CAN WE TALK: Kitty Genovese died for George Zimmerman’s sins!

FRIDAY, JULY 12, 2013

Part 5—Two famous tales of the Times: Way back in 1964, the New York Times made up a story.

This story involved a victim’s cries for help and witnesses’ calls to police.

As the story was told in the Times, parts of the story were true, but large parts of the story were false. In part for that reason, the story became extremely famous.

It was very much a tale of the times. In large part, that explains why the story was invented and why it became so famous.

This story concerned the stabbing death of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old New York City woman. In the following passage, the leading authority on this matter describes the basic events:
WIKIPEDIA: Catherine Susan "Kitty" Genovese (July 7, 1935-March 13, 1964) was a New York City woman who was stabbed to death near her home in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of the borough of Queens in New York City, on March 13, 1964.

The circumstances of her murder and the lack of reaction of numerous neighbors were reported by a newspaper article published two weeks later; the common portrayal of neighbors being fully aware but completely unresponsive has since been criticized as inaccurate. Nonetheless, it prompted investigation into the social psychological phenomenon that has become known as the bystander effect or "Genovese syndrome” and especially diffusion of responsibility.
The incident became a very high-profile national event, the focus of years of discussion. We were in high school in California at the time of the killing. The case was quite famous there.

In large part, that fame occurred because of the story the New York Times made up. The leading authority on this case describes that matter thusly:
WIKIPEDIA: Many saw the story of Genovese's murder as emblematic of the callousness or apathy with which life in big cities, and New York in particular, is often associated. Much of this framing of the event came in reaction to an investigative article in The New York Times written by Martin Gansberg and published on March 27, two weeks after the murder. The article bore the headline "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police." The public view of the story crystallized around a quote from the article by an unidentified neighbor who saw part of the attack but deliberated, before finally getting another neighbor to call the police, saying, "I didn't want to get involved."


While Genovese's neighbors were vilified by the articles, "thirty-eight onlookers who did nothing" is a misconception. The New York Times article begins:

“For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

The lead is dramatic but factually inaccurate. A 2007 study found many of the purported facts about the murder to be unfounded. The study found "no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive".
The lead was dramatic but factually inaccurate! So, therefore, was that thrilling headline: "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police."

Why in the world did the New York Times invent this dramatic tale? Presumably, because the tale, as invented, captured a growing national concern—the sense that we were becoming an urbanized, atomized people whose members didn’t know their neighbors, among whom nobody cared.

Question: Did some “unidentified neighbor” really provide the iconic quote, "I didn't want to get involved?” Or did the Times invent that quote, which was so perfectly suited to drive the preferred story-line?

Like you, we have no idea. The Times invented all kinds of facts. It may have invented that statement as well.

At any rate, the New York Times invented a story which captured a growing concern in a simplistic fashion. We humans tend to love such stories. In this passage, the leading authority uses a well-known term used to describe such tales:
WIKIPEDIA: In September 2007, the American Psychologist published an examination of the factual basis of coverage of the Kitty Genovese murder in psychology textbooks. The three authors concluded that the story is more parable than fact, largely because of inaccurate newspaper coverage at the time of the incident.

According to the authors, "despite this absence of evidence, the story continues to inhabit our introductory social psychology textbooks (and thus the minds of future social psychologists)." One interpretation of the parable is that the drama and ease of teaching the exaggerated story makes it easier for professors to capture student attention and interest.
The fact that three author reached a conclusion doesn’t make it correct. In this case, though, it’s hard to deny that the New York Times’ invented story served as a national parable. And yes, the authors used that word. This is the title of their piece: “The Kitty Genovese Murder and the social psychology of helping: the parable of the 38 witnesses.”

For the record, a lot of good may have resulted from the story the Times made up. According to the leading authority, “media attention to the Genovese murder led to reform of the NYPD's telephone reporting system; the system in place at the time of the assault was often hostile to callers, inefficient and directed individuals to the incorrect department.”

More broadly, the parable which emerged from the Times led to discussions all over the nation about the need “to get involved.” I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper, many people said.

This leads to another famous story almost fifty years later.

The current story involved the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Miami youth. As it has been told in the press, large parts of the story have been true. But other parts of the story have been either false or unfounded.

The New York Times invented all sorts of facts back then. All sorts of facts have been invented concerning the current story. Just last night, to cite one example, we saw Chris Hayes say this:
HAYES (7/11/13): There are all these actions that George Zimmerman takes beforehand—the fact that he, what he says to the non-emergency call line, the fact that he ignores repeated requests to not follow...
Say what? “The fact that he ignores repeated requests to not follow?” As far as we know, it has never been shown that Zimmerman ignored even the one statement by the dispatcher, “We don’t need you to do that.”

As far as we know, it has never been shown that Zimmerman ignored even that. But in all the punditry we have watched about this very high-profile case, we don't think we've ever seen anyone say what Hayes said last night. We've never seen anyone that Zimmerman ignored repeated requests not to follow.

Hayes broke new ground in misstatement last night. No doubt it was for a good cause!

As was the case in 1964, major parts of the current story have been invented. For the most part, these fabrications haven’t come from the New York Times, as was the case back then.

Among media entities, MSNBC played the leading role in inventing fake facts about the current case. The channel engaged in this gross misconduct in a disgraceful, months-long performance last year.

Still, large parts of the current story are patently false or unfounded. You can hear these bogus claims every night. Why has this occurred?

Simple story: In many ways, the “press corps” has invented a second parable, designed to fit our time. This time, the parable explores a new, different national concern.

This time, the press corps’ parable has been designed to plumb the topic of race. This Monday, the New York Times published a weak attempt to discuss the Zimmerman trial in terms of that general concern.

Lizette Alvarez wrote this front-page analysis piece about the killing of Martin. On line, the headline says this: “Zimmerman Case Has Race as a Backdrop, but You Won’t Hear It in Court.”

For our money, Alvarez made a weak attempt to discuss the racial aspects of the Zimmerman trial. This was her opening statement: “From the very beginning, there was no more powerful theme in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin than the issue of race.”

We think her effort was very weak, often incoherent. But it helps us understand why so many parts of the current story have been invented or disappeared.

Back in 1964, the New York Times invented facts to address the (legitimate) fear that no one wanted to get involved. In 2012 and 2013, the press corps has invented and disappeared lots of facts to address a set of (legitimate) concerns about race.

In 1964, the New York Times was full of concern about social anomie. This made them feel that they could make up a bunch of facts, or it blinded them to the fact that they were doing so.

In 2012, white liberals like to pretend that they are full of concern about racial injustice. This makes journalists feel they can make up facts, or it blinds them to the fact that they are doing so.

We’d have to say there’s an irony here. This is what it is:

In 1964, no one wanted to get involved, or so the great New York Times said. In 2011, someone did get involved, although that part of the current story has largely been disappeared.

It would have damaged the parable. And so it had to go.

Reuters is an international news agency based in London. Perhaps for that reason, it was willing to report a major part of the background to the current story, which has instead become a parable in the American press.

In April 2012, Reuters published a lengthy, detailed report about some background to the Zimmerman case. Early in his lengthy report, Chris Francescani provided this overview:
FRANCESCANI (4/25/12): On February 26, George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in what Zimmerman says was self-defense. The furor that ensued has consumed the country and prompted a re-examination of guns, race and self-defense laws enacted in nearly half the United States.

During the time Zimmerman was in hiding, his detractors defined him as a vigilante who had decided Martin was suspicious merely because he was black. After Zimmerman was finally arrested on a charge of second-degree murder more than six weeks after the shooting, prosecutors portrayed him as a violent and angry man who disregarded authority by pursuing the 17-year-old.

But a more nuanced portrait of Zimmerman has emerged from a Reuters investigation into Zimmerman's past and a series of incidents in the community in the months preceding the Martin shooting.

Based on extensive interviews with relatives, friends, neighbors, schoolmates and co-workers of Zimmerman in two states, law enforcement officials, and reviews of court documents and police reports, the story sheds new light on the man at the center of one of the most controversial homicide cases in America.
“A more nuanced portrait has emerged,” Reuters said. But as everyone in our “press corps” knows, parable can’t survive nuance.

Parable tends to get blown away by a full set of real facts.

In that detailed Reuters report, a foreign news service described the problems with crime where Zimmerman lived. It also described, in some detail, the way Zimmerman “got involved.”

In some detail, Reuters reported the home invasion suffered by Olivia Bertalan in August 2011. It also reported her gratitude for the help Zimmerman gave her.

Parable can’t survive that.

Reuters reported the subsequent burglaries in Zimmerman’s community. Francescani reported the way Zimmerman’s phone calls to police got one of the burglars arrested in early February 2012.

In a striking refusal to serve, the New York Times has never attempted to report this background material. To cite the most striking example, Bertalan’s name never appeared in the New York Times until yesterday morning, when her testimony in the current case earned her four brief paragraphs at the end of that day’s news report.

Until that brief account appeared, New York Times readers had never been told about that home invasion. A large part of the background story had thus gone unreported.

Reuters, a foreign news service, reported this background story last year. The New York Times never did. Almost surely, parable explains why that is.

Let’s be clear. Nothing in that Reuters piece tells you whether Zimmerman committed a crime when he shot Trayvon Martin. Was Zimmerman acting in self-defense? That is a separate question.

But parables are created by material which is withheld, as well as by the false facts people like Hayes make up.

Last night, Hayes invented a fact, a bogus fact which slandered Zimmerman even further. Hayes' misstatement was part of a parable. The New York Times helped shape the same tale through all the work it withheld.

Young men like Hayes encourage viewers to like them when they conduct themselves in tis manner. Hayes is on the way up. He is willing to get to the top by making up a bogus fact which advances the hatred against a despised figure.

Similarly, the New York Times helped create a new parable when it withheld the information which would have created a fuller picture of Zimmerman. Readers weren't told what Zimmerman did to help a terrified young woman.

Long ago, the New York Times invented a story—a story designed to suit the times. The great paper invented a boatload of facts, helping us imagine that no one wanted to get involved.

Starting last year, a new tale was invented. This time, a different societal concern was being serviced. But how ironic:

In this new parable, the person who did get involved was widely described as a vigilante! To help that pleasing story slide down, many fake facts were devised.

Two stories diverged in a yellow wood. In each case, some facts were invented, other real facts were withheld.

In each case, a parable was formed. Gullible readers swallowed them whole, trusting the great New York Times.

Even worse than the Times: That leading authority describes other writing about the Genovese killing.

Read what follows and weep. This is your brain on witch trial:
WIKIPEDIA: Science-fiction author and cultural provocateur Harlan Ellison, in articles published in 1970 and 1971 in the Los Angeles Free Press and in Rolling Stone, referred to the witnesses as "thirty-six motherfuckers" and stating that they "stood by and watched" Genovese "get knifed to death right in front of them, and wouldn't make a move" and that "thirty-eight people watched" Genovese "get knifed to death in a New York street". In an article in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (June 1988), later reprinted in his book Harlan Ellison's Watching, Ellison referred to the murder as "witnessed by thirty-eight neighbors," citing reports he claimed to have read that one man turned up his radio so that he would not hear Genovese's screams. Ellison says that the reports attributed the "get involved" quote to nearly all of the thirty-eight who supposedly witnessed the attack.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen quite a few Harlan Ellisons pimping their shit on TV.

This time around, there’s a difference. In 1964, it was Genovese’s neighbors who got slandered in these ridiculous ways. Generally, they weren’t named. No one stood to be harmed, except for the IQ points which were being stolen from readers.

This time it’s different. This time, an actual person is actually facing actual life in person. But so what? Ellison types are on cable each night, reciting untrue claims.

We liberals think this is OK because we know Zimmerman is a bad person. This is the way we humans always behave when our witch trials start.


  1. Thank you for this.

    These narratives that drive our national discourse are more pernicious than any Madison Ave snake oil.

    They have essentially turned us into a nation of relativists, facts don't matter, context doesn't matter, objectivity in a court room doesn't matter, outright misinformation doesn't matter if the story is for a good cause and the end justifies the means.

    What's even more nauseating is the way it has turned our media into a bunch of Walter Mitty egotists, endlessly casting themselves as Woodward and Bernstein, civil rights pioneers, and Jean Paul Satre, in one sitting.

  2. ..."and we know that vile Zimmerman should do time" because it is obvious that he is guilty of a crime or because it is obvious that Florida law is crooked? Just curious where the public sentiment lies on that these days.

  3. Thank you for these wonderful reports and analyses.

  4. I know after Lawrence O'Donnell played the tape over and over I heard the word "coon." And because I have listened to all the 911 tapes, I am prepared to testify, if called, that the preson who said "coon" is not the one screaming "Help."

    Of course, in between Kitty Genovese and George Zimmerman
    we have Tawanna Brawley. But let's not go there.

    1. "because I have listened to all the 911 tapes, I am prepared to testify, if called"

      Going out on a limb here, but I'm gonna go ahead and say your particular "expertise" is not going to be requested, by anyone. Ever.

  5. The grand irony of this whole loathsome mess is that, if anyone is being "profiled," it's Zimmerman himself.

    He MUST be a racist mofo. He's white and he shot a black kid. Racism can be the ONLY real possible motive because everyone knows what southern whites are like.

    Anyone who claims to care about "facts" that don't fit the above narrative is a hater who refuses to confront his or her own covert racism.

    Thank you, all you love-filled disciples of Dr. King. How could anyone ever think of making social progress without you?

    1. "Loathsome mess" is dead-on.

      The whole country has turned into a vicious pack of psycho-psychoanalysts.

    2. Cecelia,

      I am not sure that the 10% (guessing at that number) of the country that is active on the internet calling other parts of the country 'racists' is really representative of the 'whole country'. It is one of the top issues on this blog, and on a liberal discussion board that I frequent, but in my own life it has not been a topic of conversation in the real world. I don't think we are as vicious as talk radio, cable tv and the blogospher would make us out to be, or would indicate.

    3. Kind of threw a wrench in the works when they found out he was Hispanic but they worked around it alright.

  6. Good point, Anon 1206. I really haven't heard much talk about the case in real life either, just on the Internet, TV, radio, and local paper.

    I must tell you than in those venues it has been vile on both sides.

  7. This blogger is like a permanent root canal operation with the monomania about Al Gore and endless gnawing on "liberals" for falling short of his standards. He has occasional pro forma words of disapproval for O'Reilly, Hannity et al - but pure, constant venom for "liberals" with crass mentions of how money he thinks they make.

    This case makes it clear that he should emulate Pat Caddell type "liberals" and come out of the ideological closet.