It appears that The New York Times will be without a public editor for the month of June. Margaret Sullivan now writes columns for The Washington Post, and her successor, Elizabeth Spayd, sets up shop in July.
To avoid a June swoon, I volunteer to fill the job for a day — pro bono.
This generous act was inspired by a fervent complaint against the Times by one of its faithful readers, my brother Vincent Clark, a lowly actor in Washington, D.C. I feel a special duty to Vincent. He is, after all, my kid brother, and, truth be told, mother always liked him best.
In an email message he wrote: “You may or may not want to put the following in your "bad reporting" file. The man who murdered Kitty Genovese died a couple of months ago. I went online and read a New York Times obit. The lead is as follows:
“Winston Moseley, who stalked, raped and killed Kitty Genovese in a prolonged knife attack in New York in 1964 while neighbors failed to act on her desperate cries for help – a nightmarish tableau that came to symbolize urban apathy in America – died on March 28, in prison. He was 81.”
Vincent goes on: “My problem is this. Not too long ago, I enjoyed Kevin Cook’s book, “Kitty Genovese: the Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime that Changed America…” Both the book [and a subsequent television documentary] debunk the notion of so many people witnessing the crime and doing nothing as a myth that originated in…wait for it… The New York Times. And now, more than 50 years later, the Times is still perpetuating this calumny against the people of Kew Gardens, Queens.”
My first move was to read the entire obituary, written by Robert D. McFadden, that ran April 4. I recognized the byline right away. I’ve long considered Mr. McFadden’s work scrupulously reported and elegantly written. He has the ability, rare in journalism, to write a 47-word lead, filled with details and ideas, that does not feel like a man has crammed all his belongings into a small suitcase. Believe me when I say the following critique does not lessen my admiration for his prose.
As I read through the obit, I had flashbacks to the time of the actual crime. I was a 16-year-old high school student on Long Island, New York, living about a dozen miles from the scene of the murder. I read in the city tabloids how Moseley, a man who would prove to be a serial killer, stalked Kitty Genovese, stabbed, raped, and killed her outside of her Austin Street apartment in Queens.
The impact of the crime created a national uproar after a follow-up story in The New York Times reported that:
For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens 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.
'I didn’t want to get involved,' a witness said, using a phrase that was thought to encapsulate the age.
(This passage is quoted in the obituary written by Mr. McFadden.)
I well remember debating in my Catholic high school what it meant “to get involved.” In a classroom setting where we learned the concept of the “Good Samaritan,” the idea of doing nothing in the face of a horrible crime seemed unthinkable. “Glad we don’t live in Kew Gardens,” we must have thought, as we listened to a new Beatles song on our transistor radios.
It would be the early 1980s before I heard an account that questioned what became known as the Kitty Genovese Syndrome. It came during a Poynter seminar from none other than Francis X. Clines, a veteran reporter at the Times. I don’t have a direct quote, but he noted that there are a lot of sounds in the city at night, including screams, and that not all of them signal crime or deadly danger.
In the years since then, former residents in Queens and their family members, as well as a number of curious journalists and scholars, have debunked the myth. Recently, William Genovese (the brother of Kitty) and director James Solomon discussed “The Witness,” their documentary correction of the deformed narrative on NPR.
All this was spelled out in a recent story in the Times after the death of Moseley. More important, all the counter evidence appears in the body of Mr. McFadden’s obit of Moseley. This complicates my brother’s critique and my judgment as public-editor-for–a-day.
While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. 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 [Sophia Farrar] ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Ms. Genovese died on the way to a hospital.
Is it possible, then, for a story or obituary to get it right, but for a lead to get it wrong? This does not happen very often, especially in the hands of a veteran reporter and skillful writer. Much more common is an error caused by a disagreement between a story and its headline.
So let’s visit Mr. McFadden’s lead again:
“Winston Moseley, who stalked, raped and killed Kitty Genovese in a prolonged knife attack in New York in 1964 while neighbors failed to act on her desperate cries for help — a nightmarish tableau that came to symbolize urban apathy in America — died on March 28, in prison. He was 81.”
The problematic clause is “while neighbors failed to act on her desperate cries for help….”
The evidence that this phrase is not true can be found in the body of Mr. McFadden’s own story!
The problem, of course, is the importance of the lead. It carries a weight that no other part of the story, except the headline, has to bear. In the digital age, the information and language in the lead will find its way to audiences much more readily than the entire story.
In most cases, I would not presume to rewrite a lead such as this one, but nothing else would satisfy my brother, so I gave it a try:
“Winston Moseley, who stalked, raped and killed Kitty Genovese in a prolonged knife attack in New York in 1964, a crime that created a national controversy about when neighbors should call police and ‘get involved,’ died on March 28, in prison. He was 81.”
I would mourn the loss of “a nightmarish tableau that came to symbolize urban apathy in America,” but perhaps that could be saved for later in the story.
That’s my take, and I hereby resign my duties as public editor-for-a-day.