Press Box

No JonBenet Apologies Necessary

The press needn’t regret its coverage of the case.

JonBenet Ramsey

This morning finds at least four press-hounds baying their apologies to the Ramseys on behalf of their colleagues or society at large. They beg the family’s forgiveness for having ever suspected them of killing JonBenet.

“What apology could possibly be worthy of the Ramseys’ forgiveness?” writes Ronnie Polaneczky in the Philadelphia Daily News. “The era of cable-news sensationalism has given us what’s becoming a series of victims of society’s judgment.”

“There’s just one more story to be written by the media in the long, sordid coverage of the 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey,” writes San Francisco Chronicle  columnist C.W. Nevius in his Chronicle blog. “We’re sorry.”

In a piece titled “News as Voyeurism—All In a Day’s Work,” Rocky Mountain News  columnist Mike Littwin asks, “How do you undo a public lynching?”

“It’s Time to Apologize to the Ramseys,” reads the headline on Andrew Cohen’s column.

If you’re down on your knees for me, gentlemen, please stand up. We have nothing to apologize for. The riotous coverage of the endless murder investigation won’t be recorded as journalism’s finest hour, but the story deserved the punishing scrutiny the press gave it.

In the case of the JonBenet murder, Boulder, Colo., police and prosecutors botched the investigation from the get-go. Their incompetence gave the story additional legs.

And as the obituary page proves each morning, the murders of the wealthy and privileged—and their offspring—automatically receive more play than the tragic deaths of the poor and working class. Newspapers everywhere lavish attention on the murders of young innocents, no matter what demographic or racial persuasion they hail from.

Did the press treat the Ramsey family unfairly by airing official suspicions, which is at the heart of the apologies cited above? According to the JonBenet case timeline in the Denver Post, the Ramseys gave that suspicion greater play by announcing through a spokesman, two months after the murder, that they knew they were “at the top of the list of possible suspects.” Were journalists supposed to ignore this news? Likewise, when the district attorney said the Ramseys were under an “umbrella of suspicion” three-plus months after the murder, were reporters supposed to suppress his statement? The “umbrella of suspicion” was still wide open as recently as May 2000, according to CNN.

If “we” owe the Ramsey family apologies because John M. Karr has voiced his shaky confession for the killing, what does John Ramsey owe their former housekeeper, Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, and Boulder reporter Robert Christian Wolf? Both sued Patsy and John Ramsey for libel, claiming that the Ramseys’$2 2000book, The Death of Innocence: The Untold Story of JonBenet’s Murder and How Its Exploitation Compromised the Pursuit of Truth,named them as suspects in the killing.

Obviously, my defense of press coverage of the JonBenet story isn’t absolute. I’m no fan of how the supermarket tabloids covered the story. The Star ran a May 25, 1999, cover story headlined “JonBenet Was Killed by Brother Burke” and illustrated it with a picture of the two siblings together. The tabloid retracted the story three weeks later and settled out of court after the Ramseys sued for libel. A similar lawsuit by the Ramseys against the Globe tabloid was also settled. Nor am I enamored of the 24-hours-a-day coverage the cable news channels give white-girl-murder cases, inflating idle speculation into rock-solid evidence.

But my reading of the mainstream coverage of the case is this: When the press behaved in an amateurish fashion, it was generally because they were relying on amateurish investigation by the police and prosecutor. As the press came to realize authorities were doofuses, over their heads and out of control, coverage became sharper and more skeptical.

Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi is another journalist holding his Ramsey apologies in reserve. He writes today that the JonBenet murder became a “media sensation” because her parents acted so “weird” at every turn in the investigation, an opinion the time line cited above confirms. Even with Karr in custody, Harsanyi still express his doubts about the couple.

Harsanyi writes, “There are few people I know who didn’t believe that JonBenét’s parents had a hand in this murder.”


Does being a journalist mean never having to say you’re sorry? Or are we too quick to apologize? Will the writers who insist today that we apologize to the Ramseys end up apologizing to us tomorrow if Karr’s bizarre confession turns out to be false? Send your apologies and speculations to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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