March 15, 2014

WHAT THE KITTY GENOVESE STORY REALLY MEANS:

If crimes don’t involve anyone powerful or well known, they generally aren’t considered news. But a few such crimes do become news, big news, and hold the public’s imagination in a tight, enduring grip.

An excellent example is the murder of Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year-old bar manager, by Winston Moseley, a twenty-nine-year-old computer punch-card operator, just after three in the morning on Friday, March 13, 1964, in Kew Gardens, Queens. The fact that this crime, one of six hundred and thirty-six murders in New York City that year, became an American obsession—condemned by mayors and Presidents, puzzled over by academics and theologians, studied in freshman psychology courses, re-created in dozens of research experiments, even used four decades later to justify the Iraq war—can be attributed to the influence of one man, A. M. Rosenthal, of the New York Times. . . .

It’s evidence of a kind of editorial genius that Rosenthal, by playing the story in the way that he did, was able to get such a reaction. The tabloids had treated it simply as a sensational tale of urban violence. The Times made sure that its apathetic-witness angle would land by prominently displaying the story on its front page. The murder now stood for a profoundly disturbing sociological trend. The key line in Gansberg’s story came from one of the witnesses (none of whom were named), who said, “I didn’t want to get involved.” . . .

It’s now clear that this version of events is wrong, thanks to a number of Genovese revisionists who have emerged over the years. They include Jim Rasenberger, a journalist who has written a couple of influential articles about the case, notably one in the Times, in 2004; and Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins, the authors of a 2007 article in American Psychologist (which quotes from, and debunks, the textbook rendering). The essential facts are these. Winston Moseley had been out in his car, looking for a victim, when he came across Genovese driving home from work. He followed her. She parked at the Kew Gardens train station, adjacent to her apartment. Moseley parked, too, and attacked her with a hunting knife. She screamed, and a man named Robert Mozer opened his window and shouted, “Leave that girl alone!” Moseley ran away. Genovese, wounded but not mortally, staggered to the back of her apartment building and went inside a vestibule. Moseley returned, found her, and attacked again, stabbing her and assaulting her sexually. He fled again before she died.

The Times story was inaccurate in a number of significant ways. There were two attacks, not three. Only a handful of people saw the first clearly and only one saw the second, because it took place indoors, within the vestibule. The reason there were two attacks was that Robert Mozer, far from being a “silent witness,” yelled at Moseley when he heard Genovese’s screams and drove him away. Two people called the police. When the ambulance arrived at the scene—precisely because neighbors had called for help—Genovese, still alive, lay in the arms of a neighbor named Sophia Farrar, who had courageously left her apartment to go to the crime scene, even though she had no way of knowing that the murderer had fled.

Insider Timesman lunches with police bigshot, publishes version of story that lets police off the hook, does incalculable damage to national psyche. All in a day’s work. . . .