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Two Days in the Death of JonBenét

A journal of the media madness sparked by the JonBenét grand jury.

As the hours wear on, the air seems to go out of the JonBenét balloon. While Channel 4 pounds the story to a pulp, even pre-empting Dan Rather's national news broadcast, Channels 7 and 9 make room for weather and sports before handing the baton to the network. (NBC leads with the Ramsey grand jury; ABC, though, figures that America is more interested in hearing that the Philip Morris company has at last acknowledged that tobacco isn't a health food.) Likewise, Fox News's Hannity & Colmes spends just half of its hour on JonBenét (spotlighted yakkers: Silverman and self-proclaimed black avenger Ken Hamblin), leaving much of the overkill to the various NBC stations: MSNBC and CNBC keep the post-mortems pumping, and the main network dishes out what might be the 300th Datelineon the topic. Still, it's hard to top Larry King Live. The program kicks off with CNN staffer Valerie Voss, a Ramsey pal who got to know them in a Bible-study class, disclosing that John and Patsy held hands and fell to their knees in prayer during Hunter's mini-speech. This is followed by a virtual O.J. dream-team reunion, with Henry Lee joining attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Bob Shapiro. But they more or less agree that without a confession or the discovery of some previously unknown evidence, the case is all but over. The light is gone from Geraldo's eyes, too; as he decries the injustice of it all, he seems to be mentally packing up and moving on. That's also the message on Channel 2. While Ernie Bjorkman introduces the story on the outlet's 9 p.m. broadcast, the two words hanging over his left shoulder are "The End?"

In the days that follow, the mainstream press tries its best to give the story mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Still, the local headlines have a great deal of finality about them: An extra edition of the Boulder Daily Camera printed the afternoon of the 13th hollers "STUMPED," the Thursday, October 14, News shouts "No Charges," and the Post mates "No Indictment" with the melodramatic Chuck Green column banner "So Now a Killer Walks." But much is made of a bizarre Alex Hunter news conference on Thursday, in part because he allows that there may be as many as "three or four" people involved in JonBenét's death before attempting to eat these words ("I take that back"). In response to a question about the press coverage, he confesses, "I don't have much skin left at this particular time, and it feels funny walking around without skin."

Governor Bill Owens's pledge to consider appointing a special prosecutor in the case, made first on October 13 and reiterated the next morning on Today, Good Morning America and CBS This Morning (and the same afternoon at yet another news conference about the appointment of an advisory team) indicates that his duty may be more than skin deep; he's the main reason the story still has a pulse, albeit a weak one. But shortly thereafter, the satellite vans drive away and the network correspondents head off to the next global hot spot, fully believing that the mystery is returning to the tabloids that have come to know and love it. (In an October 15 JonBenét analysis from NewsWatch, at www.newswatch.org, writers J. Robert Lichter and Jeremy Torobin say the Ramsey matter was "on the cover of one or more tabloid newspapers for over 50 straight weeks," supplementing more than 300 reports aired by Hard Copy, Inside Edition, Extra! and other programs.) The Ramseys don't entirely vanish from the mainstream -- Dateline goes back to the JonBenét well on October 17 -- and they'll certainly pop up again when Owens makes his final determination, disgruntled ex-Boulder police investigator Steve Thomas's forthcoming book hits stores or the CBS mini-series version of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town airs. A confession would do the trick as well.

In the meantime, rest a little easier. Because according to lawyer Scott Robinson, speaking on Channel 9's late broadcast on October 13, the investigation "is about as dead as JonBenét." And the exploitation of it isn't feeling much better.


On October 14, a Rocky Mountain Newspiece exulted: "News Reports Record Circulation Growth," stating that for the six-month period ending September 30, the number of papers going out the door on weekdays jumped 19.3 percent, with a 16.5 percent gain on Sundays. These figures are preliminary -- they're based on the News's analysis of totals submitted to the Illinois-based Audit Bureau of Circulation, which won't make things official until November 8. Furthermore, such gains haven't come cheap: In a press release put out last week, the News's parent company, E.W. Scripps, blamed an 8.8 percent decline in the circulation revenues of its newspaper properties on "the continuing initiatives to increase share in the Denver market." But whereas the Post has been editorially silent about its performance -- fueling speculation that it's been disastrous -- the News is trumpeting its achievements in double-truck ads that bellow, "Our extraordinary circulation growth is the largest in Colorado history."

If that proves to be the case, it may be because the News is better than any other area media organ at simultaneously taking the high and the low road. Consider the October 17 issue, which featured three editorials critical of media overkill in cases like JonBenét and Columbine even as it spotlighted yet another Columbine roundup -- a Kim Franke-Folstad column dominated by a letter to deceased shooting victim Kelly Fleming from her mom -- and oodles of Ramsey coverage hyped on the cover by the headline "JonBenét's Dad to Hunt Killer." Coming soon on the WB: John Ramsey and O.J. Simpson, Private Eyes, in which the pair, between golf games, search the planet for bad guys.

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