By Michael Miner

America’s most gripping murder mystery just took another strange turn. A professional photographer who’d snapped some of the best-known pictures of the tiny victim was arrested October 18 for walking naked down a street in eastern Colorado. As a sheriff’s deputy approached to make the pinch, the photographer reportedly blurted out, “I didn’t kill JonBenet!”

If you don’t already know about this development, it’s because your local editor’s standard of news worth printing is too fancy by half. But here’s a prediction: The same multitudes that wail whenever network TV cuts from the afternoon soaps to bulletin the latest tribulations of Bill and Monica will crank up the volume if regular programming is interrupted to announce an arrest in the JonBenet Ramsey case. This is the saga that counts in American homes.

Or so I assumed. To find out for sure, I spoke with Candace Trunzo and Sal Ivone, a couple of editors whose fingers lie squarely on the pulse. Do the people care what happened in the White House? I asked them.

“Is the public fed up? It’s not quite there, but almost,” said Trunzo. “I think the public is saturated with it, and they’ve let the press know from the beginning that they weren’t too overwhelmed with the idea that the president they found satisfactory in many ways had been caught with his knickers down. The public is definitely moving away from it.”

And what about the Ramsey murder? I asked. It occurred more than 22 months ago, an eternity in the American attention span.

“JonBenet is a riveting story,” said Trunzo. “It’s still today an unsolved murder of a girl as adorable and precious as any girl can be.”

Which is why JonBenet is still frequent front-page news in the weekly Globe, where Trunzo is managing editor, and probably will be when Tripp and Lewinsky and Starr are a stack of unwanted memoirs in secondhand bookstores. “JonBenet: Cops Probe Mom’s Confession to Priest,” screamed a recent cover. “JonBenet: Brother’s Knife Used in Murder,” wailed another. With their amazing access to “sources” and “insiders,” the supermarket tabs track JonBenet like it’s the crime of the millennium.

Ivone, who’s editor of the National Examiner, agrees that the super-market-going public is displaying what he calls “Clinton-Lewinsky fatigue.” He told me that even though the tabs dutifully put Monica on their covers, they never warmed to her. “The supermarket tabs and TV tabloid shows didn’t jump in with great enthusiasm, because it was already being covered with such enthusiasm,” he said. “It was a tabloid story with a ribbon on the top for the conventional media.”

Was it ever as good a story for you as JonBenet? I asked.

“No, no! Or OJ. No. Because it’s a murder mystery, and everyone can play the game. Was it the mother? Was it the father? There was a Santa Claus across the street. Lining up the suspects is something readers want to do. It’s also a terrible tragedy. It has gravitas, and it’s engaging.”

More gravitas than a randy president and a Torquemadan prosecutor?

“Yes, of course. Because at the heart is the story of the tragic ending of a little girl. You say, why on earth did this happen to a beautiful little girl and a picture-book family?”

A picture-book family, I said, that everyone thinks did it.

“Apparently,” Ivone said cautiously. “If you talk to ten people you get ten theories. What is it, Pirandello? Or is it Rashomon?”

As Ivone suggested, America’s dignity press has covered Bill and Monica daily so insatiably that there’s been precious little for the weekly tabs to add. Two recent Globe headlines–“Kathie Lee Gives Hillary a Shoulder to Cry On” and “Life is hell for other Monica Lewinskys” (about “tormented” namesakes)–suggest the tabs’ desperation. So I asked an executive at one of Chicago’s dailies if he also regards the Monica story as on the wane.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “Dud. D-u-d. The machinations of Congress to decide how to punish the president are not nearly as sellable as the revelations of the details. It was the salacious aspects that sold newspapers. The [Starr report] inserts that everybody ran did extremely well for us.”

Suppose that major new fornications surface in Washington the same day an arrest is finally made in the JonBenet case. This crisis will force news editors across the country to choose between leading with the story that could bring down a president yet is beneath the nation’s dignity, and the one of little importance that holds the American people spellbound.

I bet you guys knew what to do with the naked photographer, I said to Ivone.

“It’s on the cover,” he said.

Damning With a Faint Endorsement

The Tribune honored one of its own last Sunday, publishing a political endorsement that was in its way a tribute to Don Wycliff, editor of the editorial page. In 1995 Du Page County’s 12-year crusade to execute Rolando Cruz for a murder he didn’t commit had ended after three trials, when a courageous judge ordered Cruz acquitted. Wycliff had held his fire until then, on the advice of colleagues who told him the case was more complicated than it looked. But at this point he stormed into his office and simply wrote what he felt:

“If the DuPage authorities had had their way, Cruz [and codefendant Alejandro Hernandez] would be dead now, executed by the State of Illinois on the basis of ‘evidence’ that was never more than a tissue of lies.” Wycliff saluted the legal “heroes” who’d fought to exonerate the defendants. And he continued, “Those who did wrong or were derelict also must be held to account. At the top of this list must be Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, who as DuPage County state’s attorney mounted the first two prosecutions of Cruz. Ryan needs to explain why getting a conviction was more important to him than getting justice….One thing is clear: None of those involved in the Cruz prosecution deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust. They have demonstrated that they have no honor and they merit no trust.”

The thoughtful, carefully calibrated Tribune editorial page often deserves our respect, but rarely does it speak in a voice so bluntly principled. Ryan–who’d been endorsed for election by the Tribune just the year before–protested, but Wycliff did not back down: a year later, after seven detectives and prosecutors had been charged in criminal indictments with trying to frame Cruz and Hernandez, the editorial page commented: “And what of those not indicted but also, in some way, implicated in the wrongful prosecution of Rolando Cruz. What, especially, of Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, who as DuPage state’s attorney authorized two separate prosecutions of Cruz? Ryan’s was, at best, a monumental failure of judgment, at worst a damnable dereliction of duty.”

Now Ryan is running for reelection, and the Tribune has had to choose between him and Miriam Santos, a Democrat with problems of her own. Given the Tribune’s adeptness at forgetting every critical word it’s uttered against Republican officeholders when they run for reelection, I expected the worst.

But the Tribune didn’t walk away from what Wycliff had written. Pointing to the Cruz case, last Sunday it coldly and scrupulously (so to speak) offered only a “qualified and reluctant” endorsement of the candidate it had deemed honorless, untrustworthy, and unworthy of public office.

Crisis Mode

American coverage of foreign disasters is shallow, predictable, hysterical, and perverse, a new book argues, leading not to public understanding but to the “compassion fatigue” that gives the book its name. Susan Moeller, director of the journalism program at Brandeis University, proposes a remedy so pedestrian it’s radical–more, and more talented, journalists filing more stories more often, while free to decide on the scene what the real stories are. “The solution,” Moeller writes, in the concluding sentence of Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, “is for the media business to get back to the business of reporting all the news, all the time.”

Which has never exactly been the media’s business, but take her point. The way to make the world intelligible, she argues, is to stop writing about it only in crisis mode and according to a tiresomely parochial formula of local good guys resembling Washington, local bad guys resembling Hitler, and the choices of getting in or staying out resembling Vietnam and Munich.

The public is “bored” by foreign crises, Moeller acknowledges, and its attention span is short. “What’s hardest,” said Jim Yuenger, the late Chicago Tribune foreign editor, who was one of her principal sources, “is to sustain interest in a story like Bosnia, which a lot of people just don’t want to hear about.” This resistance to foreign news by America’s news consumers lends a belling-the-cat aspect to Moeller’s idea of bigger and better foreign coverage. It sounds great, but who has to make the public go along?

“Given a finite amount of time in the day, and space and time in print and on air, the public does, I think, want to know all the news,” Moeller told me in a recent E-mail. “But I do believe the public is inherently more interested in those ‘crises’ that either very directly affect them as individuals or are perceived as having a hope of resolution.

“Scenarios of tragedy that are both horrific and seemingly irresolvable make little more than a blip on the public’s consciousness–witness the response to the Rwandan genocide. Those are the situations that are actively avoided by audiences….

Situations that are horrifying but that can be ameliorated–such as the cholera outbreak among the Rwandan refugees–tend to capture greater attention. But it doesn’t have to be so. That is one major challenge to the media: to engage their audience.”

Moeller’s book suffers from its insistence on making the author’s points instead of mine. So I asked her if Americans’ lack of interest in foreign news is due in part to the cognitive dissonance produced when their notions of a benign, benevolent God collide with staggering misery. The distant catastrophes Americans have little appetite for suggest a God very different from the one many of us worship.

Moeller responded, “It seems to me well nigh certain that, at least for some, a good and just God cannot coexist in the same universe as such debacles as the genocide in Rwanda, for example. What then to do, in order to avert the ‘cognitive dissonance,’ as you phrase it? Surely ‘compassion avoidance,’ as I identify it, is one manner of doing so. But even those of us who are atheists or agnostics or adherents of an angry Old Testament–not New Testament–Jehovah can find ourselves assaulted by that same cognitive dissonance….

“Why do those of us who are not religiously inclined to believe that good things always happen to good people wrestle with difficulty with the knowledge of innocents in peril? Perhaps because of our humanity–a word that, for me, incorporates the notion of ‘grace.’…We have a moral responsibility (ergo all the social action/charity organizations) but we also have a self-interest in ‘intervention.’ Since it is much easier to prevent a famine or genocide, for example, than to try and deal with the consequences, and a large part of prevention is knowledge, the media have a compelling responsibility to report not just on the starving babies, which make so many in the audience turn aside out of inadequacy, but on the factors and events that might create a situation that allows for babies to starve.”

News Bites

The Sun-Times endorsed Jim Ryan for reelection too, and with a lot more enthusiasm than the Tribune. As for Ryan’s role in trying to send an innocent man to the gallows, the Sun-Times simply didn’t mention it. Maybe nobody there remembers that it happened.

An announcement by the Chicago Humanities Festival: “Peter Gay speaks about the Victorians–the men and women of the bourgeoisie who were dutiful, responsible, and anything but dull while frequently flaunting convention.” So powerful was their example that flaunting convention has remained in fashion to the present day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): tabloid newspaper covers.