A Dose of Vicarious Shock

It was a famous story from The New York Times in 1964.

37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police; Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector

by Martin Gansberg

For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

That was two weeks ago today. But Assistant Chief Inspector Frederick M. Lussen, in charge of the borough’s detectives and a veteran of 25 years of homicide investigations, is still shocked.

He can give a matter‐of‐fact recitation of many murders. But the Kew Gardens slaying baffles him — not because it is a murder, but because the “good people” failed to call the police.

The story of the killing of Catherine Genovese was widely read at the time and admired for decades. It made the reputation of A. M. Rosenthal, the metropolitan editor who caused it to be written and who argued its way onto the front page.   Rosenthal’s own gloss on the story, Thirty-Eight Witnesses, was published within months. He rose rapidly at the Times, to become executive editor, 1977-1987, and for a dozen years after that, a columnist.

It turns out there was a backstory, too. In his book, Rosenthal disclosed how he himself had got the story, from Michael J. Murphy, the police commissioner, over lunch at Emil’s Restaurant and Bar on Park Row, near City Hall.

“Brother,” the commissioner said, “that Queens story is one for the books.”

Thirty-eight people, the commissioner said, had watched a woman being killed in the “Queens story,” and not one of them had called the police to save her life.

“Thirty-eight?” I asked.

And he said, “Yes, 38. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.”

I experienced then that most familiar of newspapermen’s reaction — vicarious shock. This is a kind of professional detachment that is the essence of the trade — the realization that what you are seeing or hearing will startle a reader.

Some readers, including a television police reporter, Danny Meehan, doubted details of the story as soon as it appeared. Over the years various embellishments, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies came to light.  In 2004 the Times took account of them. They did not change the essential fact at the heart of the story — a woman had been murdered in the middle of the night in a populous neighborhood, steps from her door. When her killer, Winston Moseley, died in prison, at 82, Robert McFadden summed up in a Times obituary:

The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling. There were two attacks, not three. And afterward, two people did call the police. A 70-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Ms. Genovese died on the way to a hospital.

I thought of the Genovese story because something of the sort happened in my neighborhood earlier this month — but in reverse.  On Election Day, a 40-year-old woman was hit and killed in a crosswalk midday by /a/ pickup truck.

Leah Zallman, 40, the mother of two young sons, was on her way home after voting at lunch time.  She was the director of research at the Institute for Community Health, a primary care physician at the East Cambridge Care Center, and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School

Talk about local apathy, at least in the public realm! Television stations reported the accident the day it happened. After that the news was only slowly shared, without details, first by the public school’s parent association, then on community Google groups. The city took a week to acknowledge on its website that it had happened. It was ten days before The Boston Globe took account of it, and then only with a touching remembrance by a columnist free of any details of the accident itself, not even those that had been posted by the city:

An initial investigation suggests that the operator of the vehicle, an employee of the City of Somerville who was on duty at the time but operating their personal vehicle, had been attempting to take a left turn onto Kidder Avenue from College Avenue. They remained on the scene following the crash. Pending the results of an investigation [by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office and Somerville Police], the employee has been placed on paid administrative leave…. No charges have been filed at this time.

We’ll learn more eventually from the Middlesex County investigation, including the identity of the driver, reported to be a Somerville building inspector, and the circumstances of his day. I wish there were some local hero, a Rosenthal type, who could document how Zallman’s death could remain on the down-low for more than a week. (City councilors argued the details of the accident with the mayor and his Mobility Department behind the scenes.) Last year, when two women were hit after dark in a crosswalk, one of them killed, by a hit-and run driver less than mile away, it was big news. This time there were no flowers at the site, no other reminder of what happened at the busy crossing, no public outcry, no political outrage, only a lingering sense of shock.

It’s a commonplace that the invention of online search advertising has brought most metropolitan newspapers to their knees. In October the once-mighty Boston Globe reported print circulation of 84,000 daily and 123,000 Sunday, down from 530,000 and 810,000 respectively twenty years ago.  The national papers have managed to hold their own so far. That small cities like Somerville, those of 100,000 persons or so, haven’t found a way to rejuvenate the provision of local news bodes ill for their public life.  With local journalism withering on the vine, we don’t have publicity, hence public outrage, over a traffic death that shouldn’t have happened. We don’t have accountability, either, sufficient to deter careless driving. Pickup trucks, in particular, often seem to confer a dangerous sense of privilege upon their drivers.

To be clear, I don’t think what Abe Rosenthal did in 1964 was wrong, or wicked, in any sense, though in retrospect its self-aggrandizing subtext is hard to miss. Call it inflated-for-the-good-of-us-all journalism, the presentation of facts spiced with a special sauce of indignation for the purpose of making a point.

The Times had reported Genovese’s murder as an unvarnished matter of fact, when it occurred, in a short item buried deep inside the paper a couple of weeks before. To return to the story with additional facts — police commanders’ indignation – was in line with the performance of the newspaper’s duty to offer occasional moral instruction along with the news. But the embellishment went too far, and tarnished the Times’ most valuable asset, readers’ trust.

Newspapers have traditionally tried to rile up readers in a good cause in the three centuries they have been democracies’ dominant form of public communication. For a wry and affectionate look behind the scenes of inflated-for-the-good-of-us-all journalism at the Times in executive editor Rosenthal’s heyday, find a used copy of I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This, by Mary Breasted.  Or rent a copy of Ron Howard’s brilliant 1994 film The Paper.

It seems the case that the Times has practiced more indignation-fueled news recently than usual – its 1619 Project, for example, provoked columnist Bret Stephens’ stinging dissent. The roots are the same as those Rosenthal identified in 1964:  the experience of shock in the face of the facts.  Rosenthal’s proud claim as editor was that “he kept the paper straight.”  Think that is easy in times like these?  Occasional large helpings of indignation are better than no news at all.

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