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When the Media Burned Atlanta

Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

It was 1981, in the heat of the case, and the numbers of outsiders pouring into Atlanta were soaring along with the summer thermometer and headlines shouting, “They Found Another Body.”

The psychics were there, five of them sent by the National Enquirer. Five out-of-town super-cops dropped in briefly too, as did the man with the tracking dogs and the crime-busting Guardian Angels from New York.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson came and went. Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality stayed long enough to display a photograph of a man he claimed was behind these inexplicable serial killings of Atlanta’s African Americans that had been occurring for two years.

All of it made fine pictures.

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There was plenty to report, and along with the local press, plenty of media carpetbaggers from across the U.S. and abroad to report it. Thick swarms of them, congregating in hotels like locusts and crisscrossing the city with their eyes peeled, including the network news star seen being driven to and from poor African American neighborhoods in a shiny black limo.

The Atlanta child murders, as they came to be known, were a great story. Even though some of the 29 victims on the official list were not children, and the real story--beyond the loopy theories and chest beating for cameras--would turn out to be that the media blew the real story:

The 1982 conviction of a young hustler named Wayne Williams, far from being the capper on this case that authorities maintained, may have resolved almost nothing. And the murders of young African Americans in Atlanta, their often-mutilated bodies turning up everywhere, were continuing. As were the socioeconomic conditions that exposed them to danger.

Some of that is in “Who Killed Atlanta’s Children?” This edgy and interesting, if flawed, new Showtime movie stars Gregory Hines and James Belushi as authors of 1986 stories in Spin magazine accusing authorities of botching the case and covering up secret findings that up to 15 of the victims may have been slain by a Ku Klux Klan family hoping to ignite a race war in Atlanta.

Police ineptitude had been vividly depicted in Abby Mann’s 1985 CBS miniseries, “The Atlanta Child Murders,” and in “The List,” Chet Dettlinger’s book that also maintained Williams was a scapegoat because the murders continued even after he was jailed on charges of killing two adults and linked to the deaths of others on the victims list.

But tonight’s Showtime account adds resonance to the Spin articles (the authors, Robert Keating and Barry Michael Cooper, are renamed Ron Larson and Pat Laughlin in the movie) that appeared to substantiate rumors about Klan involvement that previously had not risen above vague speculation.

“Who Killed Atlanta’s Children?” is written and directed by Charles Robert Carner and produced by former Spin editor Rudy Langlais. They deliver a dandy little nonfiction mystery on many counts, one that has New Yorkers Larson (Hines) and Laughlin (Belushi) in Atlanta chasing trails that lead in many directions--were the victims part of a sex ring involving high city officials?--in an atmosphere of suspense, danger and deception in lofty echelons of city government. A fruitful investigation was aborted and evidence destroyed. Why?

The journalists get lucky when they’re leaked the files of that secret probe by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. When they meet the whistle-blower, former Atlanta cop Aubrey Melton (Sean McCann), things seem to fall partially into place. Until again falling askew.

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Unfortunately, “Who Killed Atlanta’s Children?” at times feels like a formulaic buddy film and injects over-the-top and highly speculative scenes that smack of dramatic invention en route to a conclusion that spreads more fog than light. Now middle-aged, meanwhile, Williams continues to serve his life sentence.

The wider media story is understandably beyond the film’s agenda but no less significant than what’s on the screen, for it foreshadowed much of what was ahead in coming decades of journalistic excess.

Many of those out-of-town reporters popped into Atlanta for ratings-sweeps quickies and stayed just long enough to form capsule impressions, which distorted the meanings of the slayings and the image of a city known for being coolheaded during the civil rights violence of the ‘60s. Stations would bring in a crew, do the “Atlanta: City of Fear” theme, interview an official and then blow town. From many of these reports, you would have thought all of Atlanta was living in terror and the city was verging on a racial holocaust.

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Reporters everywhere can walk blindfolded through coverage of routine homicides. Yet when a murder case is more than just macabre, when it is complex and socially significant, when media must use restraint and weigh their own interests against those of the individual, then watch out.

The most repugnant sideshows in Atlanta did not begin as sideshows. They were the funerals of the young victims, where too many media decided that their rights superseded the right of private grief.

Ask a victim’s mother how she feels? How should she feel? Her child is dead.

One victim’s funeral was invaded by a British TV crew that began taping by slamming together a movie clapboard and lighting up the church like a movie set. At another funeral, an Algerian TV reporter delivered a stand-up in front of his camera as the minister delivered the eulogy. And so abundant were media lights at yet another funeral that they overloaded the church electrical system, causing a terrible odor.

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There were 15 TV cameras and 10 still cameras at the funeral of one victim, where a network cameraman leaned on the casket to get a shot of the distraught mother. Yet most repugnant of all, perhaps, was the Atlanta TV crew that camped outside the home of a slain youth to televise police breaking the news to his parents.

Why did families tolerate these abuses?

Because most were lesser-educated, easy to intimidate and unaware of their right to tell the media to screw off.

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While reporting the story of the slayings, meanwhile, most of the media ignored the larger story of how poverty was ultimately responsible for the victims--many of them street-savvy kids earning money at jobs that sometimes included prostitution--being out on the pavement and accessible to the killer or killers. Many of these kids were half-dead even before they were murdered.

And while purporting to tell their stories, much of the media profited on their backs. *

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“Who Killed Atlanta’s Children” can be seen tonight at 8 p.m. on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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