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The JonBenet Effect | The Nation

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The JonBenet Effect

It's August, a string of brilliantly blue, placid days. We might be at the beach or taking a long lunch outdoors, but instead we're glued to the TV, transfixed by the latest, sordid details regarding the alleged murder of an innocent, young girl by her creepy, older, would-be lover. Did he do it? What was she wearing when it happened? Is the wife covering-up for him? Why am I obsessed with this trash?

Welcome back August 2001. Welcome back Gary Condit. Welcome back Chandra Levy (my how blonde you've grown!). Welcome back to the halcyon days before September 11th when Maureen Dowd could say that such scandals were "the stuff of great drama and novels and journalism through the ages," a story "as legitimate as covering the patients' bill of rights or campaign finance, maybe more so, because here the press has a crucial role in forcing out the truth."

And what was that truth? What ever happened to Chandra and Gary? Who cares?! We've got their replacements in JonBenet Ramsey and John Mark Karr. They're younger, weirder and wear more make-up.

In the months after September 11th, the press excoriated itself for its "self-trivialization," its obsession with "the personal, the small, and the titillating," as the Washington Post's Robert Samuelson put it. Well, here we go again, another set of lovely bones to inspect. Thanks to CNN, we know almost everything there is to know about Karr -- from what he ate on the plane (fried king prawns and roast duck) to the details of his facial hair removal at the Siam Swan Cosmetic Clinic -- except, of course, the answer to the million dollar question. Did he do it? If TV execs get their wish, we'll be kept guessing for some time. All the better so that we can keep reading the parade of tea leaves. Just yesterday MSNBC devoted hours to "breaking footage" of a 1987 home video of Karr. "He has longer hair here...and...he seems...to be trying...to hide his face!" the model-anchor emphatically concluded as a younger, hairier Karr mildly waved off the camera.

Even the NYT got in on the act. As Talking Points Memo points out, the Times assigned 13 reporters to Friday's Jon-John coverage and just two to the NSA warrantless wiretapping case. Good old Dowd has yet to weigh in, but the Gray Lady did rush to press two long pieces on the secret lives of pedophiles by Kurt Eichenwald, who aims for a kind of detached salaciousness. The NYT might not have led with "Slayer of Beauty Queen Tot Confesses," but they were no less lurid, despite the studied patina of "investigative" intelligence, than Fox News or The New York Post.

But why do we keep watching? Don't we know there's a war (or two or three) on? As James Kincaid, author of Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, argues at Slate, the Ramsey case offers "forbidden material served up to us in ways we can both enjoy and disown." "Somebody else finds the bodies of children irresistible and we want the chance to rail against these monsters, meanwhile relishing the details of the very bodies we claim indifference to," he writes. In this sense, it makes no difference that the press will inevitably issue another round of self-flagellation for its "self-trivializing" JonBenet coverage. That's all part of the game.

And did he do it? Your guess is as good as mine. What is known is that Karr was fascinated with the notoriety of pedophilia. He wrote about Michael Jackson and Richard Allen Davis, the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas; he moved to the same town where Klaas grew up. For the past 10 years, he tracked minute developments in the Ramsey case. It's not hard to imagine then that Karr's confession (and possibly his crime) stem from the same, mass-media fueled obsession with violated innocence that so apparently enthralls us all.

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