June 16, 2011

Veteran New York City reporter Murray Weiss was in the New York Post newsroom on April 20, 1989, when word came from the police department that a woman had been discovered raped, brutally beaten and nearly dead in Central Park the night before. Weiss had been a bureau chief at the New York Daily News, working out of police headquarters downtown, but in 1986 he switched papers and positions.

As the associate editor specializing in criminal justice and law enforcement, the story was his to work. What they were hearing, he remembers, was that cops had a group of black and Latino kids from Harlem in custody. The story was that the kids had been on some sort of crime spree throughout the park.

“We were hearing the word ‘wilding,’ like kids ‘wilding’ in the park,” says Weiss. “That was the first question. What’s this wilding?”

So Weiss called a source, a Manhattan homicide commander, with whom he was friendly. The commander (who Weiss asked remain nameless) had helped him out before. Back in 1986, a young woman named Jennifer Levin had been found dead in Central Park. In the press, the man who eventually confessed to killing her was deemed “The Preppie Killer.” The commander passed Weiss the killer’s confession.

This time, the source did him one better: he gave the phone to one of the suspects and instructed him to talk to Weiss.

“He told him I was his chief downtown,” says Weiss.

The scoop (which turned into an April 23 article with the headline, “Grab Her: Suspect’s Chilling Story of Rape and Rampage”) presented an ethical dilemma for Weiss, who didn’t want to print something that would expose his friend. It was also a harbinger of things to come: throughout the jogger case, the tabloid press, desperate for details in the midst of a breaking story, benefitted from a cozy, trusting relationship with police.

While Weiss weighed how to play his exclusive interview, reporters from all over the city descended on the Central Park precinct.

“It was a media tsunami,” says former New York Daily News police bureau chief David Krajicek. “It was so competitive. The city desk absolutely demanded that we come up with details that other reporters didn’t have.”

The woman, a white, 28-year-old investment banker, became known as “The Central Park Jogger.” The boys were christened the “Wolf Pack,” and quickly became symbols of the criminal menace that white New Yorkers felt had captured their city.

Gregory Perry holds up a sign as he demonstrates in front of Manhattan State Supreme Court, Monday, Oct. 21, 2002, in New York. State Supreme Court Justice Charles Tejada gave prosecutors until Dec. 5 to complete their report on whether the convictions of five men in the notorious 1989 rape and beating of a Central Park jogger should be overturned. (Robert Mecea/AP)

Within 18 months, they were tried and convicted, and each served between six and eight years in prison. But the “Central Park Five” were exonerated in 2002 after a convicted rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime — and his DNA matched that found on the jogger, who had by then been identified as Trisha Meili.

The story of how this all happened is the subject of a new book by author Sarah Burns. “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding” tells the tale of how police and prosecutors ignored the boys’ conflicting statements and the complete lack of physical evidence in what Burns depicts as a grievous miscarriage of justice, spurred, at least partly, by the New York City tabloid media, “whose lurid headlines had encouraged the original rush to judgment.”

Of course, lurid headlines are what tabloids do. On June 3 of this year, when cops arrested a man for the sexual assault of an elderly woman on the Upper East Side, the Daily News ran the man’s picture on the cover alongside the headline, “Scum of the Earth.” While I was a freelance reporter at the Post in June 2009, the paper ran the headline “Turban Warfare” on a cover story about the protests over elections in Iran. I asked my editor about it the next day, pointing out that Iranians don’t wear turbans. He shrugged, “Yeah, but our readers don’t know that.”

Krajicek says the same kind of careless attitude was very much in effect at the Daily News during the jogger case: “Was there ever a news conversation about innocent until proven guilty? No.”

Jim Dwyer, a reporter for The New York Times who was a columnist for New York Newsday in 1989, found the same thing to be true among his colleagues: “I don’t remember there being a lot of reflection about the truth.”

Like many American cities, in 1989, New York was in the grip of an unparalleled crime wave: the year after the jogger case, the murder rate peaked at just over 2,000 homicides, nearly four times what it is today.

“I could wake up every day and my reporters and I had on average six or seven different bodies we could write about,” says Krajicek. “Reporters, in general in the city, believed the police department was unable to do anything about crime.”

But daily crime reporters can’t do their job without relying heavily on law enforcement.

“The police are the authors of most crime narratives and the press’s role often is a stenographic one,” says Dwyer.

On the jogger case, the story coming from police headquarters was simple, and damning: the group of boys in custody had confessed to raping and nearly killing Meili during a “wilding” spree through the park that night. Not knowing the details that would later come out — like the fact Meili had lost more than 75 percent of her blood during the attack but none of the boys had her blood on them — reporters ran with the account.

“We don’t have a good thermometer for nuanced coverage in most situations, and particularly in the face of a really horrific crime,” says Dwyer. “There was a narrative that was carved in granite in the first hours and the rest was chasing details.”

But even as reporters found details about the boys that didn’t jive with the portraits police were painting, those pieces of the story were buried beneath fear-mongering quotes (“None Of Us Is Safe” screamed the April 24 front page of the Post), editorials calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, and anonymously sourced anecdotes that played into the image of the boys as monsters.

For example, police told reporters that the boys were laughing and singing Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” in the precinct while awaiting questioning.

“That was a detail we were salivating over,” says Krajicek. But looking back, he realizes the boys’ behavior made sense.

“They were thinking they’d been arrested for disorderly conduct…but we took it as, ‘Oh, these animals, singing and gloating after doing this horrible thing.’”

Re-reading the coverage, it’s easy to see that frenzy and fear quickly began to strain editorial reason. The boys, all between 14 and 17 years old, were described by reporters and columnists alike as “bloodthirsty,” “animals,” “savages” and “human mutations.”

On April 23, Post columnist Pete Hamill wrote that the boys in custody had come “from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance…a land with no fathers…to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”

But on the opposite page, the paper printed Weiss’s exclusive interview with one of the suspects that quoted the boy saying they didn’t pick victims based on race, and that most of the people they targeted during these “wilding” episodes were “blacks and Spanish.” Elsewhere in the paper that day, suspect Antron McCray’s father was described by neighbors as “strict.”

At some level, the press got it wrong in 1989 because police got it wrong.

“As a reporter, you report the evidence that the DA says he has,” says Weiss. “The kids were interviewed. They confessed. Their parents were there.”

Twenty years later, Weiss and fellow reporters on his beat would likely have been aware of the research on the frequency of false confessions — especially false confessions by suspects younger than 21 — and could have used that knowledge to question the police line. But in 1989, with daily deadlines bearing down, double-checking the details of a sworn statement of guilt didn’t seem like a prudent use of time.

And, as Dwyer explained last month at a Cardozo Law School event on the subject, the story the police told “made sense to a lot of people.”

“I don’t feel this is a case where we [got it wrong],” says Weiss. “I’m not the one who interrogated them or found them guilty.”

Weiss does, however, see the coverage as falling into the pattern of media hysteria over crime against a certain segment of the population: “Could you make an argument that if she wasn’t white, or this had happened in Brooklyn, it wouldn’t have gotten the same coverage? Yes. But the who, what, where and when changes every story.”

Krajicek, on the other hand, says that he has “a lot of regrets” about how the press handled the story of the Central Park Five.

“Like a lot of people who went into journalism after Watergate, I believed I was getting into journalism to work for the greater good,” he says. But this case changed that, and Krajicek soon left daily reporting. “I realized I probably wasn’t doing something for the greater good.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized an exchange between Murray Weiss and a source.

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