The “story” about her death: In this morning’s New York Times, Leslie Kaufman writes a fascinating piece about journalism and novels.
On its face, Kaufman discusses the brutal, once-famous murder of Kitty Genovese, a 24-year-old New York City woman who lost her life in 1964. But at its heart, this fascinating news report is about something quite different.
The Genovese murder became nationally famous because of what it supposedly showed about deteriorating civic culture. According to the standard story—a story which came from the New York Times—38 people saw or heard Genovese being murdered. But none of the 38 witnesses intervened, or even called the police.
At the time, we were in high school in California; this was a gigantic story out there. But uh-oh! As Kaufman explains, the original reporting by the Times seems to have been massively wrong. Here’s how Kaufman sketches it:
KAUFMAN (1/31/13): But over time the basic facts were called into question. As early as 1984 The Daily News published an article pointing to flaws in the reporting. In 2004 The Times did its own summation of the critical research, showing that since Ms. Genovese crawled around to the back of the building after she was stabbed the first time (her assailant fled and returned) very few people would have seen anything.Kaufman doesn’t say if any of those (maybe) five people actually did call police. But to appearances, the original report—38 silent witnesses!—seems to have been grossly wrong.
The article quoted among others Charles E. Skoller, the former Queens assistant district attorney who helped prosecute the case and who also has written a book on it. “I don’t think 38 people witnessed it,” said Mr. Skoller, who had retired by the time of the interview. “I don’t know where that came from, the 38. I didn’t count 38. We only found half a dozen that saw what was going on, that we could use.” There were other mitigating factors as well; it was a cold night, and most people had their windows closed.
“Maybe only five people were in the position to hear her calls, if even that,” said Kevin Cook, an author who is currently researching the case for a book of his own and trying to determine exactly who knew what.
That’s the background. What’s interesting in today’s report is the way people in the publishing world view the reissue of the book which helped make the bogus claim famous.
That hurry-up 1964 book was called Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case. And uh-oh! The book written by A. M. Rosenthal, who went on to be a very big honcho at the New York Times.
Rosenthal’s book is being reissued in digital form by the publisher Melville House. In her report, Kaufman asks if Melville should have included some sort of notice about the questions which have arisen concerning the book’s basic claims.
It would have been easy to include an introductory essay. No such essay appears.
We were very much struck by the reactions Kaufman records. Let’s start with the reaction from Melville House itself, and from a second observer in the publishing world:
KAUFMAN: Dennis Johnson, the publisher of Melville House, said he knew about the controversy but decided to stand behind Mr. Rosenthal’s account. “There are, notably, works of fraud where revising or withdrawing the book is possible or even recommended, but this is not one of those cases,” he said. “This is a matter of historical record. This is a reprint of reporting done for The New York Times by one the great journalists of the 20th century. We understand there are people taking issue with it, but this is not something we think needs to be corrected.”In fairness, the various parties Kaufman quotes may still believe that Rosenthal’s work is basically accurate. But as is true with others who get quoted, Johnson takes a weirdly casual approach to the question of basic accuracy.
But others say there was a way to tip at the controversy without correcting the book. “If you are taking a piece of iconic journalism and reissuing it, it is probably in the interest of the reader of today to place it into a context that makes sense,” said Peter Osnos, the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books, which handles numerous works by journalists. “That doesn’t change the value of the literature.”
“This is a reprint of reporting done for The New York Times by one the great journalists of the 20th century,” Johnson says, failing to note that the great man’s reporting may have been grossly inaccurate.
Osnos adopts a much more sensible view. But we’ll admit that we were struck by his use of the term “literature,” for reasons which may become clearer below.
Later, as Kaufman speaks with others, they seem to have a very weak sense of the basic notions of accuracy, truth and fact. In all honesty, some of these parties speak as if they think they’re discussing a novel rather than a piece of journalism about a deeply serious subject.
In the following passage, Kaufman quotes the person who pushed to get the book digitized, and a contemporary New York Times journalist. To our ear, they seem to think they’re discussing a novel. And they seems to care more about Rosenthal’s reputation than about issues of truth:
KAUFMAN: Mr. Rosenthal’s book was digitized in large part because of a campaign by Andrew Blauner, a literary agent whose clients included Mr. Rosenthal and who has long had an interest in the Genovese case.Blauner’s comments would make perfect sense—if Thirty-Eight Witnesses was a novel. He says the book “was about humanity and [is] thus more relevant than ever.” It sounds like he thinks he’s discussing The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
Mr. Blauner would not address the criticism of the book’s assertions but said he thought that, details aside, Mr. Rosenthal’s work was about humanity and thus more relevant than ever.
“I don’t think that there’s any question that the story of Kitty Genovese is iconic and important, timely and timeless and transcendent, on so many levels,” he said. “There is, in my view, great intrinsic value and virtue in Abe’s book being made available to as many people as possible, in as many formats as possible.”
Mr. Blauner argued that when Melville first brought the book back into print in 2008, it contained a new preface by Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism professor who also writes a religion column for The Times. The preface, Mr. Blauner said, acknowledged that “myths” had built up around the book. But that introduction talks only about myths about Mr. Rosenthal’s role in the story, not the story itself.
Mr. Freedman said that Mr. Rosenthal was a mentor and that he had been honored to be asked to write the introduction. “The post-facto controversy about Abe’s book is certainly available with a few simply online searches to anyone who wants to find it,” he said. “But I chose not to disparage the book in an introduction to it, and I live serenely with that decision.”
As presented, Blauner doesn’t ask if the book is factually accurate in what it says “about humanity.” As he continues, he says “the story of Kitty Genovese is iconic and important, timely and timeless and transcendent.”
He doesn’t seem to care if “the story,” however timeless, happens to be a true story.
Freedman adds to the general air of fantasy amd fawning. If readers wonder if the book’s claims are true, they can conduct online searches! And inevitably, when he wrote that earlier introduction, he protected the reputation of the great Times journalist.
Myths had developed, Freedman told readers, without acknowledging that the myths seem to begin right in the book’s title. He doesn't want to “disparage” a book which may have its facts grossly wrong.
All through this report, we see excessive deference to the reputation of a Big Famous Journalist. We also see a puzzling sense that the book is question is some sort of novel. It tells a timeless tale!
Stories came early in human history; the concept of accurate facts came much later. Jesus conveyed his ideas in parables. He didn’t use charts of graphs. His parables didn’t have footnotes.
“Tell me a story!” Children still say it. Journalists try to help out.
For fourteen years, we’ve discovered what follows:
Journalists often seem to live in a pre-factual realm, in the realm of the “story.” Five witnesses turn into thirty-eight. Slightly clumsy offhand remarks get transformed into damning “quotations” or paraphrases. All scribes agree to recite them.
Is this story still “too good to check?” A very, very peculiar world view emerges from Kaufman’s report.