As Jack Shafer observes in yesterday’s column, the Annie Le murder has received the sort of national coverage usually reserved for celebrity deaths and award-show gaffes. To wit, Shafer’s incomplete but telling catalog:
The New York Times…has already published five articles about Le’s disappearance and murder and the apprehension of suspect Raymond Clark III. The Boston Globe has published at least six stories about the case, and the Washington Post has run at least three briefs from the Associated Press. The Timesof London, published five time zones away, can’t seem to sate its appetite for Annie Le news. Even the proletarian New York tabloids—the Postand the Daily News—have gone ape for the story.
…besides which, a slew of well-sourced and quick-response articles in the university’s paper of record, and, by my count, two cover spots in the Washington Post Express.
My problem with Shafer’s piece isn’t his gripe that crimes at Yale and Harvard receive undue attention. (They do; always have.) I went to Yale—graduated, even—and Shafer’s points are well taken. But what the media critic misses is that, when it comes to murder, the Ivy League’s disproportionate share of media attention is part of a larger, and more regrettable, trend.
In D.C., the murders of (say) a white, affluent northwest couple like Michael and Virginia Spevak prompt the kind of media bonanza with which no targeted shooting in southeast could possibly compete. Then there’s the case of Alice Swanson, a well-educated, middle-class white activist wired into the world of think tanks and nonprofits. A full year after her death, her memorial was still standing—and when, two weeks ago, the mayor’s office removed the ghost bike, people freaked. Of course, as one commenter noted:
The law says the memorials come down they come down. If this was am unsightly teddy bear memorial surrounded by liquor bottles and candles for a gun shot victim you would be petioning the Mayor’s Office for it’s removal.
This isn’t just about the media; it’s about us and our assumptions. As a paper, we only put murders above the fold when they defeat expectations—sensationally or otherwise. As humans, we perk up when a story elicits a double-take, or forces us to reassess presuppositions that may have been bogus to begin with. Would this story have blown up in the mid- to late ’80s? Probably not; New Haven was a lot grittier back then. But if a GWU student were kidnapped, brutalized, and discovered a week later in a wall, I’m pretty sure the event would garner more coverage than the corresponding death of a kid in Ward 8. (Ask Cherkis.)
Just saying. Newspapers have been on this treadmill for a long time. If anything, the Annie Le story is one that deserved to make it.
Closing hat-tip: After calling the New York Times “one of several Ivy League house organs,” Shafer is wise to acknowledge that at Slate (which fits much the same description), “no Harvard or Yale story proposal will ever be laughed out of a story meeting, no matter how mundane.”