Kitty Genovese never dies: With apologies, we'll be taking a sacred name in vain.
The name belongs to Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was viciously murdered, then raped, in a famous incident way back in 1964.
On March 28, the man who murdered this young woman died, at the age of 81, in a maximum security prison.
He had been in prison for 52 years, with one brief breakout during which he raped someone else. In this morning's New York Times, the Times presents a 1700-word obituary of this man, who the paper describes as a psychopath.
In the course of its long, astounding report, we think the Times has placed its own pathology on full, undisguised display.
We think the New York Times' lengthy report is extremely instructive. With apologies to the memory of Genovese, we'll now explain why we say that.
The strangeness of the Times report starts in its opening paragraph. Headline included, Robert McFadden writes this:
MCFADDEN (4/5/16): Winston Moseley, Unsparing Killer of Kitty Genovese, Dies in Prison at 81What makes that opening passage so strange? McFadden is repeating an inaccurate account of this famous case—an inaccurate account which was created on the front page of the New York Times.
Winston Moseley, who stalked, raped and killed Kitty Genovese in a prolonged knife attack in New York in 1964 while neighbors failed to act on her desperate cries for help—a nightmarish tableau that came to symbolize urban apathy in America—died on March 28, in prison. He was 81.
Even more strangely, McFadden knows this familiar account is inaccurate. In paragraph 8, he starts to let us know that. Once again, we apologize:
MCFADDEN: Ghastly as the details of Mr. Moseley's attack were—selecting Ms. Genovese at random, stabbing her at least 14 times as she screamed and pleaded for help, retreating into the shadows as lights went on in apartments overhead, returning to rape and finally kill her—they by themselves might not have placed the case, or the Moseley name, into the annals of crime.Two weeks after this vicious event, the Times published the front-page account which made it a national story.
It was one of 636 murders in the city that year. The New York Times ran four paragraphs on it.
Two weeks later, The Times published a more extensive, though flawed, front-page account quoting the police and Ms. Genovese's neighbors. ''For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens,'' it began.
McFadden repeated the gist of that famous account right in his opening paragraph. In the highlighted passage from paragraph 8, he has now acknowledged that the Times' report was "flawed."
That's still a mammoth understatement. If you read all the way to paragraph 11, you're finally told the truth about the incident itself, and about what the New York Times so disgracefully did:
MCFADDEN: While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling. There were two attacks, not three. And afterward, two people did call the police. A 70-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Ms. Genovese died on the way to a hospital.In fact, that front-page report in the Times wasn't "flawed." After eleven long paragraphs, we're finally permitted to know the truth—the front-page report in the New York Times was actually "grossly exaggerated."
But the account of 38 witnesses heartlessly ignoring a murderous attack was widely disseminated and took on a life of its own, shocking the national conscience and starting an avalanche of academic studies, investigations, films, books, even a theatrical production and a musical. The soul-searching went on for decades, long after the original errors were debunked, evolving into more parable than fact but continuing to reinforce images of urban Americans as too callous or fearful to call for help, even with a life at stake.
Even that belated admission is an understatement. As she lay dying, the eternally sacred Genovese was actually being held in a neighbor's arms.
At a time of growing urban unrest, the New York Times had invented an ugly, inaccurate front-page parable, designed to instruct a needy nation. They told us the story we needed to hear, adopting the role of the gods.
McFadden goes on at length after that, filling us in on Moseley's various doings. Even we had never heard this horrible part of the tale:
MCFADDEN: After Mr. Moseley earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Niagara University in 1977, The Times published an Op-Ed article by him, in which he expressed his regret for killing Ms. Genovese and said he was a changed man, ''determined to do constructive, not destructive things.''Leave it to the New York Times, where the upper-class cluelessness never stops. So you'll know, those were the days of urban chic, when judgments of the type described helped convince people all over the nation that "the liberal elites" were batshit crazy out of their freaking minds.
Politically, we still live in the backwash of those events.
In his endless memoir of this famous murder, McFadden cites a phrase that grew out of the story the New York Times invented. "Psychologists and criminologists called the reluctance of witnesses to involve themselves...the 'Kitty Genovese syndrome,' " McFadden casually writes.
With apologies, we'll suggest the term "Kitty Genovese syndrome" might be better applied to a different type of pathology—the pathology in which our big newspapers invent the types of stories they like, then never stop repeating those stories, down through the annals of time.
Over the past several decades, the New York Times has invented, and kept repeating, a long set of such instructive/destructive stories:
The paper invented the instructive story about the Whitewater pseudo-scandals.
Along with the Washington Post, the paper invented the instructive story about the way Candidate Gore was the world's biggest liar, just like his boss, Bill Clinton.
The paper helped invent the instructive story about the way American schools just keep getting worse and worse, as proven by those falling test scores, which are actually rising.
The paper helped invent the crazy story Paul Krugman keeps discussing, the story about how honest and serious that lovely Paul Ryan is.
Borrowing from McFadden's language, those bogus accounts have also all "taken on lives on their own." They've been extremely destructive.
We've often given readers a bit of advice. Please reject the famous old story at the heart of the western understanding, in which we humans praise ourselves as "the rational animal."
The rational animal? That isn't us! This morning, McFadden showed us again who we actually are. Knowing a famous old story was bogus, he repeated the famous old story right in his opening paragraph!
In paragraph 8, he began to back-pedal, saying the story was "flawed." In paragraph 11, he finally told us, still understating, that it was "grossly exaggerated."
The Times invented the Genovese story right on its front page. An amazing fifty-two years later, there the Times was, in paragraph 1, telling the story again!
We humans are not the rational animal. We're often strangely pathological, in a way the New York Times repeatedly puts on display.
Katherine Boo warned us about the Times. We liberals sat dumbly and stared.
Not mentioned in today's endless report: The inaccurate story about that murder was further broadcast in a 1964 book, Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case.
The book was written by A. M. Rosenthal, who rose to become a major figure at the Times.
His son, Andrew Rosenthal, is now leaving his post as overwrought editorial page editor. He's the person who invented the apparently inaccurate story about the way President Bush was baffled by that supermarket scanner!
It's all part of the ongoing culture at the less than obsessively rational Times. By way of contrast, God bless the woman who went downstairs and held Genovese in her arms.