2014 marks the 50-year anniversary of one of the most infamous murders in New York City history: that of Kitty Genovese. Genovese was a young woman from Queens, New York who was raped and stabbed to death on March 13, 1964. The incident became notorious because, even though 37 of her neighbors heard her screams, not a single one of them called the police or came to her assistance.
That, at least, is the Kitty Genovese story according to the most commonly held myth. What’s much less well-known is that scholars and journalists who have re-investigated the crime over the past decade or so have, in fact, thoroughly debunked that myth. Few of Genovese’s neighbors heard her, and of those who did, most didn’t understand what was going on. Neighbors did eventually call the police and one of them even personally came to her aid, at some risk to herself. It’s true that there was one person who really did witness the crime and, appallingly, did nothing. But he was the only one person involved in the case who behaved that way.
How did so many people come to believe a version of these events that was plainly so wrong? Nicholas Lemann writes about the case and reviews two new books about it in this essay in the current issue of the New Yorker. As Lemann explains, the man single-handedly responsible for turning the Genovese case from a run-of-the-mill, if grisly, crime story, into a national obsession was New York Times reporter A.M. Rosenthal. Rosenthal, who would later become managing editor of the Times, was a man of a neoconservative bent. We snarky liberals used to refer to “On My Mind,” the column he wrote in the 90s — possibly the very worst opinion column the Times has ever published, and that’s saying something! — as “Out of My Mind.”
At any rate, the Genovese murder became iconic because it touched on a number of national obsessions: sex, race (the murderer was African-American), the disturbing rise in violent crime, the growing trend of single young women living on their own, the anonymity of city life, and even, Lemann suggests, the Holocaust (after all, it was a story about good people doing nothing, which allowed evil to prevail). And even though we now know that the most widely circulated account of the crime was false, that account did point to something real: a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect,” whereby the likelihood that you’ll offer help to someone who needs it increases as the number of other bystanders decreases.
What lessons can we learn from this case today? For me, the obvious one is to be very, very skeptical of media coverage. Certain stories and narratives grab hold of the public imagination because they appeal to pre-existing biases and anxieties. However, the narrative that develops may very well be at odds with the plain facts of the case. We have seen this time and again, in recent times most notably in media coverage during the run-up to the Iraq War.
It’s shockingly easy for misleading media narratives to develop. All reporters have to do is emphasize certain facts and downplay or ignore others. Reporters may not necessarily even have an agenda, or be conscious of having one. They may simply notice that framing a story a certain way seems to be popular, so they go with it. Or, as also happens frequently, they may be manipulated by political, corporate, or other operatives to slant a story in a particular direction.
It’s also interesting to look at the case and think about what’s different about our society now vs. then. Stories about big city crime such as the Genovese case drove many affluent white people out of the cities. The fact that crime has declined so dramatically in recent years is undoubtedly one reason why that same group is moving coming back to the cities and driving up rents, sometimes dramatically so.
Finally, I find the national soul-searching that followed this case to be fascinating. I’m old enough to remember the pulpits and editorial pages were full of hand-wringing denunciations of “our sick society,” and certainly, I mocked that kind of thing back in the day. But now I have to admit that those sermonizers were on to something. After all, what kind of coverage do you think a story like the Genovese murder would receive today? Almost certainly, the coverage would simply demonize the individuals involved. Tabloids would probably focus on the murderer and portray him as a fiend (and, let’s be clear — Genovese’s murderer was indeed a monster). We might be treated to some misogynistic victim-blaming as well, if the victim’s skirt were deemed too short or if she walked home alone late at night or something. If neighbors were reported witness such a murder and not call police, the neighborhood itself would be demonized — in what particular way would depend on the character of the neighborhood (“those effin’ hipsters!” “those dumb white ethnics!” etc.)
But while we’d see plenty of outer-directed blame, what we almost certainly wouldn’t see is a whole lot of inner-directed soul searching. Unpopular individuals or groups would be the object of the usual internet two-minute hate, but it’s unlikely there would be widespread discussion or analysis of the social organism involved. Our growing penchant for targeting and blaming individuals rather than the social and political systems they operate in reflects our increasingly atomized society, and our lack of social solidarity. But critiquing “society” implies that forces other than atomized individuals control their own fate. It also implies that we all contribute to the problem, and that therefore we’re all responsible for helping to solve it.
That point of view is itself problematic, of course. There are many social problems — most of them, in fact — for which some groups deserve a far greater share of the blame than others. Nevertheless, when a society has the ability to engage in sincere soul-searching, that’s a positive trait, and it can often lead in productive directions. Ironically, the ability to critique a society for its “sickness” is itself of sign of social health. We Americans used to do a fair amount of that, once. But not any more.