We’re going to say that George Will got this right!

MONDAY, APRIL 15, 2013

Ken Burns and the Central Park Five: We’re going to say that George Will got this right!

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Will recommended an upcoming PBS film—a film about the gross miscarriage of justice visited on the five teen-agers known as the Central Park Five.

As he started, Will described the Ken Burns film. On many PBS stations, the film airs tomorrow night:
WILL (4/14/13): From Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” American history is replete with examples of printed words accelerating social justice. Still, from Mathew Brady’s 1862 photo exhibit of “The Dead of Antietam” to the televised fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 to the cameras that brought Vietnam into American living rooms, graphic journalism has exercised unique power to open minds and hence shape history. It may do so Tuesday evening when PBS broadcasts “The Central Park Five,” a meticulous narrative of a gross miscarriage of justice.

There were abundant dystopian aspects of New York City in the 1980s, when crime, crack and AIDS produced a perfect storm of anxiety about the fraying social fabric. This was the context—a city on edge—when on April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman who worked on Wall Street went for a jog after dark in Central Park. She became a victim of what was immediately called “wilding,” a word probably unknown by the four blacks and one Hispanic, ages 14 to 16, who were arrested and charged with raping her and beating her nearly to death.

After up to 30 hours of separate interrogations by detectives who are paid to be suspicious of suspects, four of the five confessed to a crime they did not commit. Why? Watch this documentary by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns.
We haven’t seen the film. But over the weekend, we watched most of Burns’ recent presentation at the National Press Club.

The presentation aired on C-Span. Thanks to C-Span’s web site, you can watch it too.

We thought Burns’ presentation was striking; Will thinks the same about the film. For ourselves, we were struck by two famous names Burns seemed to hurry past in his presentation: Morgenthau and Fairstein. We plan to listen for those names when we watch tomorrow night.

We’ll issue one complaint about Will’s column, in which he even seems to praise Earl Warren’s concerns about defendants’ rights.

We live in a very tribal world. Will seemed to feel he had to say this as he closed his column:
WILL: Journalism, like almost every other profession relevant to this case, did not earn any honors. Until now. The only solace to be derived from this sad story is that it now is a story memorably told. A society’s justice system can improve as a result of lurches into officially administered injustice. The dialectic of injustice, then revulsion, then reform often requires the presentation of sympathetic victims to a large audience, which “The Central Park Five” does.

Finally, this recounting of a multifaceted but, fortunately, not fatal failure of the criminal justice system buttresses the conservative case against the death penalty: Its finality leaves no room for rectifying mistakes, but it is a government program, so . . .
That is the way the column ended. The dot-dot-dot comes from Will, who felt he had to tribalize that concern about capital punishment—the concern that a mistake in the use of this sanction can never be undone.

Does that have to be a “conservative” case? Wouldn’t people with various political views see that obvious potential problem? Do we have to pretend that liberals think that “government” makes no mistakes?

As tribal lines become harder and firmer, tribal players feel they must deny all possible lines of common judgment. We’ve seen our own tribe do this from the left.

Yesterday, it was Will’s turn.


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  3. Come on, man, you can go harder at that last paragraph.

    It's not only that he went tribal; it's that he belongs to the wrong tribe in this case. People who describe themselves as conservative support the death penalty far more than people who describe themselves as either liberal or moderate.

    So, I agree going tribal was the wrong move because it was unnecessary to his otherwise very good column, but it was also the wrong move because he was just factually incorrect.


  4. "Central Park Five" is a superb documentary. I'd also recommend the similarly themed, similarly maddening rural version: "West of Memphis." Both are eye-openers as to how our "justice" system, and the media coverage thereof, works.

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