Saturday, March 13, 2004

Too Bad To Be True

This post has been a long time coming, but this morning's NPR piece on the murder of Kitty Genovese put a fine point on it. I first heard this story in the comic "Watchmen," where it described the rape and murder of a woman while thirty-eight people watched and did nothing. At the time, I didn't know if it was true, but it was. It turns out this is actually a famous story that became a cautionary tale about the selfishness of urban living.

But the shocker came when the NPR story focused on the fact that "Kitty" was a lesbian, and interviewed her former lover at the time. Since that fact was never told, it got me thinking about the whole story. I think I'll start using the phrase "too bad to be true" to describe news stories that seem to illustrate some horrible fact of daily life. The problem is these stories is that they're almost never what they seem. Kitty Genovese is a case in point. Out of suspicion, I did a search and found an article that argued what I suspected: the story is not about the cruelty of urban living, but of bad reporting. The article argues that trial of the murderer showed that only a handful of people saw any of the attacks, almost none of them saw enough to know for sure she was being killed, and people did call police but couldn't get through in time. There seems to be dispute about that, but the fact remains it's more complicated than the story first appears.

What irritates me is that none of that was brought up in the NPR interview. Kitty's girlfriend even ended the interview with a mournful speech about how it is to trust people now, and how she still can't believe no one helped Kitty, as if even she didn't know the truth. Once again, we learn how hard it is to get at the truth, and how easy it is to jump to conclusions.

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