Kitty Genovese, still not remembered: Every Sunday, Jonathan Yardley writes a book review for the Washington Post Outlook section.
In our view, Yardley’s reviews help make the Sunday Post a better read than the bloated Sunday Times. That said, Yardley’s latest review struck us as notably strange.
Yardley reviewed a pair of books about the killing of Kitty Genovese, our country’s latest fiftieth anniversary event. In 1964, the killing of Genovese, a 28-year-old New York City woman, created a nationwide discussion which has never really ended.
At the start of his review, Yardley recalls the horrific basic events. He even recalls some events which didn’t happen, a basic fact he didn’t note until late in his review.
Over the last fifty years or so, our press corps has invented quite a few major events. This may be one of the first such inventions in this modern era:
YARDLEY (3/16/14): Half a century ago this month two weeks after the incident took place—the New York Times published on its front page, in a prominent position and under what was for the Times an unusually large four-column headline, a story that began: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. . . . Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”Yardley heard about this heinous murder as a young New York Times reporter. We heard about it as a high school junior in California.
The story was gritty and local, in both respects uncharacteristic of the Times in those days, and it made a huge splash, not merely among the newspaper’s readers but across the nation as other news organizations picked up on it. To this day I remember it vividly. I was working for the Times, though not as a local reporter, and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, only a few miles from where Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and murdered. New Yorkers were not nearly as edgy about crime in 1964 as they were a decade later during the city’s steep if temporary decline, and the Genovese story made readers suddenly aware of the quotidian dangers people face in an urban environment.
This heinous event was discussed all over the country. As Yardley explains, it changed the sociology books. (Yardley quotes a professor who describes the killing of Genovese as “the most-cited incident in social psychology literature until the September 11 attacks of 2001.”)
In many ways, this brutal murder changed the ways Americans thought of themselves. This was a very famous event, and it produced a very long public discussion.
Here’s the problem—in many ways, that splashy report in the New York Times was factually wrong. Somewhat oddly, Yardley waits until the end of his review to tell his readers that.
When he does, it seems to us that he’s weirdly imprecise.
In the passage which follows, Yardley finally notes that the New York Times got the story wrong in that splashy front-page report. But just how wrong did the New York Times get it?
Strangely, we never get told:
YARDLEY: [W]hat happened to Kitty Genovese in March 1964 affected the way many people think about crime and their responsibility to take action against it. The irony, though, is that the essential element in this notion of collective guilt—the charge that 38 witnesses failed to come to Genovese’s aid—is almost certainly untrue. The figure was tossed out by Michael Murphy, the New York City police commissioner, at lunch with A.M. Rosenthal, who in 1964 was city editor of the Times. “Brother, that Queens story is one for the books. Thirty-eight witnesses,” Murphy told Rosenthal, and added: “Thirty eight. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.”Even Gladwell got it wrong! Perhaps he needs more practice!
Rosenthal, a driven and ferociously ambitious journalist who eventually became executive editor of the Times, went back to the office and assigned the story to a reporter named Martin Gansberg. Apparently neither Rosenthal nor Gansberg ever tried to verify Murphy’s firm figure of 38 witnesses: “It came from the police; that was enough. Nobody ever identified the thirty-eight witnesses or counted the witnesses in the detectives’ reports.” The figure was accepted by other newspapers and magazines and cited as gospel by Malcolm Gladwell in his pop-sociological bestseller “The Tipping Point,” proof positive that journalists are as susceptible to the herd instinct as everyone else.
By 2004, when a conference on the crime was held, 40 years after it took place, Cook writes, “anyone willing to do a little Googling might have suspected that ‘thirty-eight witnesses’ carried a whiff of urban legend,” yet “of the ten most popular social-psychology textbooks of 2005, all carried accounts of the Genovese case, with all ten accounts maintaining that thirty-eight witnesses watched Kitty die without lifting a finger to help.”
So social psychologists as well as journalists are served a helping of humble pie in Cook’s book, though it’s unlikely that any of them will be eating it...
“The charge that 38 witnesses failed to come to Genovese’s aid is almost certainly untrue,” Yardley writes. We’re told that the number “carrie[s] a whiff of urban legend.”
But nowhere are we ever told how strong that whiff of legend might be. Was it really 35 silent witnesses? Perhaps as few as two dozen?
In fact, that Times report was heinously wrong, or at least that’s our understanding of the current state of the case. Scanning Cook’s book as best we can on-line, it looks like he says that maybe two witnesses really saw what was happening that night—and one of them did call police.
In many quarters, Genovese remains a sanctified figure, as well she should, because of the brutal nature of her death. But as he reviews two books about her killing, Yardley is weirdly imprecise about the part of the story which made this event so famous.
As major fans of Yardley’s work, we find this review rather puzzling. We offer a speculation:
As Yardley notes, the man who created this “urban legend” went on to become a kingpin of the New York Times, a god of the mainstream press corps. Today, his son is editorial page editor of the Times.
Does professional courtesy mean that we the rubes still can’t be told about how badly he misreported this event? Does it mean we can’t be told that the New York Times essentially invented the tale about the uncaring neighbors?
Eight years later, in 1972, a group of upper-end reporters may have invented another influential tale, the claim that Candidate Muskie wept. Is Yardley shying away from helping us see how far back this practice extends—this habit of dreaming up socially useful “parables” which help us believe the right things? (That’s a term from Cook’s book.)
In our view, Yardley is a terrific reviewer, and this is a strange review. A final point:
If we’re reading Cook’s book correctly, Genovese died in the arms of a loving neighbor and friend, a woman who risked her own life to go to the aid of her friend.
Therein lies the heart of this extremely famous story. Fifty years later, does the might of the Times, and professional courtesy, mean that we still can’t be told?