On One Hand

August 21, 2006


Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 12:21 pm

With my roommates I live in a rented house four blocks away from the house were JonBenet Ramsey was killed. Outside the Boulder Justice Center is a city of tents and news vans that resembles a local fair. The millions of media dollars being spent and earned on this event that happened over ten years ago, long before I lived in Boulder, is an eerie consideration. This news story is known around the world and its epicenter is literally down the street.

This spring I was in an upper-division undergraduate class called “Media and Public Opinion” with professor Michael Tracey, the journalism professor who is now all over the news because he had been emailing John Mark Karr for four years leading up to Karr’s recent publicity as a prime suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey case. The class was small and very intimate (less than 20 students), and focused largely on the Ramsey case, including information about our professor’s emails with Karr. Much of the information we studied then is now being publicized in an unfolding news story that takes up more than half of all broadcast time on cable network news. My understanding is that professor Tracey’s conversations with Karr are largely what led to Karr’s arrest, since the arrest and subsequent media frenzy occurred shortly after Tracey turned his emails over to local authorities.

I don’t claim any special knowledge about the case because I studied under Tracey for a semester, but I will tell you that I see incredible amount of irony in recent media events given what I do know about the case and Tracey’s involvement in it.

Tracey is a Media Studies professor, who basically researches the news and media to see how information found in mass media influences society. The Ramsey case was interesting to him because it is so widely known and spoken about, and everyone had an opinion about it even though very few had sufficient information to take a stand.

In the months following JonBenet’s murder, the media and public focused on the Ramseys as prime suspects of the murder case even though, in Tracey’s opinion, the evidence against the family was relatively weak. In the words of John Ramsey himself, of course the family should have been suspect, but in no way should they have been prime suspects. Common people mentioned how John Ramsey “looked like a pedophile” or how Patsy Ramsey “just seemed really guilty,” and cited these groundless facts as reasons they were sure of the family’s guilt. When new evidence arose that implied that JonBenet was killed by an intruder, newspapers and news channels bypassed the information as uninteresting, while any piece of evidence implicating the family was discussed publicly to the point of exhaustion. Everyone in the country seemed to know the family was guilty, while the facts about the case were not nearly so clear-cut. Tracey spoke of individuals he talked to who were so passionate about the case they were moved nearly to tears at the suggestion that the Ramseys were innocent.

The public’s interest in the case had a chilling effect on the Boulder Police Department, and according to Tracey, very suspicious individuals who should have been investigated were passed by because the police department was already focused on the Ramseys, feeling the public pressure to stay the course. The public’s opinion was so strong that political strings were pulled and a district attorney who was more neutral toward the Ramseys was forced to recuse himself from the case.

Tracey came across John Mark Karr as a matter of chance four years ago, and was in occasional email contact with him ever since. Tracey followed a number of individuals who had eerie infatuations with JonBenet and seemed far more implicable than the Ramseys were. I don’t think Tracey was intending to solve the case, but he did want to demonstrate that there were good leads that the Boulder Police Department failed to follow because they were so focused on the Ramseys.

Interestingly enough, now that Tracey’s emails have lead to a new arrest and a resurrection of the past media frenzy, the public mind is once again following an irrational and sensationalistic course, this time with Tracey himself near the center.

People have asked Tracey what he thinks about John Mark Karr. I think they should be asking him what he thinks about the fact that on Sunday, August 20, cable network news took 45 minutes to describe, ad nauseum, exactly what John Mark Karr ate on the plane on from Thailand to the United States, with details about “clinking champagne glasses” with a companion and “crushing a beer can with his bare hands.” America is once again drooling over minute details related to this case, and once again, people are forming deeply heartfelt opinions about Karr’s guilt or innocence. They claim to see into his mind, his motivations and his character with precious little information about him or his activities.

Now that news stations can clearly see how they messed the case up by focusing on the Ramsey’s in the 90’s, one might think they would take the lesson gracefully and refuse to make the same mistake with a new suspect. In one sense the news seems slightly more nuanced when referring to John Mark Karr’s possible involvement in the case, but stations are still, just as much as ever, focused on the end result. “John Benet Ramsey: A Murder Solved?” Is he innocent or guilty? “Is he capable of cold-blooded murder?” They’re jumping months ahead on that question, once again apparently failing to learn the lessons this unending case should have taught them.

It’s all very theatrical when it’s presented. A deep male voice, speaking with exaggerated intonation seeming to arise straight out of a murder mystery, narrates over bold black letters and the shadowed face of a pretty little girl killed ten years ago. The red letters beneath the main title are stamped across the screen in a font designed to resmble blotchy printing and evoking the image of blood. Smooth computer-animated graphics lunge across the screen to loud mystery music and then the broadcast jumps straight into vouyeristic details about the way the murder suspect looks when he smiles, painting a detailed picture of a character that would seem to better fit in a movie or crime scene investigative program. The news ticker says “John Mark Karr emailed CU Professor Michael Tracey for four years before his arrest. Karr ate fish and pate on the plane from Thailand.”

It’s not impossible for people to suspend judgment, or to base judgement only on relevant facts, but something about American culture or media creates a world in which people fail to do it. I think that in one sense our media’s insistence on Final Answers encourages people to form a tentative opinion right away rather than wait for events to unfold, and then that opinion strengthens into a firm conviction in a short time, before anyone can really know the truth. There might be something unique about the American character that rushes forward, unincumbered by doubt or skepticism. They did choose a president who is known for moving for conviction rather than reason. People take a stance and then, as a group, maintain that opinion as facts continue to filter out. And peoples’ opinions DO influence the media, probably even moreso than the media influences public opinion. News companies have ads to sell and ratings to gather and cannot afford to waste time releasing information that offends advertisers or puts viewers in an uncomfortable place. One such uncomfortable place is a suspension of judgment: if people don’t see the far-reaching answers right away, they change the channel and the other station’s ratings go up. The result is media that solve crimes themselves before the police ever get the chance to, and that is exactly what we see happening today.



  1. ‘Now that news stations can clearly see how they messed the case up by focusing on the Ramsey’s in the 90’s, one might think they would take the lesson gracefully and refuse to make the same mistake with a new suspect.’

    it’s nothing to do with this case in particular, or the people involved; it’s what happens with every big story [absurdly minute attention to some details and blatant disregard of others]. that’s ‘all’ it is, a really big story.

    xo, math+

    Comment by theyare45 — August 22, 2006 @ 3:37 am | Reply

  2. it sounds like tracey’s class was an interesting one – i appreciate your perspective on the media circus up in boulder.

    Comment by milehighguy — August 29, 2006 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

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