50 Years Later, We Know That the NYT Distorted the Kitty Genovese Story to Drive an Agenda

On Friday, March 13, 1964, in Kew Gardens, Queens, Winston Moseley murdered Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year-old bar manager, in Queens. In a March 10, 2014 column (HT Instapundit) in the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann reviewed two recently published books on the murder and its aftermath, one by Catherine Pelonero and the other by Kevin Cook.

Lemann writes that the murder "became an American obsession ... (due) to the influence of one man, A. M. Rosenthal, of the New York Times." It's worth reading the whole article to see how one newspaper five decades ago was able to shape a national narrative with no resistance. Excerpts pointing to how the Times manipulated the circumstances to cast aspersions on ordinary citizens follow the jump:


A CALL FOR HELP
What the Kitty Genovese story really means.

NYTgenoveseHeadline1964

... In 1964, Rosenthal was forty-one years old and relatively new on the job as the newspaper’s metropolitan editor, an important step in his ascent to a seventeen-year reign over the Times’ newsroom. Ten days after Genovese was killed, he went downtown to have lunch with New York City’s police commissioner, Michael Murphy. Murphy spent most of the lunch talking about how worried he was that the civil-rights movement, which was at its peak, would set off racial violence in New York, but toward the end Rosenthal asked him about a curious case, then being covered in the tabloids, in which two men had confessed to the same murder. He learned that one of the competing confessors, Winston Moseley, had definitely murdered a woman in Kew Gardens, Kitty Genovese. That killing had been reported at the time, including in a four-paragraph squib buried deep within the Times, but Murphy said that what had struck him about it was not the crime itself but the behavior of thirty-eight eyewitnesses. Over a grisly half hour of stabbing and screaming, Murphy said, none of them had called the police. Rosenthal assigned a reporter named Martin Gansberg to pursue the story from that angle. On March 27th, the Times ran a front-page story under a four-column headline:

37 WHO SAW MURDER DIDN’T CALL THE POLICE
Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector

The following day, the Times ran a reaction story in which a procession of experts offered explanations of what had happened, or said that it was inexplicable. From then on, the story—as they wouldn’t have said in 1964—went viral.

... The tabloids had treated it simply as a sensational tale of urban violence. The Times made sure that its apathetic-witness angle would land by prominently displaying the story on its front page. The murder now stood for a profoundly disturbing sociological trend. The key line in Gansberg’s story came from one of the witnesses (none of whom were named), who said, “I didn’t want to get involved.”

... The Times’ version of the Genovese story represents a version of reality that was molded to conform to a theory. The March 27th story began “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. . . . Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”

... It’s now clear that this version of events is wrong, thanks to a number of Genovese revisionists who have emerged over the years. They include Jim Rasenberger, a journalist who has written a couple of influential articles about the case, notably one in the Times, in 2004; and Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins, the authors of a 2007 article in American Psychologist (which quotes from, and debunks, the textbook rendering). The essential facts are these. Winston Moseley had been out in his car, looking for a victim, when he came across Genovese driving home from work. He followed her. She parked at the Kew Gardens train station, adjacent to her apartment. Moseley parked, too, and attacked her with a hunting knife. She screamed, and a man named Robert Mozer opened his window and shouted, “Leave that girl alone!” Moseley ran away. Genovese, wounded but not mortally, staggered to the back of her apartment building and went inside a vestibule. Moseley returned, found her, and attacked again, stabbing her and assaulting her sexually. He fled again before she died.

The Times story was inaccurate in a number of significant ways. There were two attacks, not three. Only a handful of people saw the first clearly and only one saw the second, because it took place indoors, within the vestibule. The reason there were two attacks was that Robert Mozer, far from being a “silent witness,” yelled at Moseley when he heard Genovese’s screams and drove him away. Two people called the police. When the ambulance arrived at the scene—precisely because neighbors had called for help—Genovese, still alive, lay in the arms of a neighbor named Sophia Farrar, who had courageously left her apartment to go to the crime scene, even though she had no way of knowing that the murderer had fled.

Other than that, the Times stories were completely accurate. (/sarcasm)

Gansberg's original post-murder report is here, reprinted at another site, where the poster writes: "The above reported events are true and took place on March 14, 1964." Uh, no.

Those tempted to let Rosenthal off the hook because of what Police Commissioner Murphy said are basically arguing that it was okay for Rosenthal and Times reporter Gansberg to blindly accept what an authority told them without doing enough work back at the scene of the crime to satisfy themselves that it was true. It clearly wasn't.

The inclination to capitalize on a tragedy to shape an agenda-driven narrative is no less strong and arguably more brazen and widespread in the establishment press today than it was at the Times 50 years ago (see Zimmerman, George; Giffords, Gabby; Sandy Hook). The difference today is that there is at least an opportunity for near-immediate pushback. How effective that pushback is in neutralizing that narrative is an open question.

Those in new media dedicated to the truth need to figure out how to make the pushback more influential, how to get it to the point where it nips journalistic malfeasance in the bud, and how to deliver consequences to those caught perpetrating maipulation and deception.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.