsey's mistress: "I don't know if he actually did it, but I feel that he was definitely involved, knowing his personality the way I do."
John Ramsey tells Tracey he hasn't "a clue" who this woman is. "No checking. Nobody asked me these questions before they ran with the story. Nobody checked to see if I was in Tucson when she said I was or at the Brown Palace Hotel when she said I was."
The vilest coverage has come mostly from the tabloids. Yet typically these days, many of these unreliable reports in the salacious press have made their way, in one form or another, into much of the mainstream media, with everyone inexplicably joining to make JonBenet the nation's most famous murdered child since the Lindbergh baby in 1932.
Why didn't more in the media display skepticism about what they were hearing from a myriad of sources inside and outside the local police department? "I think the story being told was too good to question," Tracey said from Boulder. "It wasn't useful to question the story. It was more useful to run with it."
Tracey acknowledges giving the Ramseys wide berth here, but says he and Mills have done all they set out to do by raising questions "about how the media function." Or dysfunction.
* "The Case of JonBenet: The Media vs. the Ramseys" airs at 6 and 10 tonight on cable's A&E.;