American Culture

From Christmas to August: Postscript and Appendix

by Michael Tracey


In November 2007, just as I was finishing a draft of this essay I was talking to a television executive during a visit to London. He asked if there was anything “new” in the Ramsey case.

I told him there wasn’t, unless you include a flurry of stories over the summer about the fact that John Ramsey was dating the mother of Natalie Holloway, a pretty blond college student who had gone missing two years ago while on vacation on the Caribbean island of Aruba. I did, however, offer him two thoughts: JonBenet will be back, there will be an event, maybe an arrest, new information, something, but she is not going away; and that hers, for good or ill, is a story for the ages – mystery, tragedy, metaphor, booster of circulation and ratings, the very gold standard of tabloid journalism.

As I write, E! Network is planning a two-hour special on the 20 most famous unsolved murders in American history. JonBenet is number one. TruTV, formerly Court TV, is also producing a documentary about the case in which they will use psychic investigators. The documentaries that David Mills and I made are regular reruns on cable. Last year Channel Four in the UK and CBS in the US ran documentaries about Daxis and me, and were extremely happy with the ratings. It’s strangely, even weirdly, inevitable.

The question I am often asked is whether the case will ever be solved? The only logical answer, of course, is that there is no way of knowing. It certainly could be solved, assuming that the “foreign” DNA is indeed that of the killer. It is obviously vitally important to bring that person to justice. It would be a great relief to have closure, and to be able to move on because I know that there are many people for whom her murder is ever present.

My head says, who knows? My heart says something different and almost inevitably, as if by some bizarre destiny, it was Karr who offered the appropriate words. On the day of Patsy’s funeral, in his room in Bangkok, he paid what he called a “private tribute to Patricia…” He sang songs, old hymns. One is called “Farther Along…”

“Farther along we’ll know all about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why.
Cheer up my sister, live in the sunshine.
We’ll understand it, all by and by.”


Here is the text of the article I wrote for the Sunday edition of the Daily Camera in September 1997. It took me about an hour to write. It would change my life for the next ten years.

The first finger of blame was pointed at the paparazzi. But it didn’t take much reflection to understand that these young men – it is a male sport – scummish and ruthless though they may be, were low down the food chain. There were the agencies that bought their photos, the papers, magazines and TV programmes to whom they were sold. And there was us, the reader, the viewer, the merely curious, the ogler, the voyeur, the fantasist who perhaps compensated for a drab life by borrowing something, God knows what, from the images of the famously glamorous. More than once we have heard that her death is “like a Greek tragedy,” the essence of which is that it speaks to a larger truth, in this case the despoiling of public and private life by media and their consumers obsessed with the flashy and the trivial and the seedy. But we did not need a car crash to tell us this. The truth of what we have become as a media saturated culture was already right before our eyes.

Three days before Diana’s death I had given the latest of a number of interviews about the media coverage of the Ramsey case. This was to MSNBC, but there had been others with local stations, talk radio and local press. It occurred to me that I had never actually put pen to paper about this. Twenty-four hours before she died, here is what I wrote about a child and her murder and the way we have dealt with it.

There is a line in a James Woods movie which keeps sloshing around my mind. Woods is playing the lawyer, Danny Davis, who defended the McMartins, the owners of a day care center in Los Angeles who were accused in 1983 of appalling sexual crimes against children. Davis is toying with the idea of defending the McMartins. His wife is trying to dissuade him along the lines of “how can you even think of defending those scumbags after what they did to those children…” Because they have a Constitutional right to be defended, because that is what the rule of law is all about, he tries on her with growing exasperation. He pauses and finally screams, pointing to a TV picture of a baying mob calling for all kinds of horrors to be visited upon the hapless family, “how come everybody in America knows they’re guilty?” It was a good question, because not only could everyone not ‘know’ of their guilt, we now know, after one of the longest trials in American history that they were innocent. They were abused, wrongfully accused, their lives and careers destroyed but the hysterical mob, the avenging and vengeful prosecutors did not get their way.

I keep asking myself, “how come everybody ‘knows’ that John and Patsy Ramsey are guilty?” It’s a question that puzzles and troubles, hanging there like a gargoyle with a grotesque and taunting grin. I’ve tried it in the office, in my favorite bar, with friends and family.

Almost everyone is so sure. Everybody seems to “know” they’re guilty, rather in the way in which everyone “knew” that the McMartins were guilty and every white jury in Mississippi “knows” that that black boy standing before them is guilty. But on what basis? Surely not from the available evidence, which circumstantially might provide grounds for wondering but not the Salem-like damnation which has been heaped upon them.

I cannot bring myself to be so sure. I remember too well the atmosphere in Britain in the 1970s in the wake of a series of pub bombs by the IRA how many Irish men and women were captured, prosecuted, found guilty and placed in prison for lengthy spells. I remember how we all, in the community, ‘knew’ they were guilty. Problem was they weren’t, they were merely ruined.

We are so ready to judge, to damn, to seek revenge, to leap to judgments that lie well beyond an evidential base. But the Ramsey case throws up so many troubling aspects of the society.

Further evidence of the corruption of journalistic values. Of the fact that where there had once been clear water between mainstream values and those of the tabloids, there was now little or none. Of the voyeuristic, manipulative, trashy, exploitative character of the coverage. Of the fact that an increasing habit of our culture is to salivate at the violent, to take private tragedy and use it as public spectacle for the crude and boorish end of boosting circulation and ratings. Sad that it has come to this.

Further evidence of the corruption of the rule of law, of the undermining of the judicial process as it becomes a department in the gargantuan, all consuming entertainment industry. The pressure to get more and more evidence released, including the autopsy report, may have been rhetorically underpinned by something called “the public’s right to know” but was too often a cynical exercise in keeping the story alive, to feed the public appetite for more morsels from a child’s death. And hardly anywhere did the media allow for the presumption of innocence, rather preferring to suck as much marrow as possible from the presumption of guilt. The Ramsey case, through the way in which it has been covered, and the way in which we have devoured that coverage, is insight to a culture which seems far more willing to attend to the minutiae of shameful murder than it is to issues of greater import to the successful functioning of the society. A society which seems to find in the murder of a child, as a leading local columnist put it, “entertainment,” a curious kind of pleasure in another’s pain. So sad that it has come to this.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Ramsey case is that it is as if an awful lot of people want them to be guilty. The question is, why? It’s an interesting question and I have only speculations in the way of answer. Perhaps they have been told so often through the media – implicitly and explicitly – that that is where the guilt resides. Perhaps they want closure. There may also be the circumstantial evidence, though that should stimulate a modicum of suspicion, not conclusion. It may have something to do with a sentiment among a good number of American women that all men are sexual predators from whom no female, including their daughters, are safe. That has very much been the gist of the coverage in the tabloids, whose biggest audience is by far women.

Whatever the reason and whoever hopefully is brought to justice what I do know is that when someone squeezed the life from that child they robbed her of all that she might have been. But every time we use JonBenet’s story, flaunt her picture, pick up a tabloid because she is on the cover, gawk at the television as the latest twist or turn in the story is rendered in breathless, shocked tones, dripping with false pity and concern, each and every time we do these things we feed the pockets of an industry that cares for nothing other than its share or its circulation. Each and every time we rob the soul of a small child resting in the warm rich soil of Georgia.


7 replies »

  1. Interesting blog…

    I pray that they do find the killer and will look for the show on TruTV, should be interesting.

  2. But every time we use JonBenet’s story, flaunt her picture, pick up a tabloid because she is on the cover, gawk at the television as the latest twist or turn in the story is rendered in breathless, shocked tones, dripping with false pity and concern…

    Or make three documentaries about the case? Or frequently pose for pictures with key figures in the case? Or attempt to participate in the investigation of the case, going so far as to court an admitted pedophile via e-mail? Or flit from interview to interview discussing everyone else’s misguided obsession with the case? Or write a memoir about his own involvement with the case and his rather un-astonishing discoveries about popular media?

    I don’t read tabloids. I rarely watch television news. I have no idea who killed this child. And I see very little moral difference between the media hounds castigated here and the person revealed in as much of this series as I could bear to wade through.

    Fortunately for that little girl, and despite any grandiose pronouncements of collective guilt, nothing any of us do truly matters to her now.

  3. Whenever there is a rush of stories like this what is seemingly a constant that there is some other far more important story being deliberately covered up or actively ignored, sometimes like the Ramsey story it has absolutely nothing to do with it, sometimes like the Levy/Klausutis cases the television spin is openly political to accomplish a goal, but actual concern for the victims is fairly nonexistent.

    Even the McMartin case was not about them or the children, but establishing an image and storyline that still lives in the intended recipients, no matter that the false reality fell apart once it hit the court room, the story was already told and the media had moved on, first to a flurry of me too prosecutions, and then when even actual abuse was unprosecutable, dropping the subject entirely, or perhaps the Ramseys were the next phase, the opportune victim in a different sort of serial crime wave.

    I don’t think my TV has been on to watch anything but a dvd in several years now. When they quit broadcasting the analog signal I doubt I will notice beyond a reference in Google news.

  4. Are those fair to hold against him, Ann? It seems a bit demanding to say we should ask of our scholars not to be obsessed with what they’re writing about.

  5. A timely aside: I went to a dinner party this evening at a home immediately across the street from the Ramsey house. It was completely dark, unoccupied, with a for-sale sign out front — its condition for most of the past 12 years. I can’t imagine it ever transcending its infamy until this case is solved, and even then, it’s unlikely this house will ever be free of its ghosts.

  6. Fair is subjective, Steve, I know. If this had been an unflinching, self-critical look at his own participation in the media carnival… but it’s not, is it?

    And all morality aside, one word: edit.