The John Mark Karr story was one of the topics in CNN’s Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz this morning. Transcript follows…
HOWARD KURTZ: Welcome back. It began with a strange character averted from the shadows of Thailand to say he had killed JonBenet Ramsey a decade ago. It ended — well, sort of ended — this week with proof that John Mark Karr’s bizarre claim was bogus. But, not before a full blown media frenzy despite all the conflicting evidence.
For “The Today Show” it was Rita Cosby interviewing Karr’s one time babysitter who spoke from the shadows.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: John Mark Karr. He was a very odd man. I don’t want to say he was creepy, but he did give off a strange vibe.
KURTZ: “Good Morning America” weighed in with Karr’s first wife, who married him when she was 13-years-old.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You knew your parents weren’t happy. You knew they didn’t like him. What did he say to you to make you believe in him?
QUIENTANA RAY: That he loved me. I believed that he loved me.
KURTZ: For the CBS “Early Show”, it was, well, just some woman who happened to be on the plane as Karr was being flown from Bangkok back to the US.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, I was informed about it when I was checking in. And I became very scared because, to think that a murder suspect was going to be on the same flight as me freaked me out.
KURTZ: CNN interviewed the author of “How to Spot a Liar.” Fox News found a woman who has a high school yearbook with Karr’s signature. Many suspected it was a hoax. And, this week they were proven right.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Prosecutors in the JonBenet Ramsey case say their only suspect, John Mark Karr, will not be charged in her death.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well after all the hype, and all the speculation, the DNA just didn’t match.
KURTZ: Joining me now in New York Steve Friedman, Vice President of Morning Broadcasts at CBS news. And, here in Washington, Mark Jurkowitz, Associate director of The Project for Excellence in Journalism, and a former media critic for “The Boston Phoenix” and “The Boston Globe.” Steve Friedman, now that we know this was a hoax and a sham, I’m sure you agree that the media coverage was totally out of control.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: No I won’t agree with that. In the old days Howie, when we started out, there was the beginning, middle, and end to the news cycle. Now, there’s just a beginning. So, you have to start and keep going until the story plays out. You have the 24 cables — the 24 hour cables — you have the internet. And, all of our reports, and many other people’s reports, even the much-maligned cable networks took a scant eye at this fellow from the beginning. Dan Abrams even said, “I don’t know about this.”
KURTZ: Yes he did. But, let’s look at the volume of the coverage.
I mean, based on nothing more than the word of a wacko, this was the lead story many days on the morning shows, a couple nights on the evening newscasts, and hours and hours on cable. How could that be justified?
FRIEDMAN: Well, you justify — well, first of all — we over-cover everything. I mean, you know, when a story breaks we’re always on it, we’re always on it. That’s the nature of the beast right now.
KURTZ: But, here was a ten year old case.
FRIEDMAN: And, Americans, and everybody else likes closure. It’s everyone’s nightmare. A girl taken out of her bed and killed. So, you know, there was a lot of interest in this case. As, I always tell you when I come on Howie, television’s the greatest democracy in the world.
People vote with their clickers. And, they watch this stuff. And, we present what we know when we know it.
KURTZ: Mark Jurkowitz, what accounts for television allowing itself to be hijacked by this story?
MARK JURKOWITZ: Because I think there was the possibility that being one of these ongoing sagas that television loves so much. I mean frankly it’s a staple of cable news, although the networks gave this tremendous coverage as well. Tremendous coverage. It was the biggest story of the week that it really broke on. So, both the serious and non-serious media treated this very, very seriously. Yes, there was some skepticism over this story. How could there not be? The average man on the street had serious qualms about it. On the other hand, there was a very intense — I mean everybody in America now knows which three drinks he had on the plane flight back from Thailand.
KURTZ: It was pretty intense. Steve Friedman, I want to play for you some comments by CBS correspondent Erin Moriarty in the first days when this story broke on your own “Early Show.”
ERIN MORIARTY: And, we have to say at this point — I think we have to stop speculating. Everyone is asking me for my gut on this. So is this John Karr the killer or not? And, I’m saying forget the gut. Gut is what causes investigation to go awry in the first place. Let’s wait until there’s enough evidence to decide guilt or innocence.
KURTZ: Sounds like good advice to me…
FRIEDMAN: Well, it’s good advice. And, it was on our show very early on. But, you’ve got to understand that the public every morning — as far as early television — woke up and said, “I wonder if there are any developments in the JonBenet case.” And, our job is to present people what they’re talking about. So, when they leave they know what’s happening. I will tell you this. You can make a case that we over-cover the Mid-East War. I mean, it was wall to wall, the same story over and over again. There was too much speculation…
KURTZ: Are you seriously comparing the global impact of the war between Israel and Hezbollah and a false lead in a ten year old murder case?
FRIEDMAN: No, but the same aspect of the story is, you’ve got to cover it as it happens — as it unfolds. I mean you saw on cable every movement of every little troop of the Mid-East War. And, they weren’t even able to tell you where they were. There is excess in television.
There’s no question about it. But, you know what, the idea that we can stop and just stop on a story and just say, “Oh, we’re not going to do it anymore” before we know the outcome is na�ve and is not in this world of television these days.
JURKOWITZ: I’m not sure the outcome is relevant. I think the bigger question is — let’s take it back another step. Let’s say he was guilty. I think there’s still a fundamental issue about whether the story was dramatically over-covered. And, what the definition of news is.
KURTZ: Well, Steve mentioned the Middle East War. And, there has also been Iraq. And, there was the British terror plot. In some way — even though this is a very sad murder case — was this kind of a respite from that heavy news diet?
JURKOWITZ: I completely agree with you. First of all, we’ve had big geo-political events that are beyond our control. Nuclear deadline with Iran, the Iraq casualties, and then an intense war between Israel and Hezbollah, very dangerous. We got saturation coverage of. That conveniently for the news cycle may be kind of wound down just as JonBenet was breaking. I don’t want to use the term relief when it’s such a gruesome case. But, I think there was a sort of a sense of return to normalcy. The kind of thing when we turned on our cable and
our television and saw people debating innocence or guilt. I think on
some level everybody takes a sigh of relief and says, “Our world is back to normal.” Remember, September 10, 2001, biggest story in America, Gary Condit.
KURTZ: And, Chandra Levy, yes. Steve Friedman, I understand what you’re saying. You know, people vote with their clickers. And, morning television has to try to get people in the tent. Is there bit of a pack mentality here? In other words, let’s say that after a couple of days you decided that “The Early Show” had done enough on this and let’s wait for some real developments. But, you see on your monitor that “Today”
is doing it and “Good Morning America” is doing it. And, is it difficult to get off the obsession du jour?
FRIEDMAN: Well, I think it is difficult to get off it. Let’s talk about unsolved mysteries. A movie coming out soon about the Black Dahlia. That happened 60 years ago in Los Angeles, a gruesome murder.
People want to know what happened. There’s Hollywood Land coming out about George Reeves’ suicide, who played Superman. As long as a story
— a murder — is unsolved, people do want closure. And, again, I go back to the idea that my God, this girl was taken from her bedroom on Christmas Eve in a rich area. If she’s not safe, who is?
KURTZ: But, unfortunately, Mark Jurkowitz, there are thousands of murders in this country every year, including murders of kids. It always seems that television centers on the pretty, white, young, middle-class girls or women.
JURKOWITZ: Well, that’s been an issue and obviously — maybe the Elizabeth Smart case in Utah was the biggest single case. In this case, the JonBenet Ramsey case was even a little more strange because she was this young 6-year-old beauty queen. We’ve all seen the video…
KURTZ: Endlessly, endlessly.
JURKOWITZ: And, I think frankly, on some level, that gave that story kind of a sheen of respectability because there was the other social angle about are we adultizing (ph) our children.
KURTZ: Now, just as the John Mark Karr story started to fade late this week, along comes another story. Warren Jeffs, leader of a polygamist sect. He’s arrested, charged with arranging the marriages of underage girls. A charge called rape by accomplice. And, let’s take a brief look at some of the coverage.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nevada police arrested Warren Steed Jeffs last night.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A notorious Utah polygamist who’s been on the run
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Warren Jeffs is in custody.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Polygamist Warren Jeffs is a church leader with 10,000 followers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What will happen to Warren Jeffs’ some 40 wives?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Warren Jeffs sounds like a creep to me.
KURTZ: Steve Friedman is this the new JonBenet story?
FRIEDMAN: Not really. But, you know Howie, he was on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. And, when they get a ten most wanted arrest, you know, we do cover it. But, he will not have the long range implications of JonBenet because it’s now in the courts and will go away. You’ll see the ex-wives or former wives or people from polygamy sects on here and there. But, it will — certainly on our show did not get the coverage that JonBenet did.
KURTZ: I see a lot of ex-wives and it seems like news organizations using this as a jumping off point of the strange subculture of polygamy and all that.
JURKOWITZ: I agree. But, I also agree with Steve. I don’t think this one is going to have the legs.
KURTZ: But, in the past few days it has gotten a lot of air-time.
JURKOWITZ: It’s a big story. And, I disagree for a different reason. I think this is a little too far outside the mainstream. If he’s right, than everybody can sort of theorize about their little girl being abducted or something like that. I’m not sure people can theorize about this — and imagine this wife found a way that’s going to bond them to the story.
KURTZ: On the other hand, there is an HBO drama about polygamy.