I missed the anniversary (I was busy), so why bring this up now? According to a couple of new books, published because the events happened in March 50 years ago, the conventional wisdom about what happened is wrong, and it's wrong because an ambitious reporter at the New York Times decided, two weeks after the murder was committed, to put a spin on the story. That spin has influenced the way we remember it, because it has become the official narrative. As Nicholas Lemann writes,
The fact that this crime, one of six hundred and thirty-six murders in New York City that year, became an American obsession—condemned by mayors and Presidents, puzzled over by academics and theologians, studied in freshman psychology courses, re-created in dozens of research experiments, even used four decades later to justify the Iraq war—can be attributed to the influence of one man, A. M. Rosenthal, of the New York Times.That, and why history is important, below the great orange divider doodle. This contains the description of an attack and a murder, so a trigger warning is necessary.
I think the best way into this as an issue comes from a song by the criminally underappreciated folksinger of the 1960s, Phil Ochs, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends (1967). Here is the lyric in which he describes the murder of Kitty Genovese:
Look outside the window, there's a woman being grabbedIn the tip jar, because the other verses distract from the narrative. Yes, this was the narrative.
They've dragged her to the bushes and now she's being stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
But monopoly is so much fun, i'd hate to blow the game
And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends.
It didn't show up in initial reports of the crime, which put the crime in the category of urban violence. Rosenthal, who had recently been promoted to metropolitan editor of the Times, was having lunch with New York's police commissioner, Michael Murphy, who 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.Of course, the killer was black and the victim was white, and this "Bad Samaritanism" could be presented as something that affected all of us in the troubled spring of 1964 (racial unrest and the Kennedy assassination, after all). Rosenthal went back to his office and assigned the story about the thirty-eight eyewitnesses to Martin Gansberg, who wrote a story headlined "37 WHO SAW MURDER DIDN’T CALL THE POLICE: Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector."
Here's how the event was presented:
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.But not exactly, according to Lemann:
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.Not the apathy the Times story talked about. OH, and incidentally? Kitty Genovese was gay.
So we have two new books: Kevin Cook, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America (2014) and Catherine Pelonero, Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences (2014). Lemann thinks they both strained to reach book length, and that
Both have decided to write in the true-crime style, which entails occasionally telling us what people may have thought or felt, or presenting as quoted dialogue unrecorded private scenes from long ago—an unfortunate decision, given how much the story turns on the trustworthiness of journalism.And that's what the remainder of this will be about: the trustworthiness of journalism.
Ms. Pelonero wrote an op-ed for the New York Daily News about the "revisionism" going on concerning the case, which she sees, as did Rosenthal, as the failure of a neighborhood to protect one of its residents. She doesn't believe, even now, that anyone called the police, so
Even so, the stigma on Kew Gardens is the only thing worth reconsidering. The witnesses weren’t chronically hard-hearted New Yorkers who couldn’t bother with intervening while a neighbor was murdered. They were normal people hobbled by a mix of fear, self-interest and apathy. We all fail at times, and how bravely we behave varies from day to day, moment to moment.This makes me wonder what else was at work in the investigation.
Lemann REALLY takes Rosenthal to task for his part in creating the established story. The first thing he did was to publish an article in the Magazine, "Study of the Sickness called Apathy," May 3, 1964. Fairly self-serving ("It was not until two weeks ago that Catherine Genovese, known as Kitty, returned in death to cry the city awake"), he ties her killing to apathy about race relations --the "impersonal awareness" white New Yorkers have of the filth and degradation in which people live in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant , the apathy of "Negroes" who call other people Uncle tom, who sneer at white liberals, and who indulge in casual anti-Semitism (Daniel Patrick Moynihan had antecedents) -- and blames it all on the big city, while admitting that economics and social class, race and religion contribute to it as well. National policy does this too:
People who believe that a free government should react to oppression of people in the mass by other governments are regarded as fanatics or romantics by the same diplomats who would react in horror to the oppression of one single individual in Washington. Between apathy, regarded as a moral disease, and national policy, the line is often hard to find.1964. Before the Civil Rights Act was passed and in the middle of the Cold War. During the primary season for the Republicans, after the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Rosenthal went on to write a book about this, which he wrote a new introduction for in 1999, and which was republished in a series called Classic Journalism in 2008 by Melville House.
That's how it was perpetuated. On its 20th anniversary, Maureen Dowd, writing in the N.Y./Region Section reported on the Catherine Genovese Memorial Conference on Bad Samaritanism at Fordham. She recounted the two weeks later story that galvanized the issue, and reported that now, apathy appears to have been too simple a formulation. And then this:
Most of the experts at the conference, which was held at Fordham's Lincoln Center campus, agreed that a case like the Genovese case could happen again at any time. They cited the gang rape of a woman in a bar in New Bedford, Mass., that was witnessed by a number of bystanders who did not intervene. A trial in that case is now going on.Never mind the impact on civil liberties.
''The conduct by the witnesses in the Genovese case was a natural, normal reaction,'' Mr. Merola said. ''It happens day in and day out. The average person is fearful, apprehensive and doesn't want to get involved. They want George to do it. The effect on the criminal-justice system every day of people who witness crimes and don't want to get involved is horrible.''
Legally, doing nothing is still not a crime in New York and most states.
Professor [Peter J.] O'Connor [of Fordham Law School] said the New York Legislature should pass two laws making it both a criminal and a civil offense for a bystander to fail to come to the aid of a victim of a crime.
But on the fortieth anniversary, Jim Rasenberger, in an article called "Kitty, 40 Years Later," started to correct the narrative. For one, he mentioned the fact that Kitty lived with a roommate, Mary Ann Zielonko, who he later in the article identifies as her partner. For another, he talked to Joseph De May Jr., a maritime lawyer, who
he decided, as a hobby, to create a nostalgic Web site devoted to Kew Gardens, where he'd lived for almost 30 years. If he was going to delve into his neighborhood's past, he reasoned, he'd certainly have to consider its most notorious episode.A blogger questioning a news report!!! Rasenberger asked Rosenthal about this, and, well, predictable.
In the end, Mr. De May's conclusion about the murder is that, while the behavior of the witnesses was hardly beyond reproach, the common conception of exactly what occurred that night is not in fact what occurred. What did occur, he argues, is far more complex and far less damning to the residents of Kew Gardens. - snip - Many witnesses claimed they thought it was a lovers' quarrel or a drunken argument spilling out of the Old Bailey. Mr. De May points out that a good number of the witnesses were elderly, and nearly all awoke from deep slumbers, their brains befogged, their windows shut to the cold. Furthermore, he raises the possibility that several witnesses did call the police after the first attack, but that their calls were ignored and never recorded.
''In a story that gets a lot of attention, there's always somebody who's saying, 'Well, that's not really what it's supposed to be,''' said Mr. Rosenthal, who is retired from The Times and now writes a column for The Daily News. There may have been minor inaccuracies, he allows, but none that alter the story's essential meaning. ''There may have been 38, there may have been 39,'' he said, ''but the whole picture, as I saw it, was very affecting."There has been an aftermath in terms of public policy. Lemann lists them:
[T]he Genovese case had some tangible consequences. It helped in the push to establish 911 as an easy-to-remember national police emergency number; in 1964, the most reliable way to call the police in New York was to use the specific telephone number of each precinct, and caller response wasn’t always a high priority. Two psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, created a new realm of research into what came to be called the bystander effect, the main finding of which is that your likelihood of intervening in a Genovese-like incident increases if you believe that there are very few other bystanders. The effect has stood up through repeated experiments.Lemann ends his review by observing that, as we assess the media, we shouldn't worry so much about press-generated celebrity stories, but
Stories like that of the silent witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s murder represent the real danger zone in journalism, because they blend the power of instinct—which is about whether something feels true, not about whether it is true—with the respectable sheen of social science. In his book, Rosenthal groused, “I did not feel, nor do I now, that the sociologists and psychiatrists who commented contributed anything substantial to anybody’s understanding of what happened that night on Austin Street.” But, if he hadn’t assigned a second-day story consisting of quotes from such people, his version of the Genovese murder would not have taken the shape that it did. The experts transformed a crime into a crisis. - snip - The real Kitty Genovese syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions and anxieties. So the lesson of the story isn’t that journalists should trust their gut, the way Abe Rosenthal did. Better to use your head.Words to live by: use your head, not your gut. Shed light, not heat. And yes, this is the same Abe Rosenthal who,as managing editor, refused to let the New York Times use the words "gay" or "Ms." during his tenure.