Owens the master in JonBenet case

Governor has artfully manipulated media with his pronouncements about slaying

August 26, 2006

by David Kopel

Republicans spend a lot of time arguing about who amongst them is a better disciple of Ronald Reagan. In terms of media savvy, there's little doubt that Gov. Bill Owens walks comfortably in Reagan's footsteps.

Following the Aug. 17 premiere of the latest media crime-of-the-century story, JonBenet Ramsey - Part II, many commentators noted that Owens had sharply criticized John and Patsy Ramsey, and had stopped only an inch short of claiming that they were guilty. Perhaps more so than any previous Colorado governor, Owens had the opportunity to speak out on a significant number of nationally infamous crimes, including Columbine, JonBenet and the (alleged) University of Colorado football rapes. In the months following these crimes, Owens echoed the conventional wisdom of the media: more gun control is needed; the Ramseys are guilty; CU is guilty.

Owens has successfully used intense media coverage of sensational crimes to popularize himself. When Owens announced in late 1999 that the Ramseys should "stop hiding behind their attorneys" and declared "If they're innocent, they're sure not acting like they are," his words gained much more media play than almost anything else he said in that period.

Although Ronald Reagan faced a hostile media, he succeeded politically in part because he knew how to beat the media at its own game; by carefully limiting the supply of presidential photo opportunities, Reagan ensured that even when the words in a television story about his policies were negative, the pictures would be positive.

Similarly, Owens on policy was well to the right of much of the Colorado media. Yet he was very good at delivering soundbites for big crime stories, reinforcing popular (although not necessarily accurate) public opinion about somebody's guilt. He thus used the media to disseminate an image of himself as a straight-talking, common-sense leader who was not afraid to criticize the guilty (or rather, those who had been proclaimed guilty by the media).

Like a martial artist who turns his opponent's greatest force into a vulnerability, Reagan jiu-jitsued the picture-dependent national TV networks. Likewise, Owens turned the media's obsession with sensational crime stories into a showcase for himself.

I often agree with what my counterpart on these pages, Jason Salzman, writes in his media critiques, and I share his disgust for the media frenzy in the JonBenet case. The most extreme example was last Saturday's Rocky Mountain News,in which almost the entire front section consisted of JonBenet stories.

But I disagree with Salzman about who is to blame. The publishers would not devote so many resources to the story if they did not know that they would sell more papers. As with the obsession over the alleged rapes by CU football players (none of which were even proven, and some of which were based on extremely flimsy evidence), Colorado and national audiences are fascinated with stories of sex crimes in Boulder.

Such stories are especially intriguing to marginal readers - people who do not subscribe to the papers, but who will buy a newsstand issue, or visit a newspaper Web site in order to follow a lurid sex crime story. The news reading public has apparently decided that JonBenet is our generation's version of the 1932 kidnap-murder of Charles Lindbergh's baby.

Even so, responsible media coverage could:

1. Only put the story on the front page when there is actual news, or important background facts discovered by reporters - not for non-news like "authorities uncertain when Karr will be transferred to Boulder," or micro-news like "Karr flies in business class."

2. Not write headlines that mislead casual readers about the strength of the evidence. If a reporter interviews several handwriting experts, and some of them say the ransom note is a likely certain match with John Karr's handwriting, and just as many disagree, then don't write headlines like "Handwriting expert points finger at Karr" (News,Aug. 22).

A more accurate headline was the front-page Newsteaser for the story: "Ransom note matches handwriting in yearbook, expert says; others not sure."

Summarizing the November ballot's upcoming initiatives and referenda, theNews(Aug. 18) wrote informative summaries, except for Referendum J, which the Newssaid "Requires school districts to spend a portion of their budgets on certain operations." The similar Amendment 39 was said to put "requirements on school district spending."

How about telling readers what "portion," which "operations," and what "requirements"? The ballot measures would require that 65 percent of school district funds be spent on classroom instruction or student achievement; in technical details, 39 is significantly more stringent than J.

Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute, an attorney and author of 10 books. He can be reached at .


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